There can nevertheless be very rare exceptions where those learned in some matter of faith or morals who detect difficulties in a magisterial statement are permitted respectfully to raise objections to it and ask the Church for clarification. This was explicitly acknowledged in the instruction issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger under Pope St. John Paul II. The clearest sort of case where this would be permitted would involve a magisterial statement that appears to conflict with the previous settled teaching of the Church, and Donum Veritatis explicitly distinguishes respectful criticism of the kind in question from “dissent” from the Church’s traditional teaching.
I have Among the most important precedents is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas about St. Paul’s correction of St. Peter, and how that episode illustrates how Catholics can in rare cases have the right and even the duty to correct their prelates. I discussed Aquinas’s teaching in that earlier article, but here I want to examine it in greater detail. discussed this matter in detail, and as I show there, the teaching of Donum Veritatis is by no means a novelty, but has deep roots in the tradition of the Church.
The first thing to note is that Aquinas’s position in no way reflects a weaker conception of papal authority than the one that prevailed in later centuries. On the contrary, in the Summa Theologiae St. Thomas writes:
[T]he promulgation of a creed belongs to the authority of the one who has the authority to fix, in the form of sentences, the things that belong to the Faith (ea quae sunt fidei), so that they might be held by everyone with an unshakable faith.
Now this belongs to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, “to whom,” as Decretals, dist. 17 says, “the greater and more difficult questions in the Church are referred.” Hence, in Luke 22:32 our Lord said to Peter, whom He set up as Supreme Pontiff, “I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith might not fail; and when you have been converted, strengthen your brothers.”
And the reason for this is that the Faith ought to be one for the whole Church – this according to 1 Corinthians 1:10 (“... that you should all profess the same thing, and that there not be schisms among you”). But this condition could not be preserved unless a question about the Faith that arises from the Faith were determined by someone who presides over the whole Church in such a way that his decision (sententia) is held firmly by the whole Church.
And so the new promulgation of a creed belongs solely to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, just like all the other things that pertain to the Church as a whole, such as convening a general council and other things of this sort. (Summa Theologiae II-II.1.10, )
Note that Aquinas here characterizes the Supreme Pontiff or pope as having authority to settle doctrinal disputes in such a way that his decisions must be “held firmly” and indeed with “unshakable faith” by Catholics. And he describes Peter as Supreme Pontiff. Yet he also elsewhere goes on to approve of Paul’s correction of Peter, and to see in it an example for later Catholics to follow. How can both of these things be true? The answer, obviously, is that Aquinas, like the Church today, recognizes a distinction between ex cathedra papal teaching and papal teaching of a less definitive nature. And like the Church today, he recognizes that under certain circumstances, the latter can not only be in error but even open to criticism by the faithful.
What circumstances would those be? Let’s take a look at what Aquinas says. The relevant texts are to be found in Summa Theologiae and in Aquinas’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, in . The commentary discusses in some detail the famous incident when Paul publicly rebuked Peter. To give some context, here is how the Catholic Encyclopedia’s summarizes what happened:
While Paul was dwelling in Antioch… St. Peter came thither and mingled freely with the non-Jewish Christians of the community, frequenting their houses and sharing their meals. But when the Christianized Jews arrived in Jerusalem, Peter, fearing lest these rigid observers of the Jewish ceremonial law should be scandalized thereat, and his influence with the Jewish Christians be imperiled, avoided thenceforth eating with the uncircumcised.
His conduct made a great impression on the other Jewish Christians at Antioch, so that even Barnabas, St. Paul's companion, now avoided eating with the Christianized pagans. As this action was entirely opposed to the principles and practice of Paul, and might lead to confusion among the converted pagans, this Apostle addressed a public reproach to St. Peter, because his conduct seemed to indicate a wish to compel the pagan converts to become Jews and accept circumcision and the Jewish law.
End quote. Note that though it was Peter’s actions rather than his words that caused the problem, the controversy was nevertheless doctrinal in nature. For it was “principles” as well as sound practice that Paul sought to uphold in the face of Peter’s bad example, and in particular he wished to prevent others from being led into the doctrinal error of supposing that “pagan converts [were obligated] to become Jews and accept circumcision and the Jewish law.”
