Cleansing Fire

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Ed Feser: The Church permits criticism of popes under certain circumstances

May 21st, 2018, Promulgated by Ben Anderson

The Church permits criticism of popes under certain circumstances


The case of Pope Francis [CONCLUDING PARAS]

Pope Francis has made statements that at least appear to conflict with traditional Catholic teaching on Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and non-Catholics, contraception, capital punishment, the criteria for the validity of a marriage, and other topics. He has also studiously refused to respond even to polite requests for clarification and reaffirmation of traditional teaching on these subjects.

For these statements he has been respectfully criticized by many prominent Catholic churchmen, philosophers, and theologians with longstanding reputations for fidelity to the Magisterium, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, [see post for long list]. The list could easily be expanded….

For so many prominent faithful Catholics publicly to criticize a pope seems unprecedented, though perhaps the criticism Pope John XXII faced from the theologians of his day was somewhat similar. However, for a pope to make so many problematic statements while persistently ignoring repeated respectful requests for clarification is certainly unprecedented. Hence the criticism is not surprising. More to the present point, it is manifest from Donum Veritatis, canon law, and the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and other approved theologians that the criticism is clearly within the bounds of what the Church permits. Those who accuse these critics of being “dissenters” or disloyal to the Holy Father are either being intellectually dishonest or simply don’t know what they are talking about.

Moreover, the legitimacy of this criticism is clear even from the teaching of Pope Francis himself. For one thing, the pope has explicitly said that some of his public remarks are open to legitimate criticism. For another, in his recent exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis asserts that “doctrine, or better, our understanding and expression of it, is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries.” Now, in my opinion this statement needs serious qualification. But if Pope Francis believes that a Catholic can legitimately “pose questions, doubts, inquiries” about doctrines that have for millennia been consistently taught by scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes, then he cannot consistently deny that it can be legitimate to “pose questions, doubts, inquiries” about statements of his own that seem inconsistent with those doctrines.

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