Sunday, May 20, 2018
The Church permits criticism of popes under certain circumstances
Fathers have the authority to teach and discipline their children, but this authority is not absolute. They may not teach their children to do evil, and they may not discipline them with unjust harshness. Everyone knows this, though everyone also knows that there are fathers who do in fact abuse their children or teach them to do evil. Everyone also knows that it is right for children under these unhappy circumstances to disobey and reprove their fathers, while still acknowledging their fathers’ authority in general and submitting to his lawful instructions.
All the same, probably no father ever says to his children: “Children, here’s what to do if I ever start to abuse you or teach you to do evil.” The reason for this is surely that the default assumption is that children will never need to know what to do under such circumstances, and that explicitly addressing it in this way would give them a false and disturbing impression. Children might start to wonder whether abuse or evil teaching is a likely prospect, and for that reason come to doubt their father’s wisdom and good will.
Hence, in the typical case, what to do in such a situation is left implicit and vague. The nature of paternal authority is such that this is the way things should be. Because the presumption that fathers will not abuse their authority is so strong, and because children need to believe viscerally that this is extremely unlikely to happen, the matter almost never comes up in most families. There is a downside, of course, which is that on those rare occasions when a father does abuse his authority, children are bound to be confused about how to deal with the situation. What do you do when the man appointed by nature to be your primary teacher and guardian starts to mislead or harm you?
Now, the papacy is like this. The Church has no official and explicitly stated policy about how to deal with a pope who teaches error or otherwise abuses his office. That is not because such error and abuse are not possible. On the contrary, not only has the Church always allowed for the possibility that a pope can teach error when not speaking ex cathedra and that he can make policy decisions that do grave harm to the faithful, but both of these things have in fact happened on a handful of occasions – for example, the doctrinal errors of Pope Honorius I and Pope John XXII, the ambiguous doctrinal formula temporarily accepted by Pope Liberius, the Cadaver Synod of Pope Stephen VI and its aftermath, and the mistakes of Pope Urban VI that contributed to the Great Western Schism. (I have discussed these cases here, here, and here.)
But there is in Catholic theology so strong a presumption against a pope making grave doctrinal and disciplinary errors that, as with a father in relation to his children, it would be potentially misleading and destabilizing explicitly to formulate a policy concerning what to in such a situation. Hence you won’t find in the Catechism a section on what to do about a bad pope. The very existence and expression of such a policy might give the false impression that bad popes are bound to arise with some regularity.
The downside is that on those rare occasions when a bad pope does come along, the Church is bound to be flummoxed. Many Catholics without theological expertise will wrongly suppose that a Catholic must absolutely always support any policy that a pope implements, or assent to any doctrinal statement that a pope issues – even when such a statement seems manifestly contrary to traditional teaching (as in the cases of Honorius I and John XXII). This will lead to one of two outcomes, depending on the capacity of such ill-informed Catholics for cognitive dissonance.
Those who are more prone to react emotionally and less capable of clear and logical reasoning – and thus who are comfortable with embracing contradictions – will tend to go along with the doctrinal or policy errors of such a pope. Their own understanding and practice of the Faith is going to be impaired as a result. They are also bound to sow discord in the Church, since they will likely accuse those Catholics who do not embrace the errors of disloyalty and dissent. By contrast, those who cannot bear such cognitive dissonance are liable to have their faith shaken. They will wrongly suppose that they are obliged to assent to the errors, but find that they are unable to do so given the manifest conflict with traditional teaching. They will needlessly worry that this conflict between current and past teaching falsifies the Church’s claim to indefectibility.
It is important, then, for Catholics to realize that the traditional teaching of the Church has always allowed for the possibility of criticism of a pope who teaches error. Indeed, such an acknowledgment is there in the New Testament, in St. Paul’s famous public rebuke of St. Peter for conduct that “seemed to indicate a wish to compel the pagan converts to become Jews and accept circumcision and the Jewish law” (as the Catholic Encyclopedia characterizes Peter’s scandalous action).
It is also manifest in the condemnation of Pope Honorius I by his successors Pope St. Agatho and Pope St. Leo II. It is evident in Pope Innocent III’s statement: “Only on account of a sin committed against the faith can I be judged by the church” (quoted in J. Michael Miller, The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy, at p. 292). It is reflected in the example of the 14th-century theologians who criticized the doctrinal error of Pope John XXII, criticism which led to his recantation. It is obvious from the extremely negative judgments that devout Catholic historians (such as many of the authors of the Catholic Encyclopedia) have made about the worst popes. And though you don’t find the subject raised in the Catechism, the Church under Pope St. John Paul II in fact addressed the possibility of legitimate disagreement explicitly and at some length.
