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On criticizing bishops—or even the Pope

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

Since Phil Lawler and I have devoted a little more space to criticism of Pope Francis in the past week or so, some readers have wondered whether we misunderstand the Pope or whether, in any case, we might do more harm than good by openly criticizing the Vicar of Christ. These are fair questions; in fact, they are questions we think about nearly every day. So let me outline the considerations which guide CatholicCulture.org in the matter of public criticism of Church leaders in general, and of the Pope in particular.

To begin, let me repeat something I have said quite often. It is a spiritual and moral duty of every Christian to consider each person’s words in the best possible light. This goes double for our pastors, triple for our bishops, and quadruple (at least) for our pope. Moreover, it is also a spiritual and moral duty of every Christian to seek something in all spiritual discourse that he can use to grow in holiness. At times, of course, this means discerning an error and responding to it by accentuating the proper understanding in our own lives.

One example of this last point is when someone suggests that we need to downplay the truth in order to appear to be more supportive of those who do not (or do not yet) accept the teachings of Christ. The best response in this case is to recognize that: (a) Carelessness about the truth is fundamentally uncharitable and unmerciful; but also (b) Kindness and sacrificial service are always key aspects of Christian witness, and in this we can always do better.

Yet we must also remember that these situations are not “all about me”. This realization immediately awakens us to a grave responsibility.

Scandal:

In order to use counsel that is either bad or at least confusing to our advantage, we must already be fairly well-formed and in a good position to judge such counsel against what we call “the mind of the Church.” The majority of people, for a great variety of reasons, are not able to do this.

I like to think that any Catholic leader would be hard-pressed to give scandal, in the deepest sense of that word, to one of our writers. But for every well-formed Catholic who can respond successfully to confusing, misleading or erroneous statements, there are literally millions of people who will be confused or misled in ways that damage their moral or spiritual life. It is just this that is the deepest meaning of the term “scandal”.

When such scandal has been given by a Church leader, one way to minimize it is through public comment which corrects errors, confusions, and misconceptions. The question is not, “Am I shocked by this critical intervention?” The question is: “Do I understand my Faith and my moral obligations better as a result?”

Worldliness:

When our priests, bishops and even the Pope confuse or mislead the faithful by their actions or statements, this is usually because of their failure to stand firm against the common errors of the age. Church leaders, like the rest of us, may lack courage, may wish to be well-received by worldly people, may be infected by the Zeitgeist, or may genuinely believe they are more likely to win souls for Christ by obscuring His hard sayings

These motivations explain the most widespread failures in the Church in each and every era—whether we are speaking of bishops who were too entangled in politics in the medieval period, or bishops who too often fail to correct popular moral misperceptions today. It is axiomatic in Catholic ministry that any so-called “pastoral” approach that is not firmly rooted in Catholic teaching is not a legitimate pastoral approach at all.

Discouragement:

When Church leaders seem to welcome those who refuse to accept the teachings of Christ, and seem to criticize those who are striving to uphold and pass on these teachings, they adversely affect not only those Catholics who are confused, but even those who are not. For the latter group, this adverse effect is discouragement.

Good, deeply-committed priests, religious and laity are often discouraged when ecclesiastical leaders show favor to dissenters, treat those who reject Catholic teaching as if they are already able to enjoy all the blessings of the repentant, and impute lack of charity to those who bear courageous witness to Christ and the Father’s will. When discouragement sets in, our question becomes: “What’s the use?”

The purpose of public criticism

Here at CatholicCulture.org we do not pretend to have any direct influence on most bishops, still less on the Holy Father himself, though Church leaders will at times take note of feedback. Frankly, direct influence is not at all the purpose of public criticism. But there is a threefold purpose nonetheless.

With respect to scandal, the purpose of publicly criticizing the errors and confusions of ecclesiastical leaders is to limit the damage by offering better instruction. With respect to worldliness, the purpose of such criticism is to awaken people to the dangers of the spirit of the age and the need to put all one’s faith in Christ. And with respect to discouragement, the purpose of criticism is to let faithful Catholics know they are not alone, so they will take heart and keep up the good fight.

All of these purposes serve to strengthen the Church. If carried out effectively, they will even lead to better priests, bishops and popes over time.

Deciding exactly what and when—or how often—to criticize requires a sound Catholic formation, considerable theological knowledge, a preference for the mind of the Church over personal concerns, an understanding of both the reality and the limits of papal infallibility, considerable prudence, and—should the question arise—obedience to one’s bishop, for nothing good ever comes from the defiance of legitimate ecclesiastical authority. I would be a fool to claim I have always made perfect decisions in my criticism—even considering Phil Lawler’s famous caveat that the principle of non-contradiction is immediately suspended whenever he and I disagree. An additional problem, as the Lord knows, is that there are more critics by far who are motivated either by a rejection of the Catholic Faith or by the desire to ride their own personal hobby horses into the sunset.

But at CatholicCulture.org, we do reflect on our responsibilities a great deal. We try extraordinarily hard—and with as much self-awareness as possible—to use our journalistic abilities for the good of the Church. And we hope always to turn destructive situations caused by ecclesiastical leaders into opportunities for growth in Christ.

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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