Rorate Caeli

"Dear Father": Answers for Troubled Times
II - In these times, can I be critical or skeptical of hierarchy pronouncements?

"Dear Father,

Can I be a good Catholic and still be skeptical or even critical of certain things said or done by bishops and popes that appear to contradict all the Tradition of the Church?

Thank you,

Confused in Ontario"


Dear Confused in Ontario,

This is a question that I am asked many times.  It is, of course, the result of disquiet over what is said by Church authorities mainly in Rome but elsewhere as well.  So many “off-the-cuff” pronouncements by members of the hierarchy and the reappearance of theologies that we thought were dead because they lead to dead ends have had this disquieting effect on many of the faithful. 

I fear that I will not be able to answer your question in a way in which you will be satisfied.  For a clear answer would have to be part of a serious theological task that so far no one has undertaken and that involves a serious rethinking of the role of the Pope and of the bishops in the Church in the light of Tradition.  Tradition, we must always remember, is something living and therefore is integrally connected with the past and open to the future, all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  It bothers me that those Catholics who are labeled as Traditionalists are seen to be somehow locked in the past.  While it is absolutely true that the teaching of the Church in the past is necessary for true development of the Church’s teaching in the present and future, one must always be one’s guard against antiquarianism (which in part gave us the Novus Ordo ) and against nostalgia for a perfect time that never really was. 

One of the greatest problems in the Church for the past hundred years has been a creeping Ultramontanism that seeks to almost identify the Church with the Pope. We see this happening all through the 20th century, but especially during the last quarter of that century.  The era of instant communication afforded by the Internet and the all-pervasive presence of the media has contributed greatly to this situation.  But it is also because of a series of Popes who traveled widely in the world in the name of evangelization.  Those Masses in football stadiums with thousands and thousands of people, the World Youth Day celebrations, all followed by the media everywhere as they would follow “rock stars”, further contributed to this phenomenon. 

Perhaps this was inevitable given the world in which we live.  But it has had a bad effect on the understanding of the Papacy and its role both in the world and in the Church herself.   We seem to have gone from an understanding of the role of the Pope as Supreme Pastor, Defender of the Faith and Guardian of the Liturgy, the Supreme Teacher who when guided by the Holy Spirit can define in a solemn way what the Church has always believed:  from this understanding of the Papacy that reaches (one thought) its dogmatic zenith at the First Vatican Council with its careful definition of Papal Infallibility to the current understanding of the Papacy that sees him as the very embodiment of the Church with apparently no boundaries to his power and authority. It still boggles my mind to think that a Pope claims the power to suppress the Roman Rite of the Mass and impose a rite upon the Latin Church that many would insist is not continuous with the Roman Rite but is something new entirely. 

The irony of all of this is that we find ourselves in the grip of neo-reactionary forces that are pushing liberal (as Blessed John Henry Newman understood that word) causes in the Church.  That Newman foresaw this in his Biglietto Speech over one hundred years ago is no comfort to us who are going through this time of tribulation. 

Having said all of this, I will answer your question in a qualified way.  My answer is as follows.  Yes, you are free as a Catholic to question the decisions of the bishops of the Church, including the Bishop of Rome, when they seem to you to depart from the Tradition, the teaching of the Church for the past two thousand years, in its roots in Scripture and in the organic growth of the Tradition. But one must differentiate here between criticizing and questioning.  It really does no good to criticize specific words or acts of the Bishop of Rome or of any bishop in an uncharitable and carping way.  It is often an offense against charity and leads to hardness of heart.

 But it is surely the duty of the laity to question pronouncements (including press conferences and sermons) and decisions of the hierarchy when they seem to depart from the teaching of the Church, from the Tradition.  Newman believed so strongly in the importance of an educated laity, educated both in the secular sense and in the ecclesial sense! And in this way it is the duty of the educated and faithful laity to question decisions of the hierarchy on the basis of the Tradition of the Church. And questioning here means to ask the bishops (with no animosity) how a specific pronouncement, whether official or unofficial, of a bishop squares with the Tradition.  In this way, for instance, it is perfectly fine to ask how the image of the Church as a “field hospital” is consonant with the self-understanding of the Church within her Tradition.

I am sure, dear Confused in Ontario, that my response is not crystal clear nor does it help to assuage your genuine concerns about the state of the Church.  But a priest is neither a medicine man nor a magician.  He is called to faith in the same way as every Catholic is called to faith.  And he sees, like we all do, “through a glass darkly”.  But even through that partially de-silvered mirror that is the Catholic Church here on earth, we see the glory of the Truth in the face of the One who is our only hope, our only source of truth, our only source of real life, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Father Richard G. Cipolla