Can a Catholic Criticize the Pope?

Sts. Peter and Paul

Sts. Peter and Paul

Pope Francis’ appointment of Fr. Timothy Radcliffe to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace this past weekend was most disconcerting. Any openly dissident priest who advocates for Catholic acceptance of gay relationships and identity, women’s ordination, and the “Eucharistic” nature of sodomy — a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance — should not be given a platform of any kind. In a sane world, they would be disciplined.

Since the Radcliffe appointment, I’ve spent a good bit of time looking at the reaction of Catholics on various websites and social media. Many are perplexed. Some are outraged. Some have said that they’re done with the Church. Others are offering the usual sort of justifications we have become accustomed to over the past two years. These are typically some variation of the following:

  • Maybe Pope Francis didn’t know who this guy really was and just rubber-stamped the appointment.
  • English isn’t the pope’s first language and this is an English priest; it might be a language barrier problem.
  • The pope’s advisers are bad men who are manipulating him!
  • Being appointed as a non-voting consultor on a Pontifical commission isn’t a “game changer.”
  • Maybe the pope is just trying to keep his enemies close to keep an eye on them!
  • [Insert your favorite here]

All of these credulity-stretching mental exercises are usually followed with, “Remember, Christ promised that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church!”

Of course they won’t. Can we take that off the table, please? Let’s assume as a given that we are all aware of Christ’s promise. To that I say:

Indefectible doesn't mean impervious.

All kidding aside, again, I repeat: the Gates of Hell will not prevail. This much we know for certain. But why would Christ make such a promise at the very foundation of His Church?

Because He knew that when the time came, it would appear otherwise.  

Christ was offering us reassurance. A guarantee. A promise we could take to take to the bank when the chips were down. But what it does not mean is that things for the Church will always be well.

History has borne this out.

Ours is a Church that began under a brutal and bloody persecution. It has endured some 30 antipopes. We’ve had two valid popes (Honorius I and John XXII) who, to some degree, embraced heresy during their tenure as Vicar of Christ. A number of heresies and crises have arisen to confront the faith, with three of these so major that they seemed to threaten the Church’s very existence. Some have argued — and I would agree — that we’re in the fourth great crisis of the Church – one only equaled in magnitude by Arianism before it.

And not a few of us have taken note of the fact that this present crisis, while clearly something that has been in development for at least a century, has experienced a resurgence under the current pontificate not previously seen since the aggiornamania of the 1960s and 70s.

Many Catholics find themselves — at this very moment — quietly asking the same unthinkable question: is the present acceleration of this crisis incidental to the pontificate of Pope Francis, or a direct result of it?

In other words: is the pope actually making things worse?

It is not my purpose to answer this question here.

We have a more fundamental problem to solve. A prerequisite, if you will. It is simply this: are we even allowed to ask such questions in the first place? Is it acceptable for a Catholic to believe that a Roman Pontiff could be responsible for the dissemination of error, even in his non-official acts? Could a man who is elected pope be sufficiently steeped in Modernist thought or secular progressive ideology (even through no fault of his own) that his very worldview naturally skews in a direction that veers away from the horizon of orthodoxy towards which the Barque of Peter has always — and will always — chart her course?

It has become an increasingly common problem in the Catholic world these days to find ourselves in the unenviable position of being afraid to say what we really think. This is both institutional — imposed as policy (whether written or unwritten) on those who work for Catholic organizations — and personal — through the various mechanisms of self-doubt. If we notice patterns, problems, and consistent deviations from the mien of previous pontificates, who are we to raise such questions? To borrow a phrase, “Who are we to judge?

We have become accustomed, sadly, to having low expectations of our bishops. And further, when their bad judgment is manifest, we’re not unused to calling them on it. To give an example, just a year ago, in a special report on the inclusion of Fr. Radcliffe as a speaker at a 2014 San Diego convocation of priests, Michael Voris of Church Militant lamented:

“Many faithful Catholics are at their wits’ end, feeling undercut by bishops at every turn. … The faithful are aghast that a man like Fr. Radcliffe, former worldwide head of the Dominicans, would be brought to address their priests. He openly promotes sodomy as an acceptable lifestyle, and one even pleasing to God. He goes to multiple dioceses worldwide, presiding over Masses celebrating homosexual identity. He declares sodomy has the potential to be, ‘Eucharistic’ — his words — and that homosexuals should be allowed into the priesthood in direct contradiction of the Vatican. In 2006, at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles religious education conference, he said, ‘We begin by standing by gay people … and this means letting our imaginations be stretched open to … watching Brokeback Mountain, reading gay novels, having gay friends, making our beliefs of our hearts and our minds delighting in that being …’


More and more faithful are beginning to see a nexus, a connection, between all these different scandals, from cardinals and archbishops supporting giving holy communion to divorced and remarrieds, to Cardinal Dolan praising active homosexuals marching in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, to inviting a sodomy-supporting priest to preach in the diocese, various lay people are becoming enraged.”

