When Is Criticism of the Pope Licit and Faithful?

When Is Criticism of the Pope Licit and Faithful?

Not when you begin by assuming that you are right and the Pope is wrong. Not when you have given your full assent of faith to the conservative or traditionalist subculture (or to the liberal secular culture), rather than to the Magisterium. Not when you make yourself out to be a judge over Popes and Councils. Not when you use any kind of derogatory and insulting language toward the Pope, nor, worse, when you express patent malice, contempt, or ridicule toward the Roman Pontiff. Not when you fail to begin by accepting the authority of the Popes and Councils over your own ideas and understanding on doctrine and discipline.

The Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, and so he cannot fail in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. So any “criticism” which accuses any Roman Pontiff of a grave failure of faith is contrary to dogma and therefore heretical.

And this charism of truth also prevents the Roman Pontiff from erring gravely on both doctrine and discipline. This freedom from grave error means that it is false by the very nature of the accusation to say that a Pope, in a decision of doctrine or discipline, has erred gravely, has failed in faith by attempting to corrupt the teaching of the Faith, or has harmed the faithful in their path of salvation. Such things are contrary to the promises of Jesus in Mt 16:18 and Lk 22:32, and contrary to the teachings of Councils and of the ordinary universal Magisterium. No Pope can fail in faith, nor teach or commit heresy, nor err gravely in doctrine or discipline. His Apostolic See is unblemished by any grave error.

So if you think that Pope Francis erred gravely in Traditionis Custodes, you are contradicting a dogma of the faith, rather than expressing a criticism or a type of faithful dissent. One could propose a less than grave error in TC. One could hope that those whose sins prompted the Pope to act in TC will repent and convert, thus paving the way for the return of a wider use of the TLM. But railing against the Roman Pontiff by calling him names, by claiming that he is a cruel Shepherd striking the sheep with the crook of his Shepherd’s staff is contrary to dogma, as it contrary to his never-failing faith and the unblemished Apostolic See, and is also the grave sin of indirect blasphemy. The Pope represents Christ. In the Church on earth, Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head. And so malice, hatred, and cruel derision directed at the Pope fall upon Christ as well.

Any criticism of the Roman Pontiff must begin by admitting his freedom from grave error in what is non-infallible, and his freedom from all error in what is infallible, by admitting his charism of truth and of never-failing faith and his freedom from all heresy. And he must be treated, in any criticism or licit dissent, with the same respect due to Christ.

One can disagree, licitly, with the non-infallible teachings of the Pope, as long as the error imputed to the Pope is not grave, and the critic does not assume that he and his peers are certainly right. It is common for criticisms of the Roman Pontiff or an Ecumenical Council to come not from an individual thinker, but from a certain unthinking subculture, which presumes to speak as if it were infallible, as if the conservative or the traditionalist subcultures could not err in what is a majority opinion within the subculture. Absent the approval of the Roman Pontiff, even an Ecumenical Council can err gravely. So it is quite certain that the majority opinion of the conservative or traditionalist or liberal subcultures can err gravely.

Assuming that you are right and the Pope is wrong is contrary to the dogma that the Roman Pontiff enjoys divine assistance in all that he does for the Church. This divine assistance is not limited to the exclusion of error from what is infallible, nor is it limited to the exclusion of grave error from what is non-infallible. The Lord Jesus teaches and judges through the Roman Pontiff in doctrine and discipline, even when the decisions are non-infallible. The wisdom of the Holy Spirit pervades the teachings and decisions of the Church, in both the infallible and the non-infallible.

This limits licit theological dissent to claimed errors that are less than grave, only in what is non-infallible, and absent any assertion that one’s own view is certainly correct. Moreover, whenever a Pope or Council teaches definitively, on faith and morals, the teaching is above dissent or disagreement.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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