Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how?

Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how? Part 1.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus | Sep 08, 2016

Over the last thirty days my own criticism of Pope Francis has been more pronounced than usual. Given last week’s extensive criticism of the Pope’s suggestion regarding the works of mercy by both myself and Phil Lawler, it may seem that is in the midst of a crescendo of criticism. I know from feedback that our readers tend to reflect seriously about the wisdom of criticizing the successors of Peter, and I want to emphasize that our writers do as well, pretty much all the time.

This does not mean that we always strike the perfect balance when it seems important to explain and evaluate something the Holy Father has said or done. That would be humanly impossible. But it does mean that there is a proper balance to be struck. It is my purpose in Part 1 of this essay to consider the overall considerations which lead to the decision to criticize. In Part 2, I will explore the many different ways in which criticism can be offered, including some of the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Not a new problem with this Pope

This is not an entirely new problem, of course, at least not for me. During the pontificate of Paul VI, I lamented his administrative weakness in the face of the neo-Modernist revolution (that is, the rapid rise of theological secularism) in the Church. He himself said that all he had been able to do for the Church was to suffer: There was, almost self-evidently, little doubt about his sanctity. But in the context of Paul VI’s common inability to successfully pursue his own ends, his courageous promulgation of Humanae Vitae in 1968—a brilliant exposition of the nature of marriage and the consequent immorality of deliberately impeding conception in the marital act—could only be received as a signal demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s protection of the Magisterium.

During the next pontificate, I criticized Pope John Paul II’s rather widespread failure to discipline (a failure he himself acknowledged toward the end of his pontificate). But he was extraordinarily forceful when it came to teaching about faith, morals and the duties of bishops. This, along with the sheer charisma of a personality magnified by travel and media coverage, stimulated significant forces of renewal within the Church as a whole.

Under Pope Benedict XVI, I found myself questioning the pope’s ability to translate his incomparable theological clarity into effective ecclesiastical action, a weakness which was one of his own reasons for retiring. He has acknowledged this again in his latest book-length interview with Peter Seewald. Yet Pope Benedict, like John Paul II before him, excelled at both leading and fostering that deeper interior appropriation of the Catholic Faith which alone can lead to authentic renewal.

Like both his predecessor and his successor, Benedict spoke his mind. But John Paul II and Benedict were remarkably gifted in this respect. They possessed minds that were extraordinarily deep, precise, practiced and clearly illumined by grace. To listen to them speak and to read what they wrote was, at all times, an opportunity to participate in a significant intellectual facet of genuine Catholic renewal.

In other words, despite acknowledged points of failure in governance, the Catholic Church has been led by spiritually and theologically astute popes during the last 53 years of intense Catholic turmoil, popes who have magnificently strengthened our understanding of and commitment to those deep truths which are necessarily central to Catholic renewal.

Yet faced with a difficult new twist

I do not think there is a Catholic commentator alive, on any side, who does not see Pope Francis as deviating from that pattern. Here we have a highly affective man, meaning that he seems driven more than his predecessors by feelings. He is not prone to marshal his thoughts carefully. By his own admission, he prefers to stir things up, to make a mess (as he has said on several occasions). He regards this as a characteristic of the prophetic voice, which gives the Holy Spirit room to work.

As I wrote last year, “To put the matter bluntly, Pope Francis is very good at opening the window or pulling the drain plug, but not particularly good at explaining the differences between the bathwater and the Baby” (The other side of the Francis effect: Hypersensitivity and hysteria?).

The impact of Pope Francis’ personal style on public reaction is enormously interesting. What we find is that Francis is widely beloved by those who would have been regarded by his predecessors as posing obstacles to renewal, because of their refusal to accept the fullness of the Catholic Faith. These see Francis as always on the verge of changing the Church’s traditions and teachings to accommodate the various manifestations of their own secularism. But at the same time, Francis is widely distrusted by those who had been devoted to his predecessors precisely because of their ability to deepen rather than secularize the Catholic mission.