The teaching of Donum Veritatis
This may seem surprising given that John Paul II and his chief doctrinal officer Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) have a reputation for disciplining dissenting theologians such as Hans Küng and Charles Curran. However, as I explained in an earlier post, and as Joe Bessette and I explain in much greater detail at pages 144-57 of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, various teaching documents issued during the last several decades make it clear that there are five categories of magisterial statement. The first two categories (which concern divinely revealed dogmas and logical implications of dogmas, respectively) require unconditional assent on the part of Catholics; the third category (which concerns non-irreformable but still binding theological and moral teaching) entails a very strong presumption of assent; the fourth (which concerns prudential disciplinary directives) requires only obedience in behavior but not assent; and the fifth (which concerns prudential application of theological or moral principle to contingent circumstances) requires neither obedience nor assent but merely respectful consideration.
Moreover, the Instruction Donum Veritatis, issued by the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger, makes it clear that not all disagreement with the Magisterium of the Church constitutes dissent of the objectionable kind that Küng, Curran, et al. are guilty of. Here are the relevant passages, from sections 24-32:
The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions…
When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question…
Even when collaboration takes place under the best conditions, the possibility cannot be excluded that tensions may arise between the theologian and the Magisterium… If tensions do not spring from hostile and contrary feelings, they can become a dynamic factor, a stimulus to both the Magisterium and theologians to fulfill their respective roles while practicing dialogue…
The preceding considerations have a particular application to the case of the theologian who might have serious difficulties, for reasons which appear to him wellfounded, in accepting a non-irreformable magisterial teaching…
If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian's part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments…
For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail…
[T]hat public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church also called “dissent”… must be distinguished from the situation of personal difficulties treated above.
End quote. There are several important points made in these passages. First, what is in view here is the possibility of legitimate criticism of “teaching[s] of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable” – which would include magisterial statements even in the third category referred to above, as well as the fourth and fifth categories. As the instruction notes, assent to such statements “must be the rule,” but this strong presumption of assent can be overridden. How?
As I argued in a recent Catholic World Report article, Catholic teaching concerning the reliability of the ordinary magisterium of the Church implies that if the Church has consistently taught some doctrine for centuries, that teaching cannot be considered reformable. This is why liberal theologians who question the Church’s traditional teaching on matters such as contraception or the ordination of women do not have a leg to stand on. When the Magisterium is simply reiterating such traditional teaching, disagreement cannot be justified by appeal to these passages from Donum Veritatis.
Rather, as theologian William May notes, legitimate disagreement of the kind the Instruction has in view is most plausible when theologians “can appeal to other magisterial teachings that are more certainly and definitively taught with which they think the teaching questioned is incompatible” (An Introduction to Moral Theology, Revised edition, p. 242). In other words, the possibility of legitimate criticism of a magisterial statement is most plausible precisely when that statement seems to conflict with long-standing past teaching, and not when it merely reiterates long-standing past teaching.
There are, after all, strict limits on what the Church and the popes can teach, as the Church and the popes have themselves constantly affirmed. For example, the First Vatican Council teaches:
For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.
Similarly, the Second Vatican Council teaches:
[T]he living teaching office of the Church… is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully.
And Pope Benedict XVI taught:
The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.
End quote. So, suppose some papal statement or other magisterial document did appear to try to introduce “some new doctrine,” or appeared to “water down” the Church’s consistent past teaching, or failed to guard that teaching “scrupulously” or to explain it “faithfully.” This would be the clearest possible case in which a theologian might raise legitimate criticisms of the kind recognized by Donum Veritatis.
A second important point to note from the passages quoted is that Donum Veritatis affirms that a theologian not only can have the right to raise objections, but in some cases even “has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented.” Indeed, the document teaches that a theologian’s “objections could then contribute to real progress” and “a stimulus to both the Magisterium and theologians to fulfill their respective roles.” In other words, the Church doesn’t merely tolerate criticism under circumstances like the ones in question, but acknowledges that such criticism can be a good thing and a service to the Magisterium.
