May Faithful Catholics "Criticize" Bishops?

Depends what you mean by "criticize."  Deal Hudson, former editor of Crisis magazine, and now director of InsideCatholic.com, offers a qualified yes here.

Hudson: "A Catholic journalist may, therefore, criticize a bishop in editorial fashion so long as he shows respect for the office, maintains a non-offensive tone, and keeps the unity of the Church at the forefront of his mind. As stated in canon 212: ’Expressing opinion . . . should aim at the edification of the Church as a whole, not at its splintering into various groups.’

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The Church does not legalistically forbid a Catholic journalist, or any qualified layman, from offering criticism of a bishop. But the Church does require that the criticism not demean the authority of the bishop or his office or create harmful divisions in the Body of Christ."

But the greater problem in the church is not simply disrespecting bishops, it is disrespecting anyone with whom you disagree. For an example of this, check out Michael Sean Winters’ experience, written about in post below. Or the responses to the furor over the recent news about the Vatican’s actions against Roger Haight, SJ, over at Dotcommonweal. Or, well, you can probably fill in the blanks. Too often Catholics writers, bloggers, speakers, authors, commentators forget that being Catholic also means being Christian.

James Martin, SJ

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8 years 10 months ago
Criticism ought to be charitable for sure. Maybe if the bishops modeled it in their critisms they might expect some in return. Various candidates in the elections, with women using birth control or who supported safe and rare abortion, and even those who rightfully appeal to Rome upon the closing of their parishes are often denounced by prelates in some pretty uncharitable language by those who believe they are divinely appointed to be above critism.
8 years 10 months ago
The limitations suggested in the article are fairly reasonable. Regular folks are worthy of our respect and charitable interpretation of their words and actions. But bishops also deserve deference. They have a special and unique role in the Body of Christ. They must be respected always and obeyed in regard to the faith and what touches it if one is their subject or otherwise under their authority (eg Curial officials or the Holy Father). If, God forbid, they are betraying the trust we have in them, critique may be needed. Indeed, once in a blue moon someone might need to stand up to them and tell a given bishop that personally (and privately, at least at first). But one can confront a leader without being rude or disrespectful. Also, the need for bottom-up correction is exceedingly rare. Rome does a good job of informing bishops if there is a problem. In response to Mr Bindner, the bishops are not only our teachers and spiritual fathers, they are also our guardians. At times they must strike at the approaching wolves, or swiftly pull us lambs from harm’s way. Sometimes, a bishop must prudently make the difficult decision to speak forcefully rather than gently on an issue so as to definitively stop the Church from an infection of error. Modern examples of this, I suppose, could be the recent forceful words about the fact that separating one’s faith from one’s public and civic behavior is sinful (and dishonest), the impossibility of ordaining women, the absolute condemnation of homosexual activity (but never the people, who should be offered help), the incompatibility of racism with Christianity, and the absolute immorality of abortion and contraception. At the end of the day, all clergy (and all who teach or study the faith), have to be accountable to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:6; I for one would rather not have to suffer the millstone because I spoke soft when force was needed, or used force when gentility was (Prudence is an important virtue, no?).
8 years 10 months ago
I used to receive Deal Hudson's emails when he was at Crisis. If memory serves, I did not find much that recommended a Christian approach to dialogue with those with whom he disagreed.
8 years 10 months ago
Deal Hudson comments on why we need to obey people in positions of authority. Now, there's a source.
8 years 10 months ago
How many of us know priests and lay people, active in parishes and dioceses, who compromise their core beliefs so as to carry on the good work they are doing within church structures? Whether the issue is Eucharistic inclusivity, option for the poor, a thinking laity, married clergy, women’s ordination, homosexuality, contraception, our Church fosters a culture of keeping quiet so as to keep going. Sometimes the pressure from above is overt, but we are all subject to that subtlest form of institutional intimidation which everyone registers without it having to be articulated. We watch the few who persist in standing against it being marginalized or pushed out altogether; their whole lives can be taken apart. Many, both young and lifelong churchgoers, can no longer accept it and are walking away. Meanwhile those who slip into capitulating to it progressively deform their spiritual integrity. Of course, the Protestant tradition and secular society have long picked up the tenor of hypocrisy about Catholicism. After Vatican II, though, many of us felt we were on the way to being freed from it. But the volume now seems to be ratcheting up again. How can we commit to the Church we love without dancing to this particular tune? This man had/has it right: “These people in Rome think they can exclude someone from the Church, that you will go to hell for disobedience if you die unreconciled to the Church. I do not believe that and I never will. I even pity their presumptuousness, their boldness in declaring someone excluded and unworthy because the Roman Congregation (CDF) knows better than God himself what is right and wrong … It’s another sad story of how Rome sends out condemnations of theologians, destroying people and reducing them to silence.” Fr. Waclaw Hryniewicz, Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, quoted in “The Limits of Dissent”, Jonathan Luxmoore, The Tablet, 4 October 2008.