The interesting point is that both groups read Francis in exactly the same way. What this means is that, for the first time in a great many years, the most highly-committed members of the Catholic faithful have been placed in an awkward intellectual position. They are faced not just with criticizing the effectiveness of papal administration, but of criticizing the priorities of Pope Francis and his expressions of them, both of which they often see as detrimental to Catholic faith and identity.

The conviction is growing stronger by the day that this pontificate will lead to greater secularization in the Church, in contrast to the opposite impact of his predecessors. Many sincere, committed and knowledgeable Catholics are convinced that continued renewal deriving from papal leadership is unlikely during this pontificate. Now, after a generation of admittedly slow but highly significant gains, they see the pendulum of renewal swinging back toward the rampant secularizaton of the 1960s, and they are becoming discouraged.

One aspect of this reaction is that those we tend to call “orthodox” Catholics (which should, of course, be a superfluous modifier) are dropping off the media grid. This is true, for example, of page views at the vast majority of Catholic websites. And it is understandable. Tired of the interior “churning”—the anger and frustration—that are so frequently stimulated in them by Pope Francis, they realize they will be more relaxed, more recollected, and just plain happier if they simply refuse to participate in the news cycle. In this respect, it is dangerously like the feelings of strong Catholics when following the current American Presidential race.

A question of responsibility

This leaves Catholic outlets like with a serious problem. One of our major responsibilities is to report news of interest to Catholics, and to comment on current events and ideas in ways that create better understanding—so that Faith can deepen and grow. One of the biggest obstacles to this task right now is the need to deal with the many misunderstandings that arise from following what Pope Francis says and does. These things not infrequently give people an incomplete—and therefore sometimes incorrect—idea about what it means to be a Catholic.

For Pope Francis this often seems to take the form of emphasizing parts of the truth which he believes the uncommitted will find attractive (such as mercy, the refusal to pass judgment on others, service to the poor, and care for the environment) while de-emphasizing the parts which the uncommitted find unpalatable (such as the call to repentance, the moral nature of new life in Christ, spiritual impoverishment, and the natural law). It is not that he speaks exclusively on his favorite themes. But I believe it is more than fair to note that Pope Francis is very strong on “accompaniment”, but not nearly as strong on the “destination”.

Unfortunately, the Pope also appears (at least) to regard those who are habitually strong on the “destination” as mere “doctors of the law”—that is, Pharisees. But a loving insistence on the difference between truth and falsehood or the difference between right and wrong has little to do with a Pharisaical insistence on human traditions or group status. This apparent blurring imposes on Catholic commentators an obligation to present the words and actions of this pope in ways that will minimize the danger to the readers’ faith (through unperceived error) or to the readers’ hope (through unnecessary discouragement).

At the same time, criticism can give scandal. We receive a small number of emails (sometimes even from non-Catholics) who insist that a good Catholic must not disagree with a pope in any way, and that we should be ashamed for doing so. The argument is faulty, but the scandal can be real. Moreover, criticism can also be, or appear to be, corrosive. The art of criticism can present significant dangers to both writers and readers. It can diminish love, and it can encourage pride—which goes before a fall.

Resting point

If, then, we have a duty to guard against harm that may be done by a pope’s weaknesses, or even his oversights, what is the best way to do it? For writers and teachers, I can think of at least a dozen different methods, and I can enumerate at least seven different caveats which ought to shape our use of these methods. Some of them overlap, but there are probably even more.

Many readers will have seen all of these, at one time or another, used on Undoubtedly, many will have also noticed at least an occasional mismatch between real situations and our reaction to them—or, to speak only for the writer I know best, my reaction. But with so many possibilities to consider, this methodological analysis is best postponed to Part 2.

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8 comments on “Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how?

  1. That “renewal” to which Mirus refers (in re. JPII) was actually a deadly airborne infection.

    Folks are inclined to think nowadays, following 3+ years of Habemus Pampas’ war on the Church, its most serious members especially, that Wojtyla – the koran-smacker, presider at topless liturgies in the jungle, MC at an Assissi event that shocked even his most dedicated apparatchiks – now looks like a “conservative” in comparison.

