In the wake of the deaths of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell, it has emerged that each of them raised serious criticisms of aspects of Pope Francis’s teaching and governance of the Church. How might the pope respond to these criticisms? , the Church explicitly teaches that even popes can under certain circumstances respectfully be criticized by the faithful. Moreover, Pope Francis himself has explicitly said on several occasions that he welcomes criticism. It seems clear that the criticisms raised by Benedict and Pell are precisely the kind that the pope should take the most seriously, given the teaching of the Church and his own views about the value of criticism.
First, what are the criticisms? In the case of Benedict, we know about them via , who was the late pope’s longtime aide. For one thing, Benedict had reservations about Pope Francis’s controversial exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and in particular was concerned that “a certain ambiguity had been allowed to hover in that document.” And he was surprised that Pope Francis never answer the dubia issued by four cardinals who were seeking to resolve these ambiguities. For another thing, Benedict thought the restrictions imposed on the celebration of the Latin Mass by Pope Francis’s Traditionis Custodes were “a mistake” that “jeopardized the attempt at pacification” of traditionalists within the Church. He also thought that Francis had misstated Benedict’s own intentions in giving wider permission for the Latin Mass in Summorum Pontificum. that Traditionis Custodes caused Benedict heartache.
Cardinal Pell was far more blunt. In , he criticized the current Synod on Synodality’s working document as “one of the most incoherent documents ever sent out from Rome,” a “toxic nightmare” full of “neo-Marxist jargon” and “hostile in significant ways to the apostolic tradition.” But that Pell was the author of that circulated among the cardinals during Lent last year, critical of the current state of the Church. Summing up teaching and governance under Pope Francis, the memo asserts that “commentators of every school, if for different reasons… agree that this pontificate is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe.” It then goes on to address in detail various doctrinal controversies, financial scandals, failures to support loyal Catholics and human rights in China and elsewhere, and needless alienation of traditionalists and others within the Church.
As I document in Pope Francis can hardly disagree with this, for he has expressed a willingness to hear out challenges even to Church teaching itself. In particular, in the exhortation , he says 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.” , both the tradition of the Church and the recent teaching of the magisterium show that the clearest sort of case where a Catholic might respectfully raise criticisms of some papal statement or action is when it appears to conflict with binding past teaching.
Now, if the faithful can raise questions, doubts, and inquiries even where expressions of Catholic doctrine are concerned, then a fortiori they can raise questions, doubts, and inquiries where apparent conflicts with Catholic doctrine are concerned. For example, they can do so with respect to the problematic “ambiguity” in Amoris Laetitia referred to by Benedict XVI. How could this possibly not be permissible, by Pope Francis’s own lights? That is to say, how could it be permissible to “pose questions, doubts, inquiries” about perennial Catholic teaching on marriage and the Eucharist, but not permissible to pose them about a passage in a recent exhortation that fails clearly to reaffirm that traditional teaching?
Pope Francis has also more than once explicitly said that he personally can legitimately be criticized. In 2015, in response to criticisms raised against some of his remarks on economic matters, :
I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States. I heard about it, but I haven't read about it, I haven't had the time to study this well, because every criticism must be received, studied, and then dialogue must be [sic] ensue. You ask me what I think. If I have not had a dialogue with those who criticize, I don't have the right to state an opinion, isolated from dialogue, no?...
Yes, I must begin studying these criticisms, no? And then dialogue a bit with this.
Similarly, in 2019, when asked about criticisms raised against him by American Catholic laymen, churchmen, and media outlets, :
First of all, criticisms always help, always, when one receives a criticism, immediately he should make a self-critique and say this: to me, is it true or is it not true, until what point? Of criticisms, I always see the advantages. Sometimes you get angry, but the advantages are there…
Criticism is an element of construction and if your critic is not right, you [must be] prepared to receive the response and to dialogue, [to have] a discussion and arrive at a fair point…
A fair criticism is always well received, at least by me.
And , the pope made it clear that “he always considers criticisms an honor, particularly when they come from authoritative thinkers.”
The reference to “authoritative thinkers” calls to mind canon 212 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law, which affirms the right of Catholics publicly to express their opinions about matters affecting the Church, especially when they have relevant expertise. The canon 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.
Now, apart from the pope himself, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Pell had about as much “knowledge, competence, and prestige” vis-à-vis ecclesiastical matters as it is possible for anyone in the Church to have. Moreover, they had special expertise with respect to the specific matters they commented on. Benedict was one of the most eminent Catholic theologians of the age, had been the longtime Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and, of course, had been pope himself. He had also, in his younger days, flirted with the more liberal position on Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried that some think is reflected in Amoris, only to change his mind about it. His opinion on that particular theological matter thus carries enormous weight. So too does his opinion about liturgical matters and Vatican relations with traditionalist groups in the Church, about which he also had a longtime interest and special expertise, and which he dealt with extensively as head of CDF and as pope.
Cardinal Pell, meanwhile, had a doctorate in church history, years of experience as an archbishop, and was a member of Pope Francis’s own Council of Cardinal Advisors. He could be expected to know the current state of the Church, and how it compares to previous eras in Church history, as well as anyone. He had also for years been Francis’s Prefect for the Secretariat for the Economy. Thus, no one could speak with more authority about the financial matters addressed at length in the secret memo which he has now been revealed to have authored.
In short, if ever there were criticisms that Pope Francis and his defenders ought to take seriously and consider prayerfully, it would be those leveled by Benedict and Pell. Let us pray that the Holy Father does so.