8 years 10 months ago
eThe Jesuits taught me that the service of my faith must include the promotion of justice. As an advocate for those who were abused in our church, I have witnessed firsthand the bullying and mistreatment of abuse victims by my bishop, priests and the Catholic faithful. I have enclosed excerpts from a press statement issued today to Bishop Richard Malone of Maine by the Maine director of SNAP. It's straight talk. It's to the point. It's direct. "You have it in your power, Bishop Malone, to help these communities come to terms with the horrific abuse of their children by Lee. By telling the truth about Lee's past, you will also be reaching out to other abuse survivors who are dealing each day with their own abuse, but are afraid to come forward knowing that they, too, may not be believed and may be scorned and ridiculed as has been done to the Tupper family. "Let me be very clear, Bishop Malone. You need to stop hiding behind your spokesperson and get busy helping people in Boothbay Harbor and Lyman. For you to allow this to continue is inexcusable. "Why are you afraid to go to these two parish communities, Bishop Malone? "Why are you afraid to meet with Marie Tupper? "Why are you afraid to meet with your fellow Catholics face to face? "Why do you send others to do what you should be doing as bishop? "Go to Lyman. Go to Boothbay Harbor. Tell people the truth. "Help them reach out to victims who are suffering in silence. Stand side by side with Marie Tupper."
8 years 10 months ago
Reverend Father, I must disagree with you on this. At time, our Lord described the clergy in his day in not very respectful terms, as did many of the prophets. I submit that to criticize the Bishops is to voice the Spirit of Prophesy. Sometimes prophesy must be delivered in harsh terms.
8 years 10 months ago
And too often those who critique others for using strong language simply want those with whom they disagree to shut up. Too often 'respectful' disagreement is couched in language that is so laden with code that disguises a hidden agenda, you just want to weep. That is usually the mode one finds in progressive/liberal Catholic circles, as well as a kindly dismissive arrogant tone. I'll take the direct combativeness and honesty about motives of the conservatives and any day. On the Haight discussion, people were simply asking direct questions on one side while the other was dancing around, refusing to answer the direct questions and scolding the other for asking the questions at all. I think the more interesting question is ..in liberal/progressive Catholic circles: 1) When will the adherents be upfront about their total disagreement with the Church's teaching on sexuality and stop speaking in code? When will the editorial staffs of Commonweal and America just come out, more or less as NCR has and say, 'We think the Church's teaching on sexuality is erroneous and harmful and believe homosexual activity can be as sacramental as heterosexual activity.' 2) Why is it that Haight, McBrien, Chittister, the entire Jesuit order et al are infallible but the Pope isn't?
8 years 10 months ago
Leslie, from your keyboard to God's CRT. Would that more Bishops would actually criticize their brother Bishops over questions of the ordination of women, the status of gays (both in terms of ordination and marriage) and the primacy of the abortion issue in politics (or lack thereof), even though a few amplified voices in Rome might disagree. I think you would agree if you follow my postings that I do not speak in code about these issues, which is why I don't get more ink in the letters to the editor section of the print magazine. I fear if they did publish me, or Heaven forbid let me write a guest piece), the editors would get a call from Rome.
8 years 10 months ago
Why is infallibility that important? Faith is believing when there is no certainty. With certainty, there is only obedience, which is not one of the three cardinal virtues. The Rabbi of Caphernum did not come so that all might obey, but that they might have faith. Obedience to the law is part of the response, but not the entire response. The Christian message is also about what to do when there is uncertainty, or if those who are certain are wrong.
8 years 10 months ago
Interesting thread and follow-up. Let's keep in mind that other things being equal, priests and bishops get a pretty nice head start from both sides of the divide being on the receiving end of good manners. That's not to say an occasional extremist doesn't violate, but in parishes, academia, chanceries, etc., the bishop and clergy will get a lot of deference out of the starting gate. It's only when they do something wildly unpopular or criminal do the detractors get vocal and loud. Fr James, you left untouched the Vatican openness to reporting on bad things happening locally, the encouragement in official documents no less, to bypass your clergy, your bishop, your national conference (certainly!) and send complaints to Rome. That Deal Hudson weighs in in favor of criticizing bishops isn't so surprising. It has been the conservative modus operandi for the past several years, especially on the liturgy front. Take note of the recent campaign against that bishop who gave Communion to flamboyant homosexuals at that San Francisco parish. That campaign was conducted wholly on the internet. "When will the editorial staffs of Commonweal and America just come out, more or less as NCR has ..." What if these editorial staffs aren't in agreement on this? What if their position is more nuanced than you seem to think? "Why is it that Haight, McBrien, Chittister, the entire Jesuit order et al are