PopeWatch: Elementary



Father Z discusses two fairly elementary points, although many Catholics get them wrong:


Can a Catholic criticize the Pope? Or is it a mortal sin to do so?


No. Not necessarily.

Catholics are obliged to have filial love for and obedience to our Holy Father. Neither that love nor that obedience are required to be blind or stupid.

Criticism of the Pope can become a mortal sin if one’s criticism is filled with a hatred and vitriol that shows a lack of respect or filial love for Our Sovereign Pontiff.  One must also consider to whom you show that lack of respect.  If by your words and actions you harm his reputation with others unjustly, you do him and them a grave wrong.  You also may be committing the sin of sacrilege.

The Pope is Christ’s Vicar, and deserves all the respect of that office.

The Pope is, however, not Christ. Nor does his charism of infallibility render him perfect in all his words and actions.

He may do things that are objectionable.  When he does, he can be criticized – respectfully.

But be careful in aiming criticism at the Pope.  Be careful to whom you open your mind or reveal your attitude.  Examine your conscience with brutal honesty, remembering that His Holiness has a perspective on the Church that we do not.

Catholics loves their Popes.  That doesn’t mean that we always like them or everything they do.

We should, however, avoid giving scandal.  Maintain respect for the Holy Father when speaking about him to others, heed his words on faith and morals, and give him obedience when it is called for.

Go here to read the comments.  Another elementary point is that when the Pope gives an opinion outside of the realm of faith and morals, he has not charism that entitles his opinion to any special weight.  Some prominent Catholic bloggers think otherwise (Mark Shea that is your cue):

So, in answer to the question of how Catholics should navigate the massive areas of life where the Church offers us wisdom, but not infallibility, I think the sound approach is summed up in the frightening-to-Westerners word “docility”. We should assume that, unless there is very strong evidence to the contrary, a Magisterium teacher speaking by virtue of his office is basically is doing what they have ever done–articulating the teaching of the Church and giving broad and basically reliable advice on how to apply that teaching practically (along with lots of caveats about how this applies “in most cases” or “assuming the current science is accurate” or “if what the experts say about global warming or the Laffer Curve or the effects of gamma rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds or the situation in Gaza or the abortifacient qualities of morning-after pills is true”).

The problem with that attitude is that Popes contradict each other quite a bit in these areas and that it reduces Catholicism to blindly following every word uttered by the current Pope.  Catholic history indicates that this is simply not how many faithful Catholics, including saints, have acted when a Pope fell into error.

“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” – Fr. Melchior Cano O.P., Bishop and Theologian of the Council of Trent.


More to explorer


  1. Did not St. Paul criticize our first pope, St. Peter, for being completely wrong about allowing (we) gentiles into the Church and again, for insisting all baptized be first circumcised? Did he sin, by so doing?

  2. 1. Yes. Objective truth is not susceptible to emotional pabulum, whining or post-modern (distortions, exaggerations, inventions, omissions, etc.) revision.
    2. No, unless it is done in bad faith, anger, envy, wrath: ad hominem, calumny, detraction, libel or slander.

  3. What bugs me is that many of the people I know who most readily admonish me to show obedience and love for Pope Francis were avid Benedict haters. They didn’t seek to understand anything he said but now insist that every criticism of this pope is wrong.

  4. Even an ecumenical council can err in matters of fact.

    The Third Ecumenical Council cited in support of its teaching an extract from a writing of Timotheus, the Apollinarian, if not of the heresiarch Apollinaris himself, ascribing this document to Pope Julius, the friend of Athanasius. Likewise, it is very doubtful that Origen ever taught the doctrines ascribed to him by the Fifth and Sixth some three hundred years after his death, on the basis of writings of dubious authenticity.

    Of course, these errors do not affect their dogmatic definitions; it is heresy to deny that Mary s the Mother of God, however the Council of Ephesus arrived at it; it is heresy to hold the doctrines condemned by the Quini-Sext Council, whoever their author was.

    That popes may be unwise in their policies is obvious enough.
    As Bl John Henry Newman observes, “Was St. Peter infallible on that occasion at Antioch when St. Paul withstood him? was St. Victor infallible when he separated from his communion the Asiatic Churches? or Liberius when in like manner he excommunicated Athanasius? And, to come to later times, was Gregory XIII, when he had a medal struck in honour of the Bartholomew massacre? or Paul IV in his conduct towards Elizabeth? or Sextus V when he blessed the Armada? or Urban VIII. when he persecuted Galileo? No Catholic ever pretends that these Popes were infallible in these acts. Since then infallibility alone could block the exercise of conscience, and the Pope is not infallible in that subject-matter in which conscience is of supreme authority, no deadlock, such as is implied in the objection which I am answering, can take place between conscience and the Pope.”