    What Mirus fails to grasp is that the divine institution of the papacy demands a supernatural heroism that protects the billion members of the ONLY Church founded by Our Lord (a fact each of the popes mentioned seem to consider, at best, indifferently).

    Instead, in each case, “initiatives” of the most scandalous sort (WYD in JPII’s case and open warfare on contemplative nuns – following immediately upon the nightmare of a Vatican-mandated sexual indoctrination program for even the smallest Catholic children in the case of Bergoglio) were inflicted upon the Church, worldwide.

    Benedict IX made Alexander VI look like a paragon of chastity, and yet Christ’s ONLY Church survived even those two original members of the Playboy Club.

    As She will this cavalcade of progressive interlopers elected by an hierarchy long lost to any sense of the tremendous dignity, propriety and personal holiness the papacy demands of its occupant.

    Mirus is also indifferent to the warnings of holy cardinals and orthodox theologians in the wake of the First Council of the Vatican, as well as that of Blessed Pius IX’s earlier advice that if a pope goes completely off the rails, the bishops and the faithful should IGNORE him.

    Madness, blasphemy, heresy and scandalizing the little ones are NOT part of the pope’s job description.

  2. [The long-awaited and long-winded Part 2]

    Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how? Part 2.

    By Dr. Jeff Mirus | Sep 20, 2016

    There is a big difference in the general “atmosphere” as I post this second part of my reflection on the problem of criticizing the pope. I wrote Part 1 just before it became clear that Pope Francis had privately told the bishops of Argentina that they had given his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia the only possible correct interpretation. Their interpretation was to permit the reception of Communion in some cases by those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment. Yet, in fact, Pope Francis did not say this in Amoris Laetitia, even if it was what he had hoped to say.

    In other words, the Pope seems to be privately encouraging a practice that is still forbidden in Canon Law, a practice which—for whatever reason—he has not been willing or able to approve officially by virtue of his Petrine authority. Before this latest incident, some readers had expressed reservations about criticism of the Holy Father. But what a difference a week makes! The need for constructive criticism is now far more widely recognized. Many of the reservations have faded away.

    I hope it is not superfluous, then, to complete this series. I had promised to consider the various methods one can use to express criticism of the Pope (or of anyone else)—a dozen different methods, as it turns out. Recognizing these different approaches may help us to choose the best way to achieve the goal of such criticism, which, as I stated in Part 1, is “to present the words and actions of this pope in ways that will minimize the danger to the readers’ faith (through unperceived error) or to the readers’ hope (through unnecessary discouragement).”

    Relatively passive forms of criticism

    I have grouped the twelve methods under six headings, with two variants in each category. Four methods are relatively passive; eight are significantly more active. I will begin with the more passive forms, by which I mean methods of criticism which seldom confront the Pope’s message directly. I will explain four such methods under the next two headings:

    Ignoring the message: Which of us has not been tempted simply to ignore contemporary ecclesiastical turmoil in favor of a quiet life devoted to the exposition of the permanent things? The first way of doing this is to refuse to be news-oriented. We can simply write about the truths that we love by way of offering a spiritual gift to others. We can even draw on any good things that Pope Francis has said or done in order to enhance our message. But we simply refuse to deal in controversy or to advert to present problems.

    This is seldom an option for an organization with a news service, of course. But since news services never cover everything, a variant of this would be to report only the good news. Here writers would be very selective in covering the Pope, writing only about statements and actions which can easily be used in altogether positive ways. I will not mention names, but there are Catholic news sources today that operate in exactly this way. In any case, both of these techniques involve passive, implicit forms of criticism, presumably for the good of readers. This is not direct criticism; it is criticism by subtraction.

    Substituting our own message: This technique is still fairly passive, in that it avoids direct confrontation with what the Pope has said or done. In the first variant, the writer can correct for unfortunate emphases of the Pope simply by failing to acknowledge the source. Without naming the Holy Father, the writer would note that “some people think such-and-so” and proceed directly to provide a better analysis of the issue in question. Often this is very easy to do by referring to what other journalists have reported as if they have gotten things wrong (which, often enough, they have).