A third and quite remarkable acknowledgement in these passages from Donum Veritatis is that for the theologian who raises such legitimate criticisms, “such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth.” In other words, the Church explicitly acknowledges the possibility that a non-infallible act of the Magisterium can be so defective that it is the theologian who respectfully criticizes that act who is upholding “the truth,” so that this defective magisterial act is something from which the theologian will unjustly “suffer.”
A fourth point that must be emphasized is that Donum Veritatis explicitly says that legitimate criticism of deficient magisterial statements does not constitute “dissent” from Church teaching, as that term is usually understood. As the document goes on to explain in some detail, what the Church condemns as “dissent” has to do instead with “attitudes of general opposition to Church teaching” of the kind which arose after Vatican II. This spirit of dissent, Donum Veritatis says, has the following characteristics:
• It stems from “the ideology of philosophical liberalism, which permeates the thinking of our age,” and which pits “freedom of thought” against “the authority of tradition.”
• It regards “teaching handed on and generally received [as] a priori suspect” and claims that “doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility… have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not.”
• It often assigns a “normative value” to “models of society promoted by the ‘mass media’,” is influenced by “the weight of public opinion,” and seeks to limit magisterial statements to topics “which public opinion considers important and then only by way of agreeing with it.”
• “In its most radical form, it aims at changing the Church following a model of protest which takes its inspiration from political society.”
Clearly, then, the “dissent” that Donum Veritatis criticizes is the kind that is motivated by the theological liberalism of Küng, Curran, et al., which wants the Church to abandon traditional teaching and conform herself to the values prevailing in modern secular liberal society. A theologian who criticized a pope for failing to reiterate traditional teaching (as the medieval theologians who criticized Pope John XXII did) would therefore be the opposite of a “dissenter.”
A fifth point to emphasize is that the criticism allowed by Donum Veritatis can be expressed publicly. Speaking at a press conference about a hypothetical theologian who raises the sorts of legitimate criticism allowed by Donum Veritatis, Cardinal Ratzinger said: “We have not excluded all kinds of publication, nor have we closed him up in suffering” (quoted in Anthony J. Figueiredo, The Magisterium-Theology Relationship, at p. 370). As William May notes:
The Instruction obviously considers it proper for theologians to publish their “questions,” for it speaks of their obligation to take seriously into account objections leveled against their views by other theologians and to revise their positions in the light of such criticism – and this is normally given only after a theologian has made his questions known by publishing them in professional theological journals. (An Introduction to Moral Theology, pp. 241-42)
Similarly, Cardinal Avery Dulles notes that Donum Veritatis “does not discountenance expression of one’s views in a scholarly manner that might be publicly reported” (The Craft of Theology, p. 115).
This is a crucial point. Some Catholics have falsely claimed that Donum Veritatis only permits criticism that is expressed privately to the relevant Church authorities. Their basis for thinking this is a remark in the Instruction to the effect that “the theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’, but have recourse to the responsible authority.” But as Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement makes clear, Donum Veritatis in fact does not prohibit all publicly expressed criticism. Furthermore, the remark about “mass media” has to be read in context, because the Instruction addresses the topic of mass media in several places, and seems concerned to criticize a very specific aspect of modern mass media, rather than the use of mass media as such. The longer passage from which the words just quoted are taken reads as follows:
[T]he theologian should avoid turning to the "mass media", but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth.
End quote. And in the context of discussing the baneful influence of “the ideology of philosophical liberalism” and its pitting of “freedom of thought” and a “model of protest” against the “authority of tradition,” remarks like the following are made:
The phenomenon of dissent can have diverse forms. Its remote and proximate causes are multiple…
The weight of public opinion when manipulated and its pressure to conform also have their influence. Often models of society promoted by the “mass media” tend to assume a normative value…
Dissent sometimes also appeals to a kind of sociological argumentation which holds that the opinion of a large number of Christians would be a direct and adequate expression of the “supernatural sense of the faith”...
[But] not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith. This is all the more so given that people can be swayed by a public opinion influenced by modern communications media.
End quote. Clearly, then, when Donum Veritatis expresses reservations about the mass media, what it has in view are the secular liberal values that dominate modern mass media and have reshaped public opinion by means of it, and the way that dissenting theologians have sought allies in the mass media in order to reshape Church teaching in a similar way. It is not the use of mass media per se that is bad. What is bad is trying to pressure the Church into conforming itself to the values that dominate modern mass media and public opinion.