  5. The line between filial love and groupie-like fawning can be an awfully thin one. In the case of how many orthodox Catholics treat certain members of the Church hierarchy, especially the pope, and even popular lay Catholics, there has been a long sojourn into the latter category in many instances.

    This problem is not at all unique to the present pontificate. It has been a problem for quite some time. However, I would say that with the extremely imprudent actions and confusing/foolish utterances of the present pontiff, and the contorted way Catholics try to defend them shine a brighter light on the problem.

    Here’s a good rule of thumb about whether it is okay to publicly criticize the pope: would you publicly criticize a secular leader if they behaved the same way? If you can, with a clear conscience, answer yes, you can do the same with the pope. In fact, I would say that if you refuse to criticize the pope for doing something you would have no scruple in going after a secular counterpart, your behavior betrays a double standard. Michael Voris likes to say “Well, the pope is different.” Okay, there is some truth to that. But that knife cuts both ways. The pope, by virtue of his position, has a serious responsibility to not act or speak in such a careless way. And when he does so, I think it would be irresponsible to not point that out.

  6. In the past, direct criticism of the pope was usually avoided; he would be described as misled or imposed upon by his “evil counsellors,” a nebulous body, never further specified.

  7. How should a heretical Pope be treated or one that does not uphold the faith? It seems to me he should be condemned but, of course, with “all due respect” and prayer for his conversion. On the other hand, righteous anger might be appropriate. And to put all this in perspective shouldn’t we treat the Pope the same way Jesus treated the pharisees and temple priests when the truth is distorted?

  8. My question is this: many many Popes and Catachisms and doctors if the church, throughout centuries supported the right of the state, in certain cases if murder, to inflict the death penalty after trial. Beginning with JP 2, that teaching was severely modified to say “we shouldn’t do it.” The emphasis changed from ” the death sentence is proportional” and “just” and “reorders society” to “well he might change and repent and be saved” and “prisons are secure and the bad guy won’t escape to kill again.”…. And “we have life without parole and that’s punishment enough.” The Catachism was changed. Now with Pope Francis, he even moved the bar again by saying “no, life without parole is a death sentence in effect so we cant do that either.” Now, I disagreed with Pope JP 2 and sure as heck disagree with Francis( among others he’s said recently. ) I don’t think that I have to be silent and tell my son for example that he has to disregard those other hundreds of other “infallible Popes ” and teachings ( like St Thomas Aquinas) and agree with Francis . Am I wrong????

  9. Michael Dowd asks, “How should a heretical Pope be treated or one that does not uphold the faith?”
    But who decides, if the pope is a heretic? “Prima sedes a nemine judicatur” [The First See is judged by none] is an ancient maxim and is now can 1404 of the CJC.
    The only alternatives are the submission of faith to a living authority, speaking now, or a reliance on private judgment. An appeal to the records of the past is always and inevitably an appeal to one’s own interpretation of them for, as Socrates remarks in the Phædrus, “σεμνῶς πάνυ σιγᾷ” – they preserve a solemn silence.

    Cardinal Manning puts this question, “Do you or do you not believe that there is a Divine Person teaching now, as in the beginning, with a divine, and therefore infallible voice; and that the Church of this hour is the organ through which He speaks to the world?”

  10. I meant to say, “as Socrates remarks in the Phædrus, “ἐὰν δ᾽ ἀνέρῃ τι, σεμνῶς πάνυ σιγᾷ” – If you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence.”

  11. Here’s one way we would know that a pope is heretical, if he proclaims heresy such as: “Now, it must be known that, although some believe that adultery is a sin, yet they do not believe that simple fornication is a mortal sin. Against them stand the words of St. Paul: “For fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”[11] And: “Do not err: neither fornicators, . . . nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind shall possess the kingdom of God.”[12] But one is not excluded from the kingdom of God except by mortal sin; therefore, fornication is a mortal sin. But one might say that there is no reason why fornication should be a mortal sin, since the body of the wife is not given, as in adultery. I say, however, if the body of the wife is not given, nevertheless, there is given the body of Christ which was given to the husband when he was sanctified in Baptism. If, then, one must not betray his wife, with much more reason must he not be unfaithful to Christ: “Know you not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them the members of a harlot? God forbid!”[13] It is heretical to say that fornication is not a mortal sin.” [Aquinas, Catechetical Instructions]. And this conclusion that it is heretical to say that fornication is not a mortal sin applies to the entire list from St. Paul’s 1 Cor 6. And of course is a pope proclaims heresy he has thereby invalidated his papacy and is NO LONGER POPE. Not to mention not only the laity’s right, but sometimes the duty, under Canon Law, “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” [Canon 212, Part 3]. If the Synod this Fall becomes a Sin-od, and the error of Christ’s teaching is “corrected” to now say “Go and sin on more,” then we will have the duty to speak about this pope. Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

