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Friday, October 11, 2013

Piety towards the Pope

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.


  1. Thank. You. My thought exactly.

  2. Thank you. I once heard a priest speak very passionately about how difficult it is to be a priest and how we should really avoid criticizing them (especially in idle chit chat). He said, "before you criticize, how many rosaries have you said for that priest?" How much more difficult must it be to be the pope with his every word being analysed? If we have concerns with the Pope maybe we should be taking them up in prayer instead of on the internet.

  3. I recently read that reportedly the pope has been a bit embarrassed by some of the words reported as his own in some of the recent interviews, but not wanting to embarrass the old guy who interviewed him (Scalfari), Francis has said nothing about it. So what to conclude: "See; he's alright; he's just been misquoted - stop criticizing." Or: "Well that's nice - but that's just another reason to criticize him!" Tough call. As I understand it, though, the pope's primary role is to "confirm his brethren," so he kind of has a duty to do so, and if he says stuff that has confused the heck out of a lot of people, then we kind of need to discuss that and try to counter the confusion - isn't that a spiritual work of mercy? - especially given that he seems so reluctant to do so. Just keeping it zipped and never criticizing the confused/confusing words attributed to him? I don't see the merit. I think observance of spiritual works of mercy supersedes piety towards the pope. So to answer Colin's question: that's why I do it (and may God have mercy on me if I do so ineptly).

  4. Of course, where do you draw the line, in that people are always misrepresenting the Church and the pope. I wondered why B XVI didn't say more about the Regensburg Address and its fallout at the time. Maybe Francis is thinking, "Well, they'll get me in time." (a very cavalier way for me to express an important issue, of course!)

  5. What would you have wanted Ratzinger to say about Regensburg? - it seems to me that the address was clear and spoke for itself for any who cared to listen. I'd say there's a pretty clear line between that and the interviews with Bergoglio. In any case, I don't think Ratzinger would be bothered by people criticizing his statements. I just don't think he has ever had the attitude, "I'm the pope - if you want to be a good Catholic, please don't criticize anything I say." By my image of him, he has always been an vibrant intellectual, a lover of honest, lively debate - just look at his recent beautifully clear letter to Piergiorgio Odifreddi. (And I think the 'criticism'-issue has nothing to do with mere gossip, idle chit-chat, as Steph put it.) In any case, there is no hard and fast line to be drawn here, we all have to exercise prudence as best we can. But no one should assume that if I (or, say, Janet Smith) criticise Francis' statements, that means that I don't respect him or that I am impiously hoping for his downfall. If Francis were thinking, "They'll get me in time," well, maybe so. In the meantime, why shouldn't we discuss how best to "get him"? Sandro Magister has had some very trenchant analysis about this, and maybe he'll turn out to be wrong, but in the meantime, why shouldn't we do our best to take in different viewpoints and try our best to understand who this new guy really is? I have objected before to the "assume the best" approach. Instead, why not "consider all the facts and do your best to understand the reality"? Maybe we will "get him in time" but our discussing his words is essential to that process, isn't it?

    1. Good points, David. In either case, I don't think Pope Francis minds being criticized either (if he is actually the saint we take him to be). I think the danger lies in thinking that the pope answers to 'us.' Yes, we should definitely discuss it - yes, by all means! that is why he does these interviews.

  6. "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."
    I'm curious, Colin: Do you really think that there is 'critical-parity' between the dogmatic issues you mention in relation to JP II's "stance" (which I would have thought was not really his stance, so much as simply that of the Church) and the issues in relation to which criticisms of Francis have emerged? Maybe we're just thinking of different criticisms and so the problem is that it just isn't helpful to make sweeping indictments of *criticism* as such, but rather we should address specific criticisms to specific criticisms (always a good idea in my book).

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  8. Very good points made here by David M. Here's hoping and praying that we find more clear thinking, right reasoning, and charity coming from all of the Catholic faithful, left to right, concerning the issues facing the Church presently. Viva il Papa!