This is exactly how Aquinas saw the situation. In the Galatians commentary, he says that what Peter had done posed “danger to the Gospel teaching,” and that Peter and those who followed his example “walked not uprightly unto the truth of the Gospel, because its truth was being undone” (emphasis added). Peter failed to do his duty insofar as “the truth must be preached openly and the opposite never condoned through fear of scandalizing others” (emphasis added). Clearly, then, in Aquinas’s view the problem was not merely that Peter acted badly, but that he seemed to condone doctrinal error and risked leading others to do the same.
A second point Aquinas makes in the Galatians commentary is that Paul rebuked Peter “openly,” “not in secret… but publicly.” And he says that “the manner of the rebuke was fitting, i.e. public and plain” because Peter’s “dissimulation posed a danger to all.”
A third point Aquinas makes here is that this rebuke nevertheless was not a matter of usurping Peter’s authority. Aquinas says that “the Apostle opposed Peter in the exercise of authority, not in his authority of ruling” (emphasis added). For Aquinas, it’s not that Peter did not have papal authority, but rather that in this instance his exercise of it amounted to an abuse. What Paul was doing was reminding Peter to do his duty. In this way, says Aquinas, Paul “benefitted” Peter and “shows how he helped Peter by correcting him.”
Finally, Aquinas proposes the following as the lesson of this episode:
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.
End quote. Since the pope is a prelate, and the example involved no less than Peter, the first pope, it is obvious that Aquinas intends this lesson to apply to popes and not merely to lesser prelates.
In the Summa, Aquinas makes similar remarks, but also adds some crucial further points. The passage is worth quoting from 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. Here too, Aquinas teaches that prelates can sometimes err in a way that threatens the faith; that when this occurs they can be corrected by their subjects; that this correction can take place publicly; that this is a matter of helping a prelate, and that the prelate should be open to accepting such help; and (since his example is once again Paul’s correction of Peter) that all of this applies even to popes. But he makes the further important point that it is wrong to object either that subjects who correct prelates thereby exceed their authority, or that such subjects are guilty of a sin of pride.
In response to the first objection, Aquinas says that what subjects lack is the right to carry out a certain kind of correction, namely the kind “which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment.” In other words, a prelate who abuses his authority in the ways Aquinas has in view does not thereby lose his authority. His is still a prelate with all the authority that that entails, and the one who corrects him is still subject to him. Hence the subject cannot punish a prelate for his errors, remove him from office, or the like. But that does not entail that he cannot simply point out to the prelate that he is in error. There is no usurpation of authority in that, says Aquinas, but rather an “act of charity” of a “fraternal” nature. In response to the second objection, Aquinas points out that it is simply not the case that the correction of a prelate must be motivated by the sin of pride. It can instead be motivated by charity and a desire to help.
But this brings us to a further, and absolutely crucial, point added by the discussion in the Summa. Since a subject remains a subject, even his justifiable correction of a prelate must not be carried out with “insolence,” “impudence,” or “harshness,” but rather “in a becoming manner,” “charitably” and “with gentleness and respect.” And as Aquinas says in another place, it is irrelevant whether the prelate who needs correction is an evil man. For the office he holds belongs to Christ, and that office therefore deserves honor whether or not the man who holds it does.
Applied to the case of a pope, Aquinas’s teaching on the correction of prelates by their subjects can be summed up in the following points:
1. When a pope is not making an ex cathedra definition, it is possible for him to fail to do his duty to uphold orthodox doctrine, even in a manner that seems to condone its opposite.
2. When this occurs, it is permissible for the faithful to correct him, and to do so publicly if his error is public and threatens to mislead many.
3. This is in no way a challenge to the pope’s authority or a manifestation of pride, but on the contrary constitutes charitable assistance to the pope in properly exercising his authority.
4. However, such correction must only ever be carried out in a humble and respectful manner, and never with insolence or harshness.
5. When such respectful criticism is offered, a pope should respond to it with humility.
As I noted in the article referred to above, Aquinas’s position is by no means unique in the tradition. Similar teaching is to be found in the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Henry Newman, and other eminent theologians in Catholic history. St. Francis de Sales wrote:
Thus, we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII, or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was… When he errs in his private opinion he must be instructed, advised, convinced; as happened with John XXII… So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form… And again we must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. (The Catholic Controversy, pp. 225-26)
Naturally, such statements raise further questions and call for qualifications of various kinds. Donum Veritatis addresses some of them, as do other statements made by Cardinal Ratzinger during John Paul II’s pontificate. Again, see the article referred to above. And again, as the teaching of Aquinas and the other saints and theologians cited here shows, Donum Veritatis does not add some novelty to the tradition, but builds on what was already long there.