The Personalist Project

Nicholas Frankovich sets up a maddening false alternative in a post in the Corner yesterday about criticizing the Pope.

Catholics disagree among themselves over whether it is right to criticize the Holy Father in public. Loyalty to the pope is a traditional Catholic virtue. Those who criticize critics of the pope often argue that of course we can disagree with him but that we must do so always with civility, respect, and delicacy. That’s hard to square with Francis’s call for the faithful to make a mess and practice parrhesia, or frank talk. And his symbolic gestures toward humility — the Ford Focus, the decision not to live in the Apostolic Palace, etc. — suggest that he does not want us to kneel and kiss his ring.

"Loyalty" is not the issue. Catholics don't owe loyalty to the Pope—as if we should defend his words and acts (or at least refrain from opposing them publicly), whether or not we agree with them.

Nor is the "parrhesia" of faith rightly identified with frank talk. It's not boldness as such that's wanted, but the boldness that comes from faith. Some boldness comes from arrogance or shamelessness or value-blindness or recklessness. Zealots have it in spades, for instance. So do charlatans and conmen (speaking of which, watch The Imposter for a stunning example.) Fools are famous for rushing in where angels fear to tread.

What Catholics owe the Pope, as Vicar of Christ, is a disposition of reverent receptivity, informed by a lively faith in the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit over the Church. We should be looking to him for leadership in responding to grace in our day and time; we should be listening and watching carefully and with open hearts and minds to what he says and does. We should be interpreting him as he is—a moral and spiritual leader, not a politician. He is about stirring hearts and forming consciences, not crafting public policy.

If we find ourselves upset or perplexed by something he says or does, we should pause and consider carefully before we speak—not from loyalty, but from humility. We are not the Vicar of Christ. It did not please God to make us Pope. We have neither his view of the world, his experience, nor his charism of office. We know that our own view is partial and limited and likely to be infected with all manner of impurities; we know that he sees many things we don't see. 

We also know (or should know) that it is altogether unfitting for us to dispute or expostulate with the Pope as if he were nothing more and nothing other than a colleague in the theology department or a political representative, or an op-ed columnist. Papal encyclicals are not position papers, and we are not peers. To scoff at him or belittle him or pick him apart is not boldness, but brazenness and faithlessness. It's ugly and damaging.

None of which is to say it's never okay to criticize the Pope, even in public. I can think of several sorts of occasions when it would be in order (nor do I imagine the list is exhaustive.)

1) When we feel a definite interior call from God to speak, as Catherine of Sienna did vis a vis Pope Gregory XI. (The letter she writes him is conspicuously animated by a holy boldness and at the same time pervaded with profound reverence for the Pope as Pope, despite his manifest personal weakness and failings.)

2) If the Pope were to betray his office by living immorally, say, or being corrupt and selling positions in the Church for money or influence.

3) If the Pope were to overreach—maybe commanding obedience outside the area of faith and morals—for instance, calling on Catholic Americans to vote for a particular politician.

4) If the Pope is obviously wrong on a point of fact outside the area of faith and morals and in the area of our competence. If, say, (making something up here) the Pope were to call for an end to the use of this or that chemical because it causes cancer, there would be nothing wrong with a scientist pointing out that the study on which he based his opinion has been discredited. Or if he denounced a particular book, there would be nothing wrong with its author (or his defenders) pointing out that the translation the Pope had read of his work was erroneous.

5) If we think the Pope's sources are questionable, there is nothing wrong with saying so and showing why.

6) If the Pope were (practically impossible to imagine, given the promise we have) to teach heresy.

But even in such cases, our mode and manner of criticizing should be fundamentally different than it would be if we were addressing anyone other than the Pope. The reverence we owe to him is not to be compared with the respect we owe to an office (the US Presidency, for instance.) In the case of the papacy, it's not the office, but the person of the Pope who is Vicar of Christ on earth.

Even if we privately think he's not a good Pope, if we're not showing loving, filial deference in our manner of address, we're being bad Catholics and hurting the Church.

Truth and goodness in the spiritual realm are all about right relations among persons. You can't serve the Church by dissing the Pope.

Comments (2)

Cynthia Newcombe

#1, Jun 26, 2015 6:48am

I absolutely agree with this Katie!  I've had to stop reading some of the things people have been posting on FB.  My faith is in God and in the Holy Spirit who does not make mistakes.


#2, Jun 26, 2015 8:59pm

Count me in agreement, as well, Katie!  So tired of the pope-bashing(even on "conservative" sites...One of the reasons I spend time here.

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