  12. Dan Curry, you said: “My question is this: many Popes and Catechisms and doctors of the church, throughout centuries supported the right of the state, in certain cases of murder, to inflict the death penalty after trial. Beginning with JP 2, that teaching was severely modified to say ‘we shouldn’t do it.’ The emphasis changed from ‘the death sentence is proportional’ and ‘just’ and ‘reorders society’ to ‘well he might change and repent and be saved’ and ‘prisons are secure and the bad guy won’t escape to kill again’.…. And ‘we have life without parole and that’s punishment enough.’ The Catechism was changed.”

    You hit a hot button with me, Dan. The Church is Truth. Without “truth” she is no different than any other institution with “opinions.” I believe the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine because he said so; and when he first said it, the throng of followers left him “murmuring” and “quarreling,” all but the twelve. Jesus never wavered in that teaching even to making it the center point of the Last Super.

    So, when the pope makes a “detour” in teaching, I look for evidence of the truth for it. In the case of JPII’s altering the teaching on the death penalty, the Church has not presented any evidence to this new “teaching,” only an opinion: “As a result of steady improvements in the penal system, such cases {where the death penalty is morally allowed} are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” – Encyclical on the Gospel of Life.

    Where’s the evidence that “improvements in the penal system” have made society safe? I’ve asked the U.S. bishops for the evidence; nothing, they don’t even answer. The bishops of CA supported a ballot measure in 2012 to end capital punishment based on this new “teaching.” I provided them a half page, 6-column long article in the Orange County Register newspaper, headlined “Murder from the inside out,” dated April 29. 2001, eleven years before their ballot proposition. It was “a $5 million, 3 year local, state, and federal investigation” of the most high tech, newest solitary confinement prison in CA which “culminated in the 25-count indictment of a total of 12 men and one woman on federal charges of murder, robbery, conspiracy and drug-related crimes” all committed outside their solitary confinement cells, and prison walls.

    “Federal prosecutors say gang leaders have orchestrated hundreds of murders from inside maximum-security prisons. The Corrections Department says there’s little it can do to stop the killings ordered by inmates who have nothing to lose and nothing but time” on their hands.

    The bishops of CA were not deterred in their support for the ballot measure, which was defeated by the voters. Their position causes me concern. Truth doesn’t seem to be as important to them as their trying to be “consistent” with the USCCB’s new teaching (1983/84) of “A Consistent Ethic of Life” which they adopted in changing the definition of the word “Pro-Life,” a change that did not help end abortion; it made it less likely to be ended because it enabled Catholics to remain in and support the Democratic Party, the only political organization responsible for keeping abortion legal, now exceeding 58,000,000 American babies. (By the way, that change is way, President Obama “admirers Cardinal Bernardin even to this day” he told Catholic editors and news writers in a 2009 meeting…because of the “social justice” teachings.)

    In addition, this “new teaching” on CP is not an “absolute” worldwide because of the various methods of incarcerating convicted capital offenders due to economic conditions of different countries. Furthermore, it leaves out any post-death absolution for the murdered victims who may have had mortal sin on their souls and no time or thought to making a “perfect contrition;” an absence which seems strange when the reason given to end CP is to give the convicted capital offenders time to repent and seek forgiveness for what they have done. Funny, nothing would bring that about faster than knowing the date and time you are going to die.

  13. Dear Stillbelieve-If you and I have a discussion, altercation, or argument, silence in an effort not to dignify a comment often happens or is used as a debating ploy. But a true shepherd who is interested in saving your immortal soul cannot be silent when you speak to him. Such silence is the watchman shirking his duty, and the watchman will have on his head all those lost because he did not watch for them. There is a case to be made that every time a bishop or a priest [or cardinal] fails to reply to you, that that failure is immoral. “Feed my sheep” didn’t mean feed only those chosen ones I the shepherd choose to feed. Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

  14. Guy McClung wrote, “And of course is a pope proclaims heresy…”
    I find it difficult to attach any meaning to that proposition. The pope’s teaching is the standard or benchmark of orthodoxy. It is like saying “If the grand K does not weigh a kilo…” But to say, “This weighs a kilo” means “this has the same mass as le grand K” Thus to say, “Le grand K weighs a kilo” and “le grand K does not weigh a kilo” are alike meaningless propositions, for it is itself the standard against which mass is measured.

  15. The reason I was asking is that… When the Pope comes to US next month I want to write a letter to the editor saying respectful disagreements …. Can I do so and not sin?? I feel I can

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