One thing that needs to be revisited, in light of the recent trend of right-wingers feeling all too comfortable with criticizing the Holy Father (for shame when the left does it, though!), is our religious duty towards him.
Back when it was John Paul II being criticized for his stance on women's ordination or contraception, that one had a religious duty to honour the pope with a sort of awful silence was bandied around fairly steadily. But I have a feeling that it is the very same people who were saying this who are now calling a different tune.
A priest I know, very 'old school,' so to speak, has a simple rule, he never ever criticizes his superiors. He has a mind - a rather sharp one in fact - and has very definite views on life - and thus is aware of so many things going on that are not to his liking. But for the decade or so that I have known him I have never heard him say anything critical about his superiors - this would include priests, bishops, and the pope. Some might want to jump in at this point and say, "Well, this is the kind of attitude that led to Mt. Cashel, Boston and Ireland..." But in this priest's defense, what I am talking about is the kind of idle chat-chat criticism that we all do too readily, not things of grave moral import.
The question is, who do we think we are? Bloggers, arm-chair theologians, canon-lawyers, historians and politicians. What possesses us to offer an opinion on the acts of the pope? Seriously. I am not accusing, I am asking, why do we do it?
Well, for starters, I criticize my wife, my children, my parents, my (former) teachers, my brothers, my prime minister, my bishop, my pastor, etc. So, why not the pope?
Is it possible to actually live in the world and not criticize one's superiors, by which I mean my parents and pastors? By is it possible, I mean is it morally beneficial? I generally believe in meritocracy. But a pope is a pope by virtue of his election and his acceptance of the office, of course, not in virtue of his moral stature. He does not nullify this distinction by refusing to act in accordance with the graces of office.
One must, however, understanding the true nature of the office in question. Americans are too comfortable, I believe, with the idea that they should not criticize a president while in office. I think etiquette is extremely important, and so no coarse or degrading language should ever be used, but I also believe that democratic offices are merit-based, and so should stand up to scrutiny or be nullified. I assume that if we follow the bare measure of etiquette, then an office can be criticized but not dishonoured. Indeed, part of the honouring of the office is utilizing the freedom of speech that office is meant to protect by criticizing the holder of it. Criticism does not mean degradation. One has a moral duty not to degrade anyone, of course, and so the question is, does the office deserve special respect?
Parenthood, political authority and ecclesiastical authority are all different, and are supposed to 'govern' different spheres. If a politician tells me how to parent, he is operating outside of his jurisdiction. If a pope tells my kids when to go to bed, he is outside of his. Political office is merit-based and temporary, the other two are not supposed to be.
What kind of things are people criticizing the pope for? Right now, various statements the specific context of which cannot be guaranteed. Now some people are afraid he is going to overturn the indissolubility of marriage! They are concerned that he is minimizing the importance of the abortion and homosexual issues. I think this sort of thing is equivalent to my children telling me that I am parenting incorrectly. The only difference is that my children are not adults. This difference means that, in the case of adults we presume that they have arrived at their opinions reasonably, that they have a right to them, but not necessarily to voicing them in a critical fashion, against dad or against pope.
Also, no parent agrees with how another person parents in every way - not even spouses! There is something good about not agreeing on everything; something disturbing when one never disagrees. That does not mean that in every case I should make my disagreement known. Sometimes, maybe. When asked, perhaps; when not asked, only in grave situations. I don't know if that is a good rule for criticizing the pope, but this is to move towards something I am comfortable with.
A pope is not immune from error, but should he be thought immune to my criticism? As a theologian, I have the ability to offer advice on a few matters, but only should do so when asked. As a theologian, I do not see how I have a right or duty to criticize. As an adult, believing Catholic do I? What if the pope takes a mistress? It has happened. In that case, I do not see how the duty to rebuke would fall to some guy in the Ottawa Valley, and not to someone much nearer to hand. If they were not availing, then perhaps it would fall to me. But I think people need to know their place, and mine ever being to offer advice to the pope seems an unlikely scenario. The pope has advisors, the cardinals. I think it would be their job to 'criticize.' Failing their intervention, I could see a St. Catherine of Siena situation or a St. Bernard of Clairvaux situation being possible.
I am not arguing that a pope should never be challenged by anyone. I am arguing that in the case of the Vicar of Christ, those who should are of a number that does not include me. A father might need to hear the opinion of his oldest child. My pastor might need my advice, due to my proximity and specific competence; even my bishop might.
For the record, I have only once criticized my good friend, my metropolitan, and I regret it and apologized for it. Sure, I frequently think I am right, but love him enough to know (yes, love can bring knowledge) that among those things that he requires from me, criticism is not included.
So, yes, we bloggers are really smart, well-read and have breath-takingly insightful opinions, but have no right to make critical statement about the Holy Father. First of all, piety requires thinking the best of one's father. When you don't have all the facts, assume the best.
When you don't assume the best it is because you assume you know better, which means you do not think very highly of the person in question, or, even worse, you think quite highly of yourself.
One thing I can add, from my experience with leaders and sometimes as one, is that support is key for success. It's not that the criticism is always untrue, it is that the better thing to do is to build together. The person calling the shots needs to be supported by people even when it's not the way they would do it.