Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how?
Part 2: Methods

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 20, 2016

There is a big difference in the general “atmosphere” as I post this second part of my reflection on the problem of criticizing the pope. I wrote Part 1 just before it became clear that Pope Francis had privately told the bishops of Argentina that they had given his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia the only possible correct interpretation. Their interpretation was to permit the reception of Communion in some cases by those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment. Yet, in fact, Pope Francis did not say this in Amoris Laetitia, even if it was what he had hoped to say.

In other words, the Pope seems to be privately encouraging a practice that is still forbidden in Canon Law, a practice which—for whatever reason—he has not been willing or able to approve officially by virtue of his Petrine authority. Before this latest incident, some readers had expressed reservations about criticism of the Holy Father. But what a difference a week makes! The need for constructive criticism is now far more widely recognized. Many of the reservations have faded away.

I hope it is not superfluous, then, to complete this series. I had promised to consider the various methods one can use to express criticism of the Pope (or of anyone else)—a dozen different methods, as it turns out. Recognizing these different approaches may help us to choose the best way to achieve the goal of such criticism, which, as I stated in Part 1, is “to present the words and actions of this pope in ways that will minimize the danger to the readers’ faith (through unperceived error) or to the readers’ hope (through unnecessary discouragement).”

Relatively passive forms of criticism

I have grouped the twelve methods under six headings, with two variants in each category. Four methods are relatively passive; eight are significantly more active. I will begin with the more passive forms, by which I mean methods of criticism which seldom confront the Pope’s message directly. I will explain four such methods under the next two headings:

Ignoring the message: Which of us has not been tempted simply to ignore contemporary ecclesiastical turmoil in favor of a quiet life devoted to the exposition of the permanent things? The first way of doing this is to refuse to be news-oriented. We can simply write about the truths that we love by way of offering a spiritual gift to others. We can even draw on any good things that Pope Francis has said or done in order to enhance our message. But we simply refuse to deal in controversy or to advert to present problems.

This is seldom an option for an organization with a news service, of course. But since news services never cover everything, a variant of this would be to report only the good news. Here writers would be very selective in covering the Pope, writing only about statements and actions which can easily be used in altogether positive ways. I will not mention names, but there are Catholic news sources today that operate in exactly this way. In any case, both of these techniques involve passive, implicit forms of criticism, presumably for the good of readers. This is not direct criticism; it is criticism by subtraction.

Substituting our own message: This technique is still fairly passive, in that it avoids direct confrontation with what the Pope has said or done. In the first variant, the writer can correct for unfortunate emphases of the Pope simply by failing to acknowledge the source. Without naming the Holy Father, the writer would note that “some people think such-and-so” and proceed directly to provide a better analysis of the issue in question. Often this is very easy to do by referring to what other journalists have reported as if they have gotten things wrong (which, often enough, they have).

The second variant is simply to cite the Pope as having raised some question—an important question no doubt—and then to answer this question by exploring the issue in the best possibly way. Here one would not call attention to any differences with the Holy Father’s treatment, and so readers would get the “right” message on a matter introduced by the Pope. Note that as a writer develops such relatively passive techniques, he or she can also use quotations from “experts” to steer readers in the desired direction.

More active forms of criticism

For better or worse, of course, “experts” are cited again and again to alter our understanding of many issues today, and this is no less true in the more active forms of criticism. Criticism may be considered more active when it directly confronts the deficiencies of the Pope’s words or actions. I will explore eight active methods under the next four headings:

Defusing the message: Under this heading, two variants can be used to rob the Pope’s message of its power (for better or worse, obviously). In the first variant, the writer deals directly with what the Holy Father has said or done, but explains it in a way which shows—contrary to how things may appear—that it fits perfectly with what the Church has always understood in the past.

In the second variant, the writer emphasizes that what the Pope has said is exhortative, not binding: He is not expounding a doctrine or a law, but urging Catholics to beware of some pitfall or to take to heart the need for a certain spiritual or moral emphasis. I use these two techniques whenever I can (that is, whenever I believe they are honest), to explain papal comments which unnecessarily lead to confusion or distress, but which admit of a proper application.