    The second variant is simply to cite the Pope as having raised some question—an important question no doubt—and then to answer this question by exploring the issue in the best possibly way. Here one would not call attention to any differences with the Holy Father’s treatment, and so readers would get the “right” message on a matter introduced by the Pope. Note that as a writer develops such relatively passive techniques, he or she can also use quotations from “experts” to steer readers in the desired direction.

    More active forms of criticism

    For better or worse, of course, “experts” are cited again and again to alter our understanding of many issues today, and this is no less true in the more active forms of criticism. Criticism may be considered more active when it directly confronts the deficiencies of the Pope’s words or actions. I will explore eight active methods under the next four headings:

    Defusing the message: Under this heading, two variants can be used to rob the Pope’s message of its power (for better or worse, obviously). In the first variant, the writer deals directly with what the Holy Father has said or done, but explains it in a way which shows—contrary to how things may appear—that it fits perfectly with what the Church has always understood in the past.

    In the second variant, the writer emphasizes that what the Pope has said is exhortative, not binding: He is not expounding a doctrine or a law, but urging Catholics to beware of some pitfall or to take to heart the need for a certain spiritual or moral emphasis. I use these two techniques whenever I can (that is, whenever I believe they are honest), to explain papal comments which unnecessarily lead to confusion or distress, but which admit of a proper application.

    Challenging the prudence of the message: Pope Francis has a habit of saying rather startling things without (or so it appears) any concern for how they will be received, what errors might ensue, or what sort of cautions or caveats must be taken into account. Challenging the Pope’s prudence on such occasions is far preferable to challenging his orthodoxy. The point is a simple one: Catholics do not need to agree with his prudential judgment.

    Sometimes, however, a writer may wish to go beyond a mere justification of disagreement by offering his own prudential evaluation, in the hope of suggesting a better approach. This is the second variant under this heading.

    Controlling the message: If the Pope seems to treat some issue in a way that is likely to make a situation worse, it becomes necessary to assert greater control over the message, so that the faithful are not significantly scandalized. This is especially true when the Pope’s approach appears to undermine some aspect of Catholic doctrine. One method is to emphasize whatever is most positive in the Pope’s message, deemphasizing its off-notes, in order to convey it in a manner more consistent with Catholic faith, morals and tradition. (During this pontificate, even the Vatican press office has had to do this quite frequently.)

    A second way is to deliberately attempt to “round out” the discussion, adding things that the Holy Father did not mention, and treating what he did say as one part of a bigger picture. The goal is to present the Pope as “highlighting” a point which is not meant to be received in a vacuum, but must be balanced by other important aspects of the same issue. Adverting to this bigger picture diminishes potential scandal.

    Opposing the message: Finally, under this heading we face the need to confront the Pope’s message more oppositionally. The first approach (always within the limits of the Magisterium) is to identify carefully the impermissible implications of the pope’s comments, on the assumption that he has spoken somewhat carelessly, and does not actually intend these implications.

    The second and even stronger variant is to emphasize that what the Pope is saying or doing impinges closely on Catholic doctrine, has not been Magisterially justified, and is likely to be Magisterially repudiated, perhaps by the next pope. Many people believe this is the case with Pope Francis’ foray into offering Communion to the divorced and remarried, without benefit of annulment. They note that prior Church teaching, Canon Law and Catholic practice suggest that this is impermissible, and so they expect the Magisterium to remove all doubt in due course, rather than to identify a legitimate exception.

    More to come

    I hope that this enumeration will help everyone to choose the most appropriate method of criticism in each situation, as well as to recognize when others are using forms of criticism that might not be immediately obvious. This is important because criticism is not always a positive thing. We all know that, in its method or form, criticism can be destructive, while in its content it can be fundamentally unfair.

    But for a Catholic, criticism should always be scrupulously fair and as constructive as possible. What, then, are the cautions and caveats we must keep in mind when criticizing, and especially when criticizing the Pope? I intend to enumerate no fewer than seven of these in the third and final installment of this series.