Canon 212 of the Code of Canon Law gives further support to the legitimacy of public expressions of criticism. It states:
The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.
According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have 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.
End quote. This passage makes it clear that Catholics may make their opinions known not only “to the sacred pastors,” but also “to the rest of the Christian faithful.” It is also important to note, however, that the passage adds some important qualifications. For one thing, it tells us that the opinions expressed ought to reflect a sufficient level of “knowledge, competence, and prestige.” Neither Donum Veritatis nor canon law give a blank check to just any old yahoo with a Blogger account who wants to mouth off. Second, Catholics must express their opinions with sufficient “reverence toward their pastors.” More on this latter qualification presently.
The teaching of the tradition
The teaching of Donum Veritatis is not some modern novelty. It has precedents in St. Paul’s correction of St. Peter, in Pope Innocent III’s statement that he could legitimately be judged “on account of a sin committed against the faith,” and in the correction of Pope John XXII by the theologians of his day. It has also been given expression over the centuries by several saints and approved theologians.
St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on the subject in Summa Theologiae II-II.33.4 is worth quoting at length:
[F]raternal correction is a work of mercy. Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected...
A subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction…
Since, however, a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect…
It would seem that a subject touches his prelate inordinately when he upbraids him with insolence, as also when he speaks ill of him...
To withstand anyone in public exceeds the mode of fraternal correction, and so Paul would not have withstood Peter then, unless he were in some way his equal as regards the defense of the faith. But one who is not an equal can reprove privately and respectfully…
It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter's subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”
To presume oneself to be simply better than one's prelate, would seem to savor of presumptuous pride; but there is no presumption in thinking oneself better in some respect, because, in this life, no man is without some fault. We must also remember that when a man reproves his prelate charitably, it does not follow that he thinks himself any better, but merely that he offers his help to one who, “being in the higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger,” as Augustine observes in his Rule quoted above.
End quote. Similarly, when discussing Paul’s rebuke of Peter in his Commentary on Galatians, Aquinas says that this rebuke was “just and useful” because of “the danger to the Gospel teaching,” and that “the manner of the rebuke was fitting, i.e., public and plain… because [Peter’s] dissimulation posed a danger to all.” Aquinas observes:
Therefore from the foregoing we have an example: to prelates, indeed, an example of humility, that they not disdain corrections from those who are lower and subject to them; to subjects, 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.
End quote. Several aspects of Aquinas’s teaching here merit emphasis, because they correct a number misunderstandings that are common in Catholic circles. First, a Catholic can correct a prelate (i.e. someone with ecclesiastical authority, such as a bishop). Some Catholics falsely suppose otherwise, on the grounds that a subject has no authority over a prelate. But as Aquinas points out, what a subject lacks is authority to secure justice by punishing a prelate for wrongdoing. Only a superior can do that. That does not entail that a subject cannot criticize a prelate, so long as the prelate really is guilty of wrongdoing, the criticism is respectful, and the subject is acting out of charity rather than pretending to exercise authority over the prelate. Aquinas even says that the scriptural account of Paul rebuking Peter was meant precisely as “an example of zeal and freedom” to Christians so that they would “fear not to correct their prelates.”
Second, the pope is among those who can be corrected in this way. This is obvious from the fact that Aquinas is speaking of prelates in general, and the pope is a prelate. Furthermore, the example of correction Aquinas cites is Paul’s correction of Peter, and Peter was a pope. The fact that the pope has no superior on Earth is irrelevant, because, again, what is in view here is not a subject punishing a pope so as to secure justice (which no subject of the pope may do), but rather merely respectfully criticizing a pope out of charity.
Third, Aquinas is clear that while such correction of a prelate should in the ordinary case take place privately, there are also cases where it can and should be done publicly. Specifically, Aquinas says that public rebuke of a prelate would be called for “if the faith were endangered” or if his “crime is public and verges upon danger to the multitude.”
Fourth, another reason such correction of a prelate can be called for is for the sake of the prelate himself. If a pope is guilty of serious error and of leading others into error, one does not show greater piety or loyalty to him by pretending otherwise. On the contrary, one contributes to endangering his soul. For precisely because of his greater responsibility, he is in “greater danger” spiritually, as Aquinas (following Augustine) puts it. One of the things a prelate is in greater danger of is arrogance, so that, as Aquinas says, correction from a subordinate can help a prelate to develop humility.
