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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Show 17 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 24, 2016 9:24 PM ET USA

    This topic is vital. The Christian is called to witness. This is something manifest. It can be manifest by "confirming others". It can be a duty of state. When statements contradict or at least dangerously attenuate Christian principles the reality must be apprehended. Now there are tactical consierations, discretion, respect etc. But the Christian is called to witness. This demands generosity fidelity, humility, courage, & charity. It requires selflessness but never self delusion. Never.

  • Posted by: John3822 - Jun. 23, 2016 10:06 AM ET USA

    Thanks Jeff - I truly appreciate this and am glad you took the time to write this. One comment on discouragement - I think of how the elder brother (prodigal son) seemed to have such discouragement as well when he saw how his younger brother was welcomed and had the full court banquet while he in contrast (in his mind), received nothing - note also how the father ran to meet the younger brother at a distance before he had even uttered a word. Yet, no principal was compromised by the father.

  • Posted by: pvanderl7463 - Jun. 22, 2016 10:28 PM ET USA

    We, the laity, ARE the Church! The Holy Spirit speaks through us in communion with the hierarchy. Neglecting our responsibility has resulted in too much negligence in the Church. Jeff and Phil, I look to you as Lay Leaders to inform and share your info and insight. I love Pope Francis but so few people understand his contextual knowledge and virtue, that many are challenged by his words and actions. I trust he is an innocent. Thank you.

  • Posted by: BlaiseA - Jun. 22, 2016 7:12 PM ET USA

    My first reaction to some of the Pope's loose comments are to feel somewhat emabarrassed for him. He is human and his past does influence him; yet the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church. Be not afraid. You give me new ideas when I tend to 'wonder' about his comments; your respectful comments help a lot!

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Jun. 22, 2016 6:08 PM ET USA

    Good for you, Jeff. That took the type of courage and confidence that only faith can supply. You are one of my current-day heroes--even though you don't want to vote for Trump, thus helping Clinton win and continue Obama's anti-Catholic crusade :-)

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Jun. 22, 2016 6:08 PM ET USA

    Everything you say above has already been evident in everything you write. I am deeply grateful for your guidance. You played a significant role during the time leading up to my conversion to the Catholic faith, and have continued to provide an encouraging example of Catholic discourse and perseverance since. Thank you.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Jun. 22, 2016 9:46 AM ET USA

    Jeff, you and Phil do indeed encourage those of us who become discouraged. And very often, your commitment to putting the best possible light on the words and actions of Bishops, even the Pope, are just the sobering words I need to consider. Thank you.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jun. 22, 2016 6:24 AM ET USA

    I do not think that either Mr. Mirus or Mr. Lawler have anything to apologize for in their very measured criticisms of various Church leaders.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Jun. 22, 2016 5:20 AM ET USA

    Today's Gospel reading contained the warning about "false prophets." Could that warning possibly apply to the Church hierarchy, even to the papacy itself? Of course not - or am I in denial?

  • Posted by: sw00d - Jun. 21, 2016 10:47 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this elaboration on the inner workings of your journalistic decisions. And thank you for your recent and charitable commentaries on the Pope. I appreciate them. I trust your presentation of the current matters. Thank you for your faithfulness.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Jun. 21, 2016 9:42 PM ET USA

    The priest admonished us "not to judge" when we have a "log" in our own eye. For me that is always so, but I find his comment nearly absurd. In the modern way of thinking, no one sins and everyone goes to Heaven, even the Devil - I've actually heard that from the pulpit. So what ever happened to "Admonish the sinner"? And who can spot sin better than a repentant sinner with a log in his eye? Can't he tell his fellow, "Hey, don't do that"? Go with it Jeff.

  • Posted by: gop - Jun. 21, 2016 8:43 PM ET USA

    I can only say "Thank You"

  • Posted by: BCLX - Jun. 21, 2016 7:48 PM ET USA

    our local ordinaries are the visible heads of the church in our respective geographic locales. As such, there is much to communicate about of both a faith or doctrinal nature and the more prosaic matters of administering a diocese. I personally have no reluctance to comment, critically if appropriate, about matters that are in as much my sphere of competence as my bishop's. After what some of those guys did--Law in Boston, Finn in KC--the laity have a duty to call them out as appropriate.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Jun. 21, 2016 7:38 PM ET USA

    I read this site mainly because the point of view is well informed and always measured and you think rather than freak out. I thought what you said was appropriate.

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Jun. 21, 2016 7:24 PM ET USA

    I have found you to be quite prudent and fair in carrying this out in practice. You've even bent over backwards sometimes in trying to construe some of Pope Francis' more careless comments in a sensible way. By candidly correcting erroneous or ill-conceived papal remarks, in a real sense you actually contribute to the effectiveness of the Petrine ministry, somewhat like those who upheld Moses' hands in prayer during Israel's battle with the Amalekites.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jun. 21, 2016 7:15 PM ET USA

    Or, we could just go along with all of the "misinformation" given us by our priests and bishops after Vat II. Thank God Benedict XVI came along and set us straight on so much of it. And thank God for Cardinal Burke who has spoken out at great personal peril. Then there are great saints who did not go along with their bishops and counterparts at the cost of their lives; e.g. John Fischer & Thomas More, whose feasts are tomorrow. Keep writing! The Truth shall make us free and get us to heaven.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 20, 2016 6:53 PM ET USA

    When Jesus came to earth he spoke. He spoke a great deal about life and death. He used parables- some very ominous- about grace and sin; life and death. Life and death matter. This obvious point is a great frustration for pro-life folks in dealing with so-called "pro-death" folks. Sin equals death. This is why saints embraced the rigors of sanctity. For decades there's been a war on the reality of sin. It now appears that sin faces untimely death. An irony, this would be a tremendous sin.