That the faithful are extremely upset about these things is an entirely appropriate response. In particular, Fr. Radcliffe’s positions represent an affront to decency, to Christ’s teaching, and that of His Mystical Bride, the Church.

But this is where things get strange. In a report on the recent appointment — made by Pope Francis — of the same Fr. Radcliffe, Church Militant did an admirable job of reminding readers of his radical offenses. Yet no questions were asked about the pope’s responsibility in making such an appointment. The “nexus” that “more and more faithful are beginning to see” was not mentioned again – even though more and more of them are also beginning to see that same nexus in Rome, not just in their dioceses. There was nothing about “aghast” or “enraged” Catholics in the report. Just the facts. Almost a week later, the silence continues.

Voris has no qualms when discussing the poor decisions of “cardinals and archbishops”. So why, when that same sodomy-supporting priest is empowered by the Bishop of Rome — the pope — is there total silence on the man who made the decision? The answer is that Church Militant has a zero-tolerance policy on papal criticism in the public sphere:

It is our judgment that most Catholics should neither read nor have easy access to articles and essays that could be judged critical of the Pope. Such writings should be published and reserved for those capable of engaging them without risk of damage to their faith in the Church and the Vicar of Christ. We make these recommendations for the same reasons that we discourage people from visiting sedevacantist and pornography web sites: they are potential occasions of sin, from which masters of the spiritual life are unanimous in their recommendation of “flight” rather than “fight.” They lead people to think or do things they would not otherwise have thought or done and, almost without exception, those things are harmful to one’s spiritual life. At least one priest has described web sites containing such articles and encouraging such themes as “ecclesiastical porn” …We call it “spiritual pornography.”


[H]ow is a Catholic better off believing bad things about the Church, whether those things be true or false, and how should a Catholic respond to those things? If someone believes that the Catholic Church has become a bad place to be, what is that person supposed to do? Join another Church? Break away from the visible, corrupt Catholic Church and form an alternative, allegedly more faithful version of the Catholic Church (see CMRI and SSPX)? Leave the Catholic Church and join a more faithful Evangelical Christian assembly? Give up on religion entirely and go the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd? Organize “Recognize and Resist” movements within the Catholic Church and relentlessly attack Her from the inside? Seek Church reform via some kind of coup d’etat and replace current leadership with … what?

None of these responses is authentically Catholic. Each is facilitated and encouraged by papal criticism almost indistinguishable from what is found in the writings of virulent anti­Catholic apologists…

It is not my place to tell another publication what their editorial policy should be. I understand that Church Militant has chosen not to engage in papal criticism because they believe this to be the most prudent and charitable course, and while I disagree, I must respect their own internal policy. Their business, their rules. And though I find their logic faulty, I actually do appreciate where they are coming from.

I take serious issue, however, with the implication that anyone who engages in any sort of papal criticism is somehow a “spiritual pornographer” or, by insinuation,”virulently anti-Catholic.” These labels make faithful Catholics — priests and laity alike — afraid to speak the truth. Whether this is because they will lose family and friends, their jobs, or their funding, they are put in a position where voicing their thoughtful concerns becomes a serious liability. It has a stifling effect on much-needed conversation from the very people who are most qualified to offer more light than heat: parish priests, knowledgeable Catholic writers, and perhaps most especially, trained theologians in academia. These last, if they are faithful enough to Rome to have taken the oath of fidelity to the Magisterium, find themselves over a barrel: they are obligated to defend the faith, but how can they do so when it means addressing their concerns about the pope? Under accusations such as those popularized by Church Militant and others, they can lose their mandatum to teach the faith to the very students who will soon find themselves in the heart of the growing crisis.

Being afraid to speak the truth in times like these is a very dangerous thing indeed.