Challenging the prudence of the message: Pope Francis has a habit of saying rather startling things without (or so it appears) any concern for how they will be received, what errors might ensue, or what sort of cautions or caveats must be taken into account. Challenging the Pope’s prudence on such occasions is far preferable to challenging his orthodoxy. The point is a simple one: Catholics do not need to agree with his prudential judgment.

Sometimes, however, a writer may wish to go beyond a mere justification of disagreement by offering his own prudential evaluation, in the hope of suggesting a better approach. This is the second variant under this heading.

Controlling the message: If the Pope seems to treat some issue in a way that is likely to make a situation worse, it becomes necessary to assert greater control over the message, so that the faithful are not significantly scandalized. This is especially true when the Pope’s approach appears to undermine some aspect of Catholic doctrine. One method is to emphasize whatever is most positive in the Pope’s message, deemphasizing its off-notes, in order to convey it in a manner more consistent with Catholic faith, morals and tradition. (During this pontificate, even the Vatican press office has had to do this quite frequently.)

A second way is to deliberately attempt to “round out” the discussion, adding things that the Holy Father did not mention, and treating what he did say as one part of a bigger picture. The goal is to present the Pope as “highlighting” a point which is not meant to be received in a vacuum, but must be balanced by other important aspects of the same issue. Adverting to this bigger picture diminishes potential scandal.

Opposing the message: Finally, under this heading we face the need to confront the Pope’s message more oppositionally. The first approach (always within the limits of the Magisterium) is to identify carefully the impermissible implications of the pope’s comments, on the assumption that he has spoken somewhat carelessly, and does not actually intend these implications.

The second and even stronger variant is to emphasize that what the Pope is saying or doing impinges closely on Catholic doctrine, has not been Magisterially justified, and is likely to be Magisterially repudiated, perhaps by the next pope. Many people believe this is the case with Pope Francis’ foray into offering Communion to the divorced and remarried, without benefit of annulment. They note that prior Church teaching, Canon Law and Catholic practice suggest that this is impermissible, and so they expect the Magisterium to remove all doubt in due course, rather than to identify a legitimate exception.

More to come

I hope that this enumeration will help everyone to choose the most appropriate method of criticism in each situation, as well as to recognize when others are using forms of criticism that might not be immediately obvious. This is important because criticism is not always a positive thing. We all know that, in its method or form, criticism can be destructive, while in its content it can be fundamentally unfair.

But for a Catholic, criticism should always be scrupulously fair and as constructive as possible. What, then, are the cautions and caveats we must keep in mind when criticizing, and especially when criticizing the Pope? I intend to enumerate no fewer than seven of these in the third and final installment of this series.


Previous in series: Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how? Part 1: Rationale
Next in series: Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how? Part 3: Caveats

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Sep. 21, 2016 10:32 AM ET USA

    As an RCIA catechist, I cannot avoid addressing some of what Pope Francis does or says because I'm dealing with adults, who often hear main stream media interpretations. Your primer on constructive criticism is helpful. To date, I've been able to keep to the more passive forms you've outlined, and I hope this will continue. After all, I'm trying to catechize those who are entering the Church. It's my job to deliver the message of a ONE, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Will I be able to?

  • Posted by: Sed contra - Sep. 20, 2016 11:45 PM ET USA

    This is well considered and thoughtful examination of the present juncture. But isn't it a sad day in the Church when the current exercise of the Petrine ministry has to be rationalized with all these subtle distinctions, qualifications, and intellectual legerdemain in order to square it with Catholic doctrine? The papacy is meant to be a support on our pilgrim way, not an additional burden.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 20, 2016 1:53 PM ET USA

    While there might be a great difference this week from last, the reality is that Pope Francis did not suddenly experience an epiphany within the past seven days. His views in this particular area of controversy and others appear to go way back. In fact, the sudden outrage is really rather puzzling. But all things considered this topic of "criticism" of the pontiff- as counter intuitive as it might sound- is very much relevant as this is treacherous territory.