Can good Catholics criticise the Pope?

CP&S comment – This is a repost by Jo Shaw (LMS Chairman) from March 2014. The situation has worsened considerably since then under this current Pope, forcing even many of his former admirers to radically change their attitude towards his leadership, and increasing the consternation of most orthodox believers in the Church. But is criticism of the Vicar of Christ legitimate? Dr Shaw analyses the question.


Michael Voris thinks not. His arguments are interesting but don’t work.

First, he says that to criticise the Pope causes scandal, sharply contrasting this with criticism of bishops and Cardinals. (First silly point: there is no sharp contrast. What is true of one is to a large extent true of the other.) That there is a danger of causing scandal is true, but it is also true that, in certain circumstances, not criticising the Pope causes scandal. It is lucky for us today that St Catherine of Siena and Savoranola and Dante and Robert Grossteste criticised the popes of their day, because they prove that not all Catholics are guilty of Papolatry: that it is not necessary to have your conscience surgically removed to become a member of the Mystical Body. They are our defence against some of the most insistent and damaging polemics, developed by Protestants and re-used by Secularists, against the Church. To use a phrase of Pope Francis, when I encounter a clericalist, it makes me feel anti-clerical.

Voris then turns to the counter-argument that saints have criticised Popes. In an astonishing inversion of logic, he says that they could legitimately criticise Popes because they were saints.

First, this misses the point, which was not that only saints are widely regarded as being justified in their criticisms of Popes (see my short list above: plenty of others have been too), but that this widespread judgement can’t be too off the mark because even saints criticised popes.

Secondly, it would be strange to suggest that St Catherine and St Paul and the other saints had to ask themselves if they were holy enough to carry out their obligations. That way only egomaniacs will criticise the Pope, and that won’t be progress.

The wider point is well made by no less that the Supreme Legislator himself, in Canon Law: even the laity can have the right and indeed the duty to voice their concerns about their pastors. The Pope is not excepted.

Canon 212 sec. 3, the laity has “the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”

I don’t say this because I am about to embark on a lot of blogging criticising the Holy Father. I just think it is important to oppose grossly distorted understandings of Catholic teaching wherever I see them, to the best of my ability, because, to coin a phrase, they cause scandal.

As far as criticising Popes is concerned, I would in practice urge great caution.

First, any criticism which comes across as personal, or as mocking or insulting, is inappropriate to a person holding his high office. That is because the office is holy, even if not all holders of the office are holy. The office is august, it commands our respect. The holder does not become impeccable – incapable of sin – but it does mean that any criticism is a serious matter, and should be undertaken, if at all, in a serious way. This of course is part of what the canon says.

I do, incidentally, think that mockery, ridicule and even invective can sometimes be appropriate: I’d be in trouble if I didn’t, since Our Lord used them, and so did many prophets, Fathers of the Church, saints, and apologists down the ages. They are useful to take people worthy of ridicule down a peg or two. The Pope, however, is never ridiculous. When he is wrong, things are too serious for that.

Secondly, as with others in very exalted offices, but very much more so, it is difficult to separate what is personal to the Pope from what is the initiative of advisors and office-holders. He does have the fearful ultimate responsibility – true – but as initiatives and policies develop from day to day it is impossible, at least for those of us without inside information, to know what is the Pope’s idea, what is his speechwriter, what comes from (good, bad, or indifferent) briefings given to the Pope, and what are the actions of his Cardinals and other ministers.

For example, I was astonished to read that Pope Paul VI approved the new Lectionary without giving it prolonged attention, and actually said so. He trusted his advisers. If this was an error, it was not the same error as the error (say) of deliberately excluding 1 Corinthians 11:29 (about the sin of receiving Communion unworthily) from the Lectionary, when it had previously been read on Maundy Thursday and Corpus Christi. Being too trusting is not the same fault as not taking seriously the importance of being well prepared for Holy Communion. If people had laid into Pope Paul for the second thing in 1970, they would have been barking up the wrong tree.

Far better, therefore, to voice concerns, if there are legitimate concerns, about policies, about new regulations or liturgical texts or other documents, but without turning it into a personal attack on the Holy Father.

We are sometimes told that being ‘over critical’ of the Pope or bishops is the besetting sin of traditionalists. As a matter of fact, this is not true. Not only do liberal Catholic publications like The Tablet attack the pope all the time (yes, including Pope Francis), but many Catholic organisations down the years who had no particular connection with the Traditional Mass have, for one reason or another, ended up associated with criticisms of the hierarchy.

The classic example is Aid to the Church in Need, which used to criticise the appeasement of Communism which was the official Vatican policy under Pope Paul VI. More recently, the headline cases have been Pro Ecclesia and SPUC. Now we have Deacon Nick Donnelly being hauled over the coals, for what we can assume is the same thing. I don’t say these criticisms were not justified, or that they were not expressed in the best ways: that would be a long discussion. I’ve just said that criticism isn’t ruled out in principle, so the matter is an open one. My point is simply that the Traditional Mass was nothing to do with it.

Critics of traditionalists have become confused by the fact that until Summorum Pontifcum it was such open season on trads and any old stick was good enough to beat them. But once you take away the assumption that support for the Traditional Mass is itself an act of personal disloyalty to the Pope, then you can allow yourself to notice that established traditionalist organisations like the Latin Mass Society and the Una Voce Federation are, and always have been, models of diplomacy and restraint.