In response to the argument itself, the assertion that a person exposed to papal criticism will feel that they have no choice but to leave the Church, develop a schismatic mentality, or become an apostate simply does not follow. On the contrary, I’ve heard from people who are so distressed by the normalcy bias that they’re seeing when faced with troubling words or actions on the part of the pope that they have given voice to their own desire to leave the Church, or not to join it as they had previously intended. They want to know that what they’re thinking — that there are real problems being manifested that go against their understanding of Catholicism — doesn’t make them crazy. It’s absurd to believe that reassuring these people by asserting the unchanging truths of the faith — and contrasting them, when necessary, against the present situation — would somehow have a deleterious effect.

Put more simply: we didn’t make this mess, but pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t going to make it go away. Want people to stay faithful? Help them to see how what’s happening doesn’t mean Catholicism is false, but rather, is suffering exactly as we were always told it would. Show them what is true, and what the limits and boundaries of assent require. Give them a path forward, not out.

To that end, we need to look to our Church’s history. Would we say that the bishops of the Third Council of Constantinople, which posthumously anathematized Pope Honorius I for heresy, were “spiritual pornographers” or scandalizers of the faithful? Would we make such claims about the Theology faculty at the University of Paris who opposed the heresies in the personal sermons of Pope John XXII — or King Philip VI, who forbade them from being taught?

Taken further, would we make such claims about St. Paul, who publicly reprimanded the very first pope, the one chosen by Christ Himself?

But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. – Galatians 2:11

A pope is still a man — and thus, a sinner — and can make mistakes. Paul withstood Peter for the simple reason that he was “to be blamed” – in other words, culpably in error. In the case referred to by St. Paul in Galatians, it was on Peter’s part both an error of judgment and a faulty application of theology. In his commentary on Galatians 2, St. Thomas Aquinas explains in what manner and by what precepts Paul could so object to his pope (my emphasis):

He says, therefore: Indeed, they advantaged me nothing; rather I conferred something upon them, and especially upon Peter, because when Cephas was come to Antioch, where there was a church of the Gentiles, I withstood him to the face, i.e., openly: “Reverence not thy neighbor in his fall and refrain not to speak in the time of salvation” (Sir 4:27). Or: to his face, i.e., not in secret as though detracting and fearing him, but publicly and as his equal: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: but reprove him openly, lest thou incur sin through him” (Lev. 19:17). This he did, because he was to be blamed.


Apropos of what is said in a certain Gloss, namely, that I withstood him as an adversary, the answer is that the Apostle opposed Peter in the exercise of authority, not in his authority of ruling. Therefore from the foregoing we have an example: prelates, indeed, an example of humility, that they not disdain corrections from those who are lower and subject to them; subjects have an example of zeal and freedom, that they fear not to correct their prelates, particularly if their crime is public and verges upon danger to the multitude.


The occasion of the rebuke was not slight, but just and useful, namely, the danger to the Gospel teaching. Hence he says: Thus was Peter reprehensible, but I alone, when I saw that they, who were doing these things, walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, because its truth was being undone, if the Gentiles were compelled to observe the legal justifications, as will be plain below. That, they were not walking uprightly is so, because in cases where danger is imminent, the truth must be preached openly and the opposite never condoned through fear of scandalizing others: “That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light” (Mt 10:27); “The way of the just is right: the path of the just is right to walk in” (Is 26:7). The manner of the rebuke was fitting, i.e., public and plain. Hence he says, I said to Cephas, i.e., to Peter, before them all, because that dissimulation posed a danger to all: “Them that sin, reprove before all” (1 Tim 5:20). This is to be understood of public sins and not of private ones, in which the procedures of fraternal charity ought to be observed.

St. Thomas makes the important distinction between an exercise of authority — a papal action — and authority of ruling — the power and authority inherent in the papal office. He asserts that if public actions of a prelate — even the pope — cause “danger” that is “imminent,” then the “truth must be preached openly” and “the opposite never condoned through fear of scandalizing others.” Further, if it is true that these prelates must not “disdain corrections from those who are lower and subject to them,” then any argument that the faithful and clergy must not publicly address a pope’s public errors, misleading statements, or actions for fear of scandalizing the faithful is without merit. 

