Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how?
Part 3: Caveats

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 22, 2016

In Part 1 of this series, I explained why criticism of Pope Francis has considerable value. In Part 2, I explored a dozen different forms or methods of criticism which can be used in various circumstances, whether to criticize Pope Francis or anyone else.

In this final part, I want to call close attention to the fundamental moral principles which govern legitimate criticism. These are the cautions or caveats which we must always keep in mind. They are the ground rules of rightly-ordered criticism. Accordingly, I will consider them under the next seven headings.

Humility: As a first step, all critics must recognize their own fallibility. No matter how strongly we insist on a particular point, it is always possible that we are wrong. The mistakes we can make are legion, and sometimes—especially when we have simply missed some important factor—we may not even realize that a particular sort of mistake is possible. It follows that it is perfectly acceptable to argue a point vigorously, but unacceptable to treat those who disagree as if they must be knaves or fools. This sounds very simple, yet most of us find it to be just short of impossible.

Fairness: It is incumbent on all of us to respond to the ideas and actions of others as we would want others to respond to us. Here we are dealing with one of the most important points—and certainly the most obvious point—of the natural law: fairness. This means we will habitually place the best possible construction on whatever statement or action we think merits criticism, including a recognition of another’s good intentions unless there is serious evidence to the contrary. Moreover, where the truth about some matter allows for legitimate differences, we must freely acknowledge that possibility.

Integrity: It is a serious violation of our own personal integrity, not to mention a serious injustice, to deliberately mischaracterize the position or the arguments of our opponent. Further, it should go without saying that we must never judge the inner state of the person we are criticizing. We rarely know any person’s true intentions; and only God can both see motives clearly and judge them rightly. Failure under this heading is far too common. It is not unusual for us to speak of those we oppose as if they are either evil or idiotic or both. All too frequently, disdain and mockery replace argument.

Let me pause here to give a real-world example: Two days ago I received a letter (yes, snail mail!) from a person who faulted me for conceding anything to Pope Francis on the issue of invalid second marriages. The reason he gave was simple: the Pope’s ultimate goal (he claimed) is to change Church teaching to allow gay marriage. Two questions here: First, how can anyone know the Pope’s ultimate goal? Second, where is the evidence? Despite his evident concern and care for those who suffer from same-sex attraction, Pope Francis has never characterized same-sex marriage as anything but a contradiction in terms.

Balance: Anything that has the potential for alienating people from their ecclesiastical superiors is spiritually dangerous. This is not politics. If we must be repeatedly critical, we have a corresponding responsibility to acknowledge whatever is commendable in any ecclesiastical person who exercises legitimate authority over others. It is also vital to pick our battles. It is precisely because our criticism is unlikely to reach its papal target that its primary purpose is to strengthen the faith and hope of our readers. Nothing alienates and discourages others more rapidly than making things seem worse than they are by constant nit-picking.

Another aside: By the time Phil Lawler and I had finished fleshing out our strong position that care for the environment should not be listed as a work of mercy, the whole discussion began to appear disproportionate—as some readers noticed. In hindsight, despite some excellent points, my own response looks very much like overkill. I take this as a dual warning: First, the authorial mood in which we envision something as the last straw tends to propel writers to rhetorical heights with something very like wax holding their verbal wings together (you remember, I hope, Daedalus and Icarus). Or perhaps this second warning is more succinct: When our only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

Limits: Here we must observe the specific Catholic rules of engagement. Ecclesiastical persons are to be treated with respect. Moreover, the range of legitimate disagreement is limited by the Magisterium on the one hand, and by the Church’s proper disciplinary authority on the other. It is outside Catholic bounds to accuse a pope of having magisterially taught error or to recommend disobedience to his legitimate disciplinary authority. Because we believe in Christ’s protection of the Church, we must never fall into the trap of suggesting the Church will be destroyed unless our particular views are implemented. As St. Augustine warned so succinctly in his Confessions: The truth is the common property of all. But he who speaks only from his own store, speaks a lie.

One final interjection: In all things we must take into account the rather unlikely but perfectly targeted words of Voltaire: If we wish to establish a new religion, we must begin by getting ourselves killed and then rise again on the third day.

Sensitivity: We must proceed with great sensitivity to those who are exposed to our criticism. If our audience is scandalized, we must learn to proceed more gently. If we see that our criticism is being received as corrosive, we need to ratchet it back. When criticizing others, it is always tempting to hit hard without worrying about collateral damage. But if we do not have the genuine good of souls in mind at every stage of our efforts to set things right, it would be far better to keep silent. As I will state again in the conclusion to this third part of the series, the whole point is to protect and nourish the faith and hope of those who follow what we have to say.

Correction: If we have spread criticism abroad that is later proven to be incorrect or unfounded, we have a strong moral obligation to admit as much, and to make sure that the same people who heard us the first time also hear us the second time. How tempted we are to hope others will simply forget our past mistakes and continue to trust our judgment! But if you show me a person who honors this obligation (which is exceedingly rare), then I will show you a critic who is truly worthy of trust.

Conclusion

I hope it is obvious that all the methods of criticism outlined in Part 2 can be used in both constructive and destructive ways. In our own use of them on CatholicCulture.org, we intend to be scrupulous in observing the seven caveats. We also intend to acknowledge any unfairness or disrespect that might get the better of us. We intend to admit error frankly, if subsequent events on any point should prove us wrong. And I hope that those among our readers who are true friends will not be slow to let us know whenever they fear we are guilty of destructive criticism.

I also pray that it will be obvious to all of our readers that, if I intended to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, I would not have explored these questions so carefully for all to see. I deeply regret the duty which has been thrust upon us by events we cannot control; and I wish we had the Pope’s ear, so that our criticism could be offered primarily for his good, as when we counsel those we love. In the present circumstances, however, whenever we publish criticism of Pope Francis, the goal of CatholicCulture.org will remain as clear and as constant as humanly possible, within this same context of love:

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).


Previous in series: Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how? Part 2: Methods
Next in series: Rehabilitating Pope Francis, and saving ourselves

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: rickt26170 - Sep. 24, 2016 2:46 AM ET USA

    I have no argument about respect etc. However, I think it imperative that the laity who oppose Francis' accommodation with contemporary secularism make their views known in every way possible. The truth will out in the end and the Church will prevail. We're all like the disciples in John 6: we have no where else to go. But the Church has harmed itself often in its history and Pope Francis is doing damage. This sad fact must be made clear to those who chose the next Pope.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 22, 2016 10:27 PM ET USA

    "I deeply regret the duty which has been thrust upon us by events we cannot control." For some this is a new challenge to confront. Pilate asked: "What is truth?!" We live in a time where these words resound- even among the elect. We must get over ourselves and our myopia. This problem has "been thrust upon us"- the wheres, whens, hows and whys might be debatable, but fewer men of good will are denying the difficult reality: There is a problem. As Christians we must bear witness to truth.