Fifth, Aquinas’s remarks show that it is silly to accuse those who criticize a prelate of necessarily thinking themselves “more Catholic than the pope.” For one thing, as Aquinas says, when a Catholic criticizes a prelate, “it does not follow that he thinks himself any better, but merely that he offers his help.” For another, a Catholic who criticizes a pope or other prelate might in fact be better in some respect. As Aquinas writes, “there is no presumption in thinking oneself better in some respect, because, in this life, no man is without some fault.” The theologians who criticized Pope John XXII for his theological errors were in fact better than him with respect to their understanding of the specific theological matter at issue. The Catholics of Pope Urban VI’s day who criticized him for his arrogance and foolish policies were in fact better than him with respect to their wisdom vis-à-vis policy. Catholics who condemn the immoral personal lives that a number of popes of the past have had are in fact better than those popes with respect to their personal moral virtue. And so on.
Sixth, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that, as Aquinas notes, criticism of a prelate must be carried out “with gentleness and respect” and not with “impudence” or “insolence.” Sometimes Catholics who raise legitimate criticisms of a pope publicly treat him with the sort of contempt and flippancy with which radio hosts and comedians typically treat politicians and other public figures in modern liberal democracies. This is gravely wrong. Even when your father is in error and must be rebuked, he is still your father and the Fourth Commandment is still in force. You may not belittle him or treat him as if he were some flunky. Now, the pope is a spiritual father, and more than that, he is the Vicar of Christ. His subjects must always act in a way consistent with the high dignity of his office, even when he is not living up to the demands of that office.
That does not mean that in evaluating the problematic words and actions of a pope, we must deny harsh truths. For example, it is not disrespectful or insolent to judge that Pope Honorius abetted heresy, or that Pope Stephen VI was insane, or that Pope Urban VI was foolish, or that Popes John XII and Benedict IX lived evil lives. These are simply straightforward factual judgments based on evidence. The point is that the legitimacy of criticism of a pope under certain circumstances has nothing whatsoever to do with the modern liberal individualist mentality of treating authority with contempt, celebrating the rebel and the dissident, etc. Indeed, legitimate criticism of a pope is essentially a matter of upholding his authority by helping him better to fulfill the purpose of his office, viz. passing on the deposit of faith and teaching it to his spiritual children. The aim is to urge him to be more pope-like, more father-like, not less.
The key is to keep in mind that the papacy has a teleology or final cause. The pope is “not an absolute monarch” and “must not proclaim his own ideas” (to quote Benedict XVI again), but rather must “religiously guard and faithfully expound the… deposit of faith” (as Vatican I put it), “teaching only what has been handed on… guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully” (as Vatican II says). To the extent that a pope fails to do this, he is like a father who misleads his children. Now, just as it would be perverse to defend an abusive father’s actions in the name of fatherhood, so too would it be perverse to defend an errant pope’s actions in the name of papal authority. As the eminent 16th century Dominican theologian Melchior Cano put it:
Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the Supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See – they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations. (Quoted in George Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 15)
At the same time, just as it would also be perverse to pretend that one is upholding fatherhood by mocking and abusing an errant father, so too would it be perverse to pretend to be upholding papal authority by criticizing a pope in a disrespectful manner. The teleology of fatherhood shows both that a father can be criticized under certain circumstances, but also how such criticism must be conducted. Something similar is true of the papacy. Its final cause is to function as a doctrinal authority. To acquiesce in papal error would undermine the “doctrinal” part of this function, but to reprove error in an impudent manner would undermine the “authority” part of the function.