On the contrary, there is a positive duty to keep such errors from spreading if one possesses the ability to identify and charitably elucidate them. This is of paramount importance in order to instruct or correct those who might be led into sin by believing these errors. This is not merely a hypothetical, but something that has become a real problem with (to use examples that quickly come to mind) misconceptions following the Synod that the pope has changed the rules for the divorced and remarried on receiving Holy Communion, or in the case of those who have taken Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” as a tacit endorsement of same-sex relationships. The Spiritual Works of Mercy include “instructing the ignorant,” “counseling the doubtful,” and “admonishing the sinner.” At various levels, any (or all) of these three works of mercy might apply in a redress of these errors.

We would also do well to remember that the non-theological actions of popes can also be scandalous. Popes like Stephen VI,  Benedict IX, Sergius III, John XII, Alexander VI, Innocent IV, and Urban VI come prominently to mind. These popes — all of them valid — were reported variously to have taken part in scheming, simony, murder, adultery, rape, torture, sodomy, bestiality, desecration of the corpse of a predecessor, and other horrific crimes.

While Pope Francis has certainly not been accused of acts such as these, many of his papal appointments have empowered men who have no business in leadership positions in the Church, and whom, as in the case of Fr. Radcliffe, represent an actual danger to the faith. Men who speak to the media, making statements on the pope’s behalf, leading us to believe that he agrees with their heterodox agendas.

And when reports of the pope’s more controversial (alleged) opinions or activities disseminate through the global press — reports which many faithful Catholics find troubling — they are very rarely addressed or corrected, despite a Vatican press office and a PR executive in his employ, both of which are meant to monitor the news and ensure that the Vatican is being represented accurately in the media. The mechanisms are in place to analyze the message the world is receiving, but a choice is made not to clarify. The impression given is that silence gives consent.

Perhaps this is why Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Mysterium Fideimade such a strong statement about careful language from the Church:

But this is not enough. Once the integrity of the faith has been safeguarded, then it is time to guard the proper way of expressing it, lest our careless use of words give rise, God forbid, to false opinions regarding faith in the most sublime things. … we have to speak in accordance with a fixed rule, so that a lack of restraint in speech on our part may not give rise to some irreverent opinion about the things represented by the words.”

If the Vatican does not choose to speak to these issues by reaffirming Church teaching, may we, the faithful, not do so in an attempt to mitigate the damage? We do not have the luxury of living in the historically disconnected world, where statements of the pope took months to reach any given diocese by letter, if at all. Our always-on, Internet connected planet presents a new reality not encountered by the ancient Church: every thought and action of a figure as high profile as a pope is instantly broadcast to billions, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. They are forming opinions of what we believe based on what they hear and see, whether or not it is accurately represented. Is there to be no corrective action taken by anyone if the Holy See takes none itself?

As cited by Pope Leo XIII, Pope Felix III admonished:

“An error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed…. He who does not oppose an evident crime is open to the suspicion of secret complicity.”

It seems indisputable, then, that we must resist error — even from a pope, who may fall into such outside the parameters of the infallibility of his office and most particularly in his personal judgments.

In the 16th century, we see this understanding succinctly expressed by Melchior Cano, a Bishop and Theologian of the Council of Trent. It is taken from his De Locis Theologicis — a text the Catholic Encyclopedia indicates “certainly ranks with the most lauded productions of the Renaissance” and “in the estimation of some critics … made its author worthy of a place next to St. Thomas Aquinas.”

“Now it can be said briefly that those who defend blindly and indiscriminately any judgment whatsoever of the Supreme Pontiff concerning every matter weaken the authority of the Apostolic See; they do not support it; they subvert it; they do not fortify it… . Peter has no need of our lies; he has no need of our adulation.”

It seems equally clear that none of us may use such criticism as an excuse to abandon the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We may not decide for ourselves that any given occupant of the See of Peter is not the pope, for it lies outside our competence to make such judgments. We must submit to every legitimate exercise of his authority, showing obedience in all areas where obedience is due.

But we are not required to turn off our minds, to blind our eyes, or to dull our senses. We have at the present moment not just one pope, but the 265 who came before him. We have the immemorial teachings of the Church, her doctors, and her saints. Learn your faith. Understand it. Apply it. Live it. Pray for the Holy Father and the bishops who surround him. Pray for the restoration and reformation of the Church. Where we correct, we should do so in charity, out of a love of souls, and for the faith.

We were warned by a cardinal elector before the last conclave, “It is a dangerous time. Pray for us.” That danger has not passed. This website has taken the fifth chapter of the First Epistle of St. Peter as its namesake for a reason. Why? Because it gives us the roadmap for what we must do:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

– 1 Peter 5

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