They combine this respect for the hierarchy with a complete adherence to the unchanging teaching of the Church, not out of any superficial ultramontanism (whatever the Pope said about his breakfast is the latest infallible doctrine), but because of their attachment to Tradition. This is something I want to develop in future posts.

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10 Responses to Can good Catholics criticise the Pope?

  1. Toad says:

    ”Can good Catholics criticise the Pope?”
    All depends on what is meant by ”can.” …Also what is meant by ”good Catholics.”

    ”I do, incidentally, think that mockery, ridicule and even invective can sometimes be appropriate:”
    What an extraordinary notion.

  2. I agree that Michael Voris is wrong in his arguments regarding refraining completely from criticizing the Pope when he deviates from authentic teaching or pastoral practice and /or encourages others to do so. Voris did not always hold this opinion and it seems he may have acquired new advisers along the way which may explain the change. I have read this opinion about refraining from criticizing unless you are a saint coming from papal head of household and secretary to Benedict xvi, Archbishop Ganswein, whose opinions I do not trust very much, as well as from several others. Some of the most faithfully orthodox Cardinals, priests, and bishops are offering serious and valid criticisms of the Pope just as Saints did in times past. There is room for doubt that the Saints who are famous for their criticism would ever have been declared saints if they had adopted the ‘Pray and look the other way’ attitude.

  3. johnhenrycn says:

    “First, any criticism which comes across as personal, or as mocking or insulting, is inappropriate to a person holding his high office. That is because the office is holy…”

    I appreciate being reminded of that red line and will try in 2018 to remain on the right side of it. Does not this caution apply to all people who have taken Holy Orders?

    The problem, however, as I see it, is not so much the faithful unfairly attacking the clergy, but the latter sneering at the former, and, sorry to say, PF seems a leading enthusiast of that practice.

  4. kathleen says:

    As one of those who frequently criticises the constant shocking ways of Pope Francis (because of our passionate love for the Holy Catholic Church he appears to want to destroy) I must admit that we still have to watch out that this criticism does not boil over into the “personal, mocking, insulting, etc”, which could then become disrespectful or uncharitable. Yes, there is a fine line here, one we should not cross, although it necessarily becomes a pretty fuzzy line at times.

    However, having said that, here below in Canon Law we have a legitimate vindication for all who speak out to denounce heresy and defend the Catholic Church’s timeless teaching. She alone proclaims the fullness of Truth:

    Canon 212 sec. 3, the laity has “the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church

    That is it in a nutshell. All baptised members of the laity have not only the right to do so, but also the God-given duty. In fact, to not speak out is cowardly!
    Criticism of so many of this Pope and progressive bishops’ extremely un-Catholic statements and actions should be made, must be made! Not for personal reasons or preferences of course, but ONLY for the good of the Church. Too many souls are being led astray by attacks on doctrine and the scandalous kowtowing to heretics and sodomites by the Church’s own shepherds – by these acts they become “wolves in sheep’s clothing”!

    Blinkered papalotrers who rage at other Catholics for fulfilling their “duty” in protesting Pope Francis’ (or any prelate in a position of authority) way out-of-line proceedings are no true friend of Christ, nor of His Holy Bride, the Church.

  5. Toad says:

    Maybe the headline should read, ”Can bad Catholics criticise the Pope?”

  6. Mary Salmond says:

    Criticism of anyone should be done lovingly, be he pope, priest, or friend. Name calling is not done in the name of love, but pointing out the discrepancies can be done with love and understanding.

  7. kathleen says:

    You are a very kind soul, Mary; thanks for the reminder. Pope Francis could learn a thing or two from you here too 😉. He’s pretty apt at bullying his own clergy from time to time and all the traditional Catholic laity, with the use of a wide range of insulting names

    I agree that pointing out discrepancies should be done with “love” and keeping one’s cool, but it is hard to be “understanding” of a Pope or bishop (who should know better) when sheer heresy is uttered by them, or when their behaviour is blatant un-Catholic Modernism personified!

    Our first loyalty must always be to Our Lord Jesus Christ and His teachings contained in the Magisterium of the One True Church divinely guided by the Holy Spirit.

  8. Toad says:

    ‘He’s (Francis) pretty apt at bullying his own clergy from time to time and all the traditional Catholic laity, with the use of a wide range of insulting names.” .
    ”…a wide range of insulting names,” seems to be working both ways, doesn’t it?
    Childish and unedifying. But he started it, didn’t he?

  9. kathleen says:

    Yes, Toad, he did, just as Bones’ “The Pope Francis Little Bumper Book of Insults” points out all too clearly.

    OTOH, Catholics criticise Pope Francis not in childish, disrespectful name-calling ways (or at least they shouldn’t) but to uphold the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching he frequently vacillates on; and to vindicate the rights of so many good faithful men – mostly once holding influential positions in the Church or Catholic world – that he has cast by the wayside* simply for not fitting into his liberal agenda.

    * And that last point is so glaringly obvious, no one can deny it!

  10. Toad says:

    Where is it written that the Pope shouldn’t be a liberal Catholic? He’s entitled to his opinions. Bit of a liberal myself – in some respects. Anyway, takes all sorts, dunnit?

    ”Catholics criticise Pope Francis not in childish, disrespectful name-calling ways (or at least they shouldn’t) ”
    True. But then, we often do things we shouldn’t, don’t we?
    We’re only human. (well, most of us are.)

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