As the quote from Cano indicates, Aquinas is by no means the only thinker in the tradition to recognize that there can be cases when a pope should not be followed. Cardinal John Henry Newman speculated about the possibility of “extreme cases in which Conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope, and is to be followed in spite of that word” though he judged such cases to be “very rare” (Newman and Gladstone: The Vatican Decrees, pp. 127 and 136). In support, Newman cites remarks from St. Robert Bellarmine and Cardinal John de Torquemada. Cardinal Torquemada wrote:
Although it clearly follows from the circumstance that the Pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done, that we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things, that does not show that he must not be obeyed by all when his commands are good. To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and in what not... it is said in the Acts of the Apostles, ‘One ought to obey God rather than man;’ therefore, were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands to be passed over. (Newman and Gladstone, p. 124)
And Bellarmine taught:
[A]s it is lawful to resist the Pope, if he assaulted a man’s person, so it is lawful to resist him, if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state, and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him, by not doing what he commands, and hindering the execution of his will. (Newman and Gladstone, p. 125)
We find similar remarks from other eminent theologians and churchmen of the past. For example, Cardinal Cajetan held that in dealing with a pope who abuses his office, Catholics can legitimately “oppose the abuse of power which destroys by suitable remedies such as not obeying, not being servile in the face of evil actions, not keeping silence, [and] by arguing” (quoted in Miller, The Shepherd and the Rock, p. 295). Similarly, Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val wrote:
Great as our filial duty of reverence is towards what ever [the pope] may say, great as our duty of obedience must be to the guidance of the Chief Shepherd, we do not hold that every word of his is infallible, or that he must always be right…
[E]ven to-day a Bishop might… expostulate with a Pope, who, in his judgment, might be acting in a way which was liable to mislead those under his own charge, and then write to his critics that he had not hesitated to pass strictures upon the action of the successor of S. Peter… The hypothesis is quite conceivable, and in no way destroys or diminishes the supremacy of the Pope. And yet an individual Bishop does not occupy the exceptional position of S. Paul, a fellow-Apostle of the Prince of the Apostles. Even a humble nun, S. Catherine of Siena, expostulated with the reigning Pontiff, in her day, whilst full acknowledging all his great prerogatives. (The Truth of Papal Claims, pp. 19 and 74)
The case of Pope Francis
I hardly need point out that these considerations have contemporary relevance. Pope Francis has made statements that at least appear to conflict with traditional Catholic teaching on Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and non-Catholics, contraception, capital punishment, the criteria for the validity of a marriage, and other topics. He has also studiously refused to respond even to polite requests for clarification and reaffirmation of traditional teaching on these subjects.
For these statements he has been respectfully criticized by many prominent Catholic churchmen, philosophers, and theologians with longstanding reputations for fidelity to the Magisterium, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Cardinal Willem Eijk, Cardinal Janis Pujats, Bishop Tomash Peta, Bishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Bishop Luigi Negri, Bishop Jan Pawel Lenga, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Bishop Józef Wróbel, Bishop Jan Watroba, Bishop Thomas Tobin, Bishop René Henry Gracida, Fr. Aidan Nichols, Fr. Thomas Weinandy, Msgr. Nicola Bux, Fr. Gerald Murray, Robert Spaemann, Josef Seifert, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Edward Peters, E. Christian Brugger, Christopher Tollefsen, Joseph Shaw, and John Rist. The list could easily be expanded. There have also been petitions such as the statement of the 45 theologians, the “filial correction” issued by 62 theologians and priests, the pastoral appeal from priests to their bishops to address the current crisis, and, of course, the dubia issued by four of the cardinals mentioned above. The pope’s own former head of the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, has also been critical of an absence of theological rigor under Francis’s pontificate, the pope’s manner of dealing with subordinates, and a general climate of “fear” he says exists in the Curia.
For so many prominent faithful Catholics publicly to criticize a pope seems unprecedented, though perhaps the criticism Pope John XXII faced from the theologians of his day was somewhat similar. However, for a pope to make so many problematic statements while persistently ignoring repeated respectful requests for clarification is certainly unprecedented. Hence the criticism is not surprising. More to the present point, it is manifest from Donum Veritatis, canon law, and the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and other approved theologians that the criticism is clearly within the bounds of what the Church permits. Those who accuse these critics of being “dissenters” or disloyal to the Holy Father are either being intellectually dishonest or simply don’t know what they are talking about.
Moreover, the legitimacy of this criticism is clear even from the teaching of Pope Francis himself. For one thing, the pope has explicitly said that some of his public remarks are open to legitimate criticism. For another, in his recent exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis asserts that “doctrine, or better, our understanding and expression of it, is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries.” Now, in my opinion this statement needs serious qualification. But if Pope Francis believes that a Catholic can legitimately “pose questions, doubts, inquiries” about doctrines that have for millennia been consistently taught by scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes, then he cannot consistently deny that it can be legitimate to “pose questions, doubts, inquiries” about statements of his own that seem inconsistent with those doctrines.