  3. It’s not a matter of “challenging” PF’s “orthodoxy,” Jeff.

    It’s the endless hunt for finding any intelligible, or at least significant, signs of it. And it doesn’t begin or end with him, either.

    This goes back to 1962 and even much earlier than that. The leaders of the Revolution were all elevated to the college of cardinals by 1953 by guess who? Although Pope Pius XII wrote not a word that wasn’t orthodox, he promoted men who were anything but, including one Annibale Bugnini of most infelicitous memory.

    As the late, great Canon Hesse, STD, STL put it, when Pius XII passed away he left a shipwreck – and Paul VI sank whatever was still above the water line.

    PF is as much a product of that relentless Modernist underwater warfare as he is its latest attack submarine version of it.

  4. Does the progressive modernist Bergoglian interpretation of Amoris Laetitia effectively mean that Father Charles Curran should be allowed to return to the Catholic University of America as a Catholic theologian?

  5. [“For the record”: Another convoluted installment]

    Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how? Part 3: Caveats

    By Dr. Jeff Mirus | Sep 22, 2016

    In Part 1 of this series, I explained why criticism of Pope Francis has considerable value. In Part 2, I explored a dozen different forms or methods of criticism which can be used in various circumstances, whether to criticize Pope Francis or anyone else.

    In this final part, I want to call close attention to the fundamental moral principles which govern legitimate criticism. These are the cautions or caveats which we must always keep in mind. They are the ground rules of rightly-ordered criticism. Accordingly, I will consider them under the next seven headings.

    Humility: As a first step, all critics must recognize their own fallibility. No matter how strongly we insist on a particular point, it is always possible that we are wrong. The mistakes we can make are legion, and sometimes—especially when we have simply missed some important factor—we may not even realize that a particular sort of mistake is possible. It follows that it is perfectly acceptable to argue a point vigorously, but unacceptable to treat those who disagree as if they must be knaves or fools. This sounds very simple, yet most of us find it to be just short of impossible.

    Fairness: It is incumbent on all of us to respond to the ideas and actions of others as we would want others to respond to us. Here we are dealing with one of the most important points—and certainly the most obvious point—of the natural law: fairness. This means we will habitually place the best possible construction on whatever statement or action we think merits criticism, including a recognition of another’s good intentions unless there is serious evidence to the contrary. Moreover, where the truth about some matter allows for legitimate differences, we must freely acknowledge that possibility.

    Integrity: It is a serious violation of our own personal integrity, not to mention a serious injustice, to deliberately mischaracterize the position or the arguments of our opponent. Further, it should go without saying that we must never judge the inner state of the person we are criticizing. We rarely know any person’s true intentions; and only God can both see motives clearly and judge them rightly. Failure under this heading is far too common. It is not unusual for us to speak of those we oppose as if they are either evil or idiotic or both. All too frequently, disdain and mockery replace argument.

    Let me pause here to give a real-world example: Two days ago I received a letter (yes, snail mail!) from a person who faulted me for conceding anything to Pope Francis on the issue of invalid second marriages. The reason he gave was simple: the Pope’s ultimate goal (he claimed) is to change Church teaching to allow gay marriage. Two questions here: First, how can anyone know the Pope’s ultimate goal? Second, where is the evidence? Despite his evident concern and care for those who suffer from same-sex attraction, Pope Francis has never characterized same-sex marriage as anything but a contradiction in terms.

    Balance: Anything that has the potential for alienating people from their ecclesiastical superiors is spiritually dangerous. This is not politics. If we must be repeatedly critical, we have a corresponding responsibility to acknowledge whatever is commendable in any ecclesiastical person who exercises legitimate authority over others. It is also vital to pick our battles. It is precisely because our criticism is unlikely to reach its papal target that its primary purpose is to strengthen the faith and hope of our readers. Nothing alienates and discourages others more rapidly than making things seem worse than they are by constant nit-picking.

