Review: "The Francis Effect"

by Michael Sean Winters

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Reviewing a book by a friend is always a fraught task. Reviewers have a tic, disposing them to find something to criticize, and even the best of friends do not always take criticism constructively, especially when it involves criticism of a book. As most authors will tell you, writing a book is a little bit like raising a child, you invest your whole heart and soul and time into it. John Gehring, who has published a new book The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church, is a friend and, what is more, we swim in the same waters, have similar concerns and biases, share many aspirations for this pontificate and for the Church Pope Francis leads. In such a circumstance, the narcissism of small differences is an additional temptation.

Having registered those caveats, I recommend this book highly, especially to those who read this blog. Many of the themes I address in these pages receive a thoughtful treatment in this work. Many of the news items I have surveyed are considered by Gehring, and given a historical context that a blog sometimes must presume. As I read Gehring’s book, I found myself saying, “I had forgotten that” several times, and he also provides thoroughly new material based on interviews he did for the book.

After a brief introductory chapter highlighting some of the ways Francis has showed himself to be a different kind of pontiff, Gehring discusses the “making of a culture warrior Church.” The usual suspects make their appearance: George Weigel, Tom Monahan, Bill Donohue, the leadership of the Knights of Columbus. It is easy to forget how much money and organization has been involved in building the architecture of culture warrior officialdom, but Gehring’s research reminds us. Those of us on the left have nothing like the resources or organization the right has put into advancing their agenda. The interplay of religious and political concerns, which will also feature in subsequent chapters, is set forth, with more emphasis on the political than the religious concerns, an emphasis that is at least debatable.

Gehring does a fine job tracing briefly the history of both the rise of the religious right and the generally left-leaning alliance of the Church with a variety of more progressive causes that preceded it. He covers much of the same terrain I covered in my two books, Left at the Altar and God’s Right Hand, and despite the need to constrict the narrative to a chapter, he captures the essential features. Gehring touches on, but could have devoted more time to, the degree to which the papacy of John Paul II was viewed in the U.S. by the narrative offered by Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus and the ways that narrative was more narrow than the actual papacy warranted. This is a criticism I have of many left-leaning Catholics: John Paul II was not an American neo-conservative, no matter how much his fan base in the U.S. claimed he was. All of us on the left need to retrieve the many wonderful teachings of that papacy, and not let the neo-cons continue to define it. This was apparent at the synod, when those opposing any change were shocked to hear what some bishops said about conscience, only to be caught out when they realized that those bishops were quoting the Catechism John Paul II approved. Gehring points to some of the wonderful things both John Paul II and Benedict XVI said and did. We need more of this.

The greatest strength of this book, and what distinguishes it from what you read here at Distinctly Catholic, is the reporting Gehring undertook in evaluating what effect Francis has begun to have on the U.S. Church. I found his report on his visit to Mt. St. Mary’s seminary especially enlightening. The vice rector at the time, now departed, Fr. Brian Doerr, speaks approvingly to Gehring about Cardinal Raymond Burke’s tough stance at the first synod on the family in 2014. Doerr identifies with Pope John Paul II who, he tells Gehring, “was not afraid of the truth.” Does he think Pope Francis is afraid of the truth? The priest frets about those in the pews. “We are Catholics because we pledge ourselves to a set of beliefs that have not always been easy to defend in our culture. There are people who have been faithful who are now wondering ‘is the pope telling us we’ve been wrong?’” The observation is both sad and pathetic. Do people live a certain way, following the Church’s teachings, because they have been told to do so, or because they think it is true, no matter what any pope says? And, one wonders if the Church’s teachings on sex are the only things Fr. Doerr finds difficult to defend in our culture. What about the Church’s teachings on poverty and the common good? Fortunately, Gehring also interviews people who are enthusiastic about Francis, so that chapter is not a downer at all.

The book is not without its problems. Some are small, but unfortunately placed, as when two factual mistakes occur on pages 1 and 2 of the text: The bishops do not meet at the Hyatt in Baltimore, but at the Marriott, and when the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel to begin the conclave, they sing the “Veni Creator Spiritus” not the “Veni Sancte Spiritu.” But, this is small beer. And, as noted above, I think Gehring, like myself, needs to try and give a more sympathetic hearing to the concerns of our more conservative co-religionists.

Gehring’s book is a quick read and a useful point of reference especially as we get ready for the USCCB meeting in Baltimore in a little more than a week. (Indeed, another strength of this book is his careful detailing of the politics of the bishops’ conference, where Gehring worked previously.) It is well written and insightful, never getting bogged down, and, finally, posing the question the bishops need to start answering week after next: Is the Church in the U.S. going to stand with Francis or not? And, if so, what changes can we anticipate and welcome? These are important questions and they will not be answered easily or quickly, but Gehring has given us a fine frame for wrapping our heads around the issues at stake.


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