Friday, 10 June 2011

Bishops - is it right to criticise?

There is a current a debate over whether we should remain passive followers of the princes of the Church or whether we have authority to utter criticisms where deemed necessary.
St Paul - publicly admonished St Peter

Surprisingly, some 25 years ago the debate was  being aired perhaps for the first time in many centuries and the following is an extract from an article in Catholic Order by a John J Mulloy.

Bishops: Private Admonition and Public Rebuke:

"Several factors must be taken into account when considering this issue. Ordinarily, public rebuke is not to be engaged until private admonition has failed. But the experience of ever so many parents and orthodox Catholics shows that, where many Bishops are concerned, private admonition has no affect whatever. In fact, it is difficult even to get to see a Bishop when he knows that people are going to remonstrate with him concerning the way he is administering his episcopal office.

Most Bishops are mass media conscious and that means that they think in terms of avoiding adverse publicity; hence, only abuses which get into the media have the note of reality for them. As a consequence, these Bishops cannot be reached by by private admonitions, but only by some adverse criticism in the newspapers or on television.
As a general rule, without public criticism, most Bishops are unreachable.

The second question is whether, granting the fact that Bishops will not respond to private admonition, it is permissible to rebuke them publicly or not. In other words, is the layman's only recourse to suffer in silence and let widespread abuses against the teaching of the Catholic faith and morality go without any public notice being taken of it? Or does the pastoral responsibility attaching to the office of the Bishop demand that others call attention to his neglect of his crucial duties, when he ignores them or pretends that he has no such obligations?

In the period prior to Vatican II, the attitude of the ordinary Catholic lay person (in the United States) was to assume that public criticism or rebuke of a Bishop was never justified. But this was a period when Bishops generally were staunch upholders of Catholic faith and morality., and were strongly committed to the defence of Papal authority. These facts naturally created a certain attitude towards Bishops which arose out of the particular conditions of the era.
The perios since Vatican II, however, has seen such a radical change in the attitude of Bishops toward the protection of Catholic doctrine and towards the administration of their diocese that re-examination of this previous assumption is now in order......"

Interesting that the same issues that applied 25 years or more ago are just as relevant today.
Many Catholics still believe that the Bishop's writ should be allowed to run free; are such Catholics drawn from across the spectrum of liberal, moderate and traditionalist? I think not.

Where then does the authority of a layman to rebuke his Bishops derive from? We have, of course, the public reproof of St Paul to none other than St Peter at Antioch. St Thomas Aquinas states:

"It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence, Paul, who was Peter's subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11: 'Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects' "

That seems quite clear - rebukes, reproofs and all valid criticisms are legitimate and even to be encouraged.

However, they should be delivered with the fullness of Christ's charity, fairly and unequivocally. That does not mean that one has to pull any punches, far from it, just be firm but fair.


  1. Dear Richard,

    I read this earlier today. And since then it has haunted me. I think it's the one issue that makes our blogging life so difficult. I just had to come back and see whether anyone had commented.I'm astonished at the silence. Perhaps it is that none of us knows the answer. You and I, brought up as we were in an era when criticism of bishops was not necessary and in any case totally unthinkable, have to realise where we are now. I'll email you about this.

    In the meantime,

    God bless,

  2. of course a Bishop can be criticised. A bishop, in fact, must be criticised.

    The matter is not whether there is a right to criticise a bishop (bishops have harshly criticised Popes in the past), but why this is done.

    In my eyes, the Bishop must be criticised (and in case, harshly criticised, within reason) when he betrays his role as shepherd, whether on ewill limit himself to register his disagreement when this is not the case.

    Say, a Bishop says that pedophile relationship are "an expression of love". This must be (harshly) criticised lest the faithful are confused, and to allow publicity on his being a bad shepherd.

    Or, a Bishop supports a cause we don't really like (say: is againt intervention in Lybia, or in favour, and says why); in this case every faithful should feel entitled to epxress his disagreement in a polite way.

    As you rightly point out, orthodoxy will cause a great decrease of criticism; but the position that a bishop can never be criticised is in my eyes the fruit of clericalism, not on healthily lived Catholicism.

    In every age, priests and bishops have been criticised when they were bad shepherds; saints like St. John Vianney never hesitated in doing this. I see no reason why this - in the right way - should not be the case today.


  3. I agree with your last three paragraphs, and with Mundabor. The truth must be told when the safety of souls depends on it.

    It is a sad fact that we are sometimes - too often - obliged to do this.

  4. Silence from me is because I can't disagree. The only thing I would add is that both admonition or rebuke whether private or public appear to send the bishops deeper into their mental bunker while their minions come out to attack those nasty, vicious trads and to warn that's why they shouldn't be given an inch.
    While most Catholics remain unaware, the bishops can carry on doing what they do and can argue, quite legitimately, that the numbers work in their favour. It's aw a muddle.
    Still, one can but try.