It’s no secret to even the most casual of Catholic observers that Pope Francis has been and is the target of vicious and well-organised attacks. What’s less well-known, however – or less well-explained – is the composition and reach of the network of anti-Bergoglio conspirators, and just how the reigning pontiff draws the strength to face the opposition.
Enter Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent for venerable English Catholic weekly The Tablet, who in his new book The Outsider does future Church historians the service both of detailing well-nigh on every volley in the anti-Francis war, and of painting a true-to-life portrait of a pope who, like no other in history, is determined to purge the Church of the anti-evangelical detritus of centuries.
Lamb traces the machinations of the anti-Francis brigade through six expertly-crafted chapters and a timeline, which last by itself is a very helpful addition to the literature on this pontificate. Thus we read about how politicians from Donald Trump or Matteo Salvini to churchmen such as cardinals Robert Sarah and Raymond Burke have been relentlessly rocking the barque of Peter since the first Latin American in history took the helm in 2013, but – and this cannot be stressed enough – still to no practical effect.
Why such vitriol against Jorge Mario Bergoglio? In his 2017 hit-piece The Dictator Pope, former Knight of Malta Henry Sire channelled the hatred of many as described Francis as an “authoritarian, manipulative, and politically-partisan pontiff”. Lamb’s great contribution, however, is to show that the Pope’s opponents are actually the ones playing the political game, while Francis himself is focused on nothing more and nothing less than living out the Gospel.
“The Francis pontificate challenges both left and right in the Church and politics, as it is stubbornly independent of any ideological system, and refuses to be put neatly into any box”, Lamb writes in a representative sentence in this sense. “His living out of the Beatitudes, and a papacy that speaks for ‘the least of these’, has upset the rich and the powerful, as it should do”.
But just as it would be wrong to define the Francis pontificate by the opposition to it, it would be an injustice to describe The Outsider as just a book of polemics.
For Lamb and his editors have had the wisdom to make the book resoundingly positive in tone, in contrast to the desperate and increasingly apocalyptic note being sounded by the anti-pope cabal.
It’s difficult to know what Catholic conservatives stand for today, apart from the non-answer of “tradition” – so much so that criticising the present pope often seems to be all they live for and all that brings them together. Lamb shows us in his Francis, in contrast, the very picture of anti-resentment – a man who is as free as the little autistic boy, Wenzel, who famously graced a General Audience in 2018.
Far from being the victim of his own theological ignorance – a common conservative accusation – or a future widower of the present age, Pope Francis is steeped in the most august of Church traditions that found powerful new expression for the modern world at the Second Vatican Council in the sixties.
The Outsider reminds us time and again of that fact, and helpfully recalls that all the apparent ‘innovations’ of the Bergoglio pontificate – whether synodality, subsidiarity, collegiality or simply the drive to bring the Church down to eye-level with “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age” – are all there in the Council documents.
Alongside that, though, Lamb paints for us a picture of a pope who rises at 4.30am daily to say his prayers and to meditate on the Scriptures, often spending up to four hours a day in silence before the Word. “Pray for me” has become Francis’ signature sign-off in everything from encounters with politicians to letters and videos to Angelus addresses – and his humility and deep spirituality are more than just rhetoric, as The Outsider shows.
Here in Lamb’s pages is the man who said days after the infamous Viganò-McCarrick broadside of 2018 that “the strength of the bishop against the great accuser is prayer” – and meant it.
For how else to explain the fact that the Gospel quotes Lamb intersperses in each of his chapters fit so perfectly with the story of the Bergoglio pontificate? “Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said”, Mark writes of Jesus in his Gospel – exactly how the dubia cardinals tried to “trap” Francis in their 2016 challenge over Amoris laetitia.
And yet there is even more proof of this pontificate’s evangelical charge in Lamb’s sparing but effective use of the first person in his book. Like a good reporter, the Tablet correspondent is of course careful not to blur his narrative with the subjective – but the reader can’t help but be reminded in Lamb’s account of this papacy of some of the first-person narratives in the Gospels.
“I have been able to watch and report”, “I have met the pope on several occasions”, “I have witnessed the changes”, Lamb tells us in his few forays into first-person writing.
The author may resent me for drawing attention to this, but in The Outsider we may even have an example of the famous conversion Francis always preaches, in the personal apology Lamb offered in an Amazon Synod press briefing for the degrading treatment of indigenous people in conservative Catholic outlets.
“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true”, John writes in the conclusion to his Gospel.
Like the Evangelist, one gets the feeling that Lamb would like to write more of what he has seen in Francis, even with the realisation “that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”. Still, with The Outsider, it is enough, just as John’s Gospel was enough for his community, and Lamb’s conclusion – that Francis’ papacy “is not the personal crusade of one individual, but an attempt to set the groundwork for ongoing renewal and reform of the Church in the twenty-first century” – is Gospel truth against the mutterings of the Pope’s opponents.