    Another aside: By the time Phil Lawler and I had finished fleshing out our strong position that care for the environment should not be listed as a work of mercy, the whole discussion began to appear disproportionate—as some readers noticed. In hindsight, despite some excellent points, my own response looks very much like overkill. I take this as a dual warning: First, the authorial mood in which we envision something as the last straw tends to propel writers to rhetorical heights with something very like wax holding their verbal wings together (you remember, I hope, Daedalus and Icarus). Or perhaps this second warning is more succinct: When our only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

    Limits: Here we must observe the specific Catholic rules of engagement. Ecclesiastical persons are to be treated with respect. Moreover, the range of legitimate disagreement is limited by the Magisterium on the one hand, and by the Church’s proper disciplinary authority on the other. It is outside Catholic bounds to accuse a pope of having magisterially taught error or to recommend disobedience to his legitimate disciplinary authority. Because we believe in Christ’s protection of the Church, we must never fall into the trap of suggesting the Church will be destroyed unless our particular views are implemented. As St. Augustine warned so succinctly in his Confessions: The truth is the common property of all. But he who speaks only from his own store, speaks a lie.

    One final interjection: In all things we must take into account the rather unlikely but perfectly targeted words of Voltaire: If we wish to establish a new religion, we must begin by getting ourselves killed and then rise again on the third day.

    Sensitivity: We must proceed with great sensitivity to those who are exposed to our criticism. If our audience is scandalized, we must learn to proceed more gently. If we see that our criticism is being received as corrosive, we need to ratchet it back. When criticizing others, it is always tempting to hit hard without worrying about collateral damage. But if we do not have the genuine good of souls in mind at every stage of our efforts to set things right, it would be far better to keep silent. As I will state again in the conclusion to this third part of the series, the whole point is to protect and nourish the faith and hope of those who follow what we have to say.

    Correction: If we have spread criticism abroad that is later proven to be incorrect or unfounded, we have a strong moral obligation to admit as much, and to make sure that the same people who heard us the first time also hear us the second time. How tempted we are to hope others will simply forget our past mistakes and continue to trust our judgment! But if you show me a person who honors this obligation (which is exceedingly rare), then I will show you a critic who is truly worthy of trust.


    I hope it is obvious that all the methods of criticism outlined in Part 2 can be used in both constructive and destructive ways. In our own use of them on, we intend to be scrupulous in observing the seven caveats. We also intend to acknowledge any unfairness or disrespect that might get the better of us. We intend to admit error frankly, if subsequent events on any point should prove us wrong. And I hope that those among our readers who are true friends will not be slow to let us know whenever they fear we are guilty of destructive criticism.

    I also pray that it will be obvious to all of our readers that, if I intended to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, I would not have explored these questions so carefully for all to see. I deeply regret the duty which has been thrust upon us by events we cannot control; and I wish we had the Pope’s ear, so that our criticism could be offered primarily for his good, as when we counsel those we love. In the present circumstances, however, whenever we publish criticism of Pope Francis, the goal of will remain as clear and as constant as humanly possible, within this same context of love:

    To present the words and actions of this pope in ways that will minimize the danger to the readers’ faith (through unperceived error) or to the readers’ hope (through unnecessary discouragement).

  6. The Bergoglian pontificate poses problems for neo-Catholic modernists who defend Vatican II. For some neo-Catholic modernists who are of the more conservative pro-life type this is becoming more difficult. Great efforts of graduate training are brought to bear on splitting hairs to explain that Pope Francis is not being heretical because his recent statements on the divorced and remarried receiving Communion pertain to an issue of discipline and not of doctrine. Is that really the main point of Bergoglio’s modernist innovations? Well, sure, Pope Francis has spread confusion and scandal while he has trivialized Catholic teaching on marriage which will encourage Catholic laity in troubled marriages to leave their spouses since there is no longer a problem of receiving Communion after a hasty divorce, but at least this is just a matter of discipline and not of doctrine. Now the confused and disoriented can roll around on the floor slain in the spirit, secure in the knowledge that the Pope has only erred on a matter of discipline and is not quite a formal heretic.

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