Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Can good Catholics criticise the Pope?

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.) This 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.


  1. A good article. I feel sorry for the LMS when it is equated with the lunatic fringe.
    You do valuable work though I would certainly not seek out the EF myself I would always defend those who gain spiritually from it.
    On the other hand I certainly support the importance of Latin as a language despite the idiosyncrasies of the ecclesiastical version.
    I admire your approach.

  2. Excellent article, very eirenical. The current situation with bloggers on the one hand being criticised, and radicals being given a free rein is generating some good responses from the Traditional wing - Voris notwithstanding - and like the previous poster, though I am not overly inclined to the Latin mass (but intend to be at one someday so that i can see goes on), the charity evidenced so far has been encouraging, and has led me to re-bookmark some sites I stopped visiting a year ago.

  3. I think Voris's point is that there are not all criticisms are equal, and that we must be far more guarded about public criticism of the Pope than other bishops.

    To the first point, private criticisms or one off criticism related to specific situations (e.g. the rushed approval of the Lectionary, Pope Benedict's blunder wrt condoms, Pope Francis' foot washing, etc) are valid....as long as they are not directed at either the person or office of the Pope and as long as they are not used to further some ulterior motive (blog hits, sedavecantism, etc). The old adage, criticize things not people applies.

    WRT to the comment that saints have more privilege to criticize the Pope than the average Catholic, I think he misses the point. St Catherine of Sienna's criticism of Avignon could have been made by anyone, as long as they approached that criticism the same way (i.e. a saintly criticism). The problem is, most criticisms of the Pope are not done that way. WRT Avignon, they would more likely say "The Pope is a modernist for not relocating to the Vatican" or "The seat is empty until the Pope returns" or "Pope's come and go...we just need to hold our breath and take cover until a REAL POPE takes charge" or "The Pope want to forget about Tradition and wants make the Church French".

    The second point is definitely true, even in secular society. It's one thing to slap a random guy on the street. It's another thing to slap an parliamentarian. And it's quite another to slap the president of a country. The reason for the double standard isn't that the person is better...the random guy on the street might be holy and the president might be scum. The reason for the distinction is the office and what it represents. When you slap the guy on the street, you slap one guy. When you slap an ambassador, you slap a parliamentarian, you slap the party he represents. When you slap a president, you slap the country governed by the president.

    1. Anil Wang,

      That was NO blunder by Benedict XVI regarding condoms, in either remark the media got wrong.

      If you refer to the report "pope says condom use OK" then you need to understand it is the usual ignorance of the press regarding matters both theological and spiritual.

      If you mean to suggest his statement that condoms contribute nothing to AIDS prevention, then you need to acquaint yourself with facts established as far back as the days of the Clinton administration, even though they distributed hundreds of thousands with defects rendering them useless against any of the target STDs of the day.

      "Lambskin" condoms are useless against AIDS because the animal skin membrane is too porous to prevent transmission. Worse, however, is the fact that even without defects latex condoms are just as useless because extensive testing has proven the microscopic tears are always found in latex condoms are larger than the AIDS virus, thereby allowing transmission.

      I've known this since the late 90s, and the pope Benedict knew it to be true, as well. After all the homosexualist and other left-wing groups, so-called Catholic progressive groups, and pretty much all the major news organizations banded together to pillory Benedict and brand him as stupid (a calumny still repeated at blogs and websites by folks needing to look in the mirror), a handful of news organizations ran the subsequent story that the widely acknowledged top researcher on the subject, working out of Harvard, had stated that the pope was, in fact, correct.

      Naturally, this report seemed to die on the vine; it certainly got not 1% of the play the original hit pieces got when Benedict spoke truth to sin. That fact may explain why you got it wrong just now, or it may not.

      This is the second time this week I've seen almost that exact same remark posted as a comment on a Catholic blog. Have you been making this statement elsewhere, or is there another like you? I had no time to take issue by posting fraternal correction, but I do so now.

      Please stop.


  4. I take back my comment that Voris misunderstood why the saints could criticize the Pope. He's issued a clarification today that's in line with what I wrote above.

  5. I wouldn’t get too uptight about Voris. He is orthodox, soundly Catholic, and that is his great value at present. Regarding the Papacy, he emphasises the need to distinguish between the man and the Office. That is important. Anyone reading the history of the Papacy needs to
    take seriously Cpl Jones advice not to panic!

    The present “in” form of Ultramontanism, is that of the liberal/Relativists, not because they are ardent Papalists or even think that we have at last a Secularising Pope, but rather because they try to use him to further their ideas. They will drop the Holy Father like a hot brick when it suits them.

    Your point about canon 212/3 is important. The hierarchy must realise that the world has changed, and that much of the Catholic laity nowadays is reasonably educated, in many cases more so than they. Fluency in internet means of communication is now a critical factor. They are clearly finding this difficult to come to terms with. A quiet life appears to be the objective of so many, while the Western Catholic Church (and I suspect the rest too) continues down the post-Vat II plug-hole. The recent example of Deacon Donnelly is pertinent.

    In the meantime lets us get on quietly with ensuring that the ancient form of the Sacrifice of the Mass, which was given back to us by Benedict XVI, is fostered.

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  7. Voris knows that if the pope -- like a bishop -- is a heretic then he isn't Catholic, nor can he be the pope... and Voris won't go down that road.

    1. " if the pope -- like a bishop -- is a heretic then he isn't Catholic, nor can he be the pope"

      That view does not withstand historical scrutiny. There have been a few heretical popes.

  8. Of course. Sometimes, when there is grave error causing grave scandal and endangerment to souls, we must.

  9. Dear Mr Shaw,
    I´ll start asking you to forgive my mistakes as I´m not a native English speaker. I´m writing you to give my fully support to Mr. Voris for his statement in defence of the good name of the Papacy. As Catholics we can not publically criticize the Pope. It is improper for a Christian to criticize the supreme Pastor of the Church, who has by divine right the mission of ruling the Church. It is a sin of scandal, because publically undermine Peter is eroding his authority in the eyes of men, many of whom are unaffected souls, that seeing a partial critique of the Pope, can easily understand that if he can be wrong on one thing, he could be all wrong. If my mother was wrong I wouldn´t put a banner with their mistakes. How someone would dare to blame us for not speaking ill of our mother publically?
    There is scandal in critiquing the Pope, for two mayor reasons: firstly, because if the matter was a serious error, then the Pope would be an heretic, and if he´s an heretic he´s not a Pope, and if he´s not a Pope, Christ has deceived us, because this Pope has been legitimately elected by Apostolic succession and according to the canonical laws of the Church founded by Christ.
    Secondly, if it´s not a serious matter it´s not worth bringing our opinion to the case. Who do they think they are to speak publically against the Pope in a non fundamental matter? It´s like saying publically that your mother smells bad. It´s true that she can be wrong, that she´s imperfect…But What do they intend to do? Do they want to make her look more human? A natural soul can think that we have made her look so human that she doesn´t have any divinity in her. The arrogance of these sheeps- with vocation of shepherds- is that they judge what is good, interesting, disputable, what the essence of the Tradition is, what the substance is… in a parallel judgment. They don´t know the history of the Church. In the history of the Church there have been many sui géneris Popes, but they have always been protectors of the Dogma. There have been odd Popes, Popes who have approved things that were revoke right after them… As soon as Bonifacio VIII became the Pope, the first thing he did was revoking all the things that his predecessor had approved. He was in his right, because he ruled the Church. Some of this smart guys could had ask Bonifacio VIII how is that he came to revoke all that Celestino V did… but they would be missing the fact that it is the Pope the one who rules the Church by a divine right. These heresies have already existed in the past, such as donatism, novatianism… They connect the errors from the priesthood with their authority to give the Sacraments.
    We owe respect to the figure of Peter, as we respect our mother or as we respect the Church. It has nothing to do with criticism from charity to those contentious issues or serious inconsistencies inflicted by many Catholics. Mr Verocchio chose some words from the Pope that haven´t magisterial weight to confront them with some great words recorded by Mr. Voris.
    Sometimes the hierarchy addresses controversial issues that are questionable in nature, eg a historic judgment on a historical event of the past, that critique is a different one. We know thanks to Theology that the bishops are not unpeacable in their preaching. That´s why we add the postscript “in communion with the Pope”. But Mr. Voris never forgets that we get the Sacraments through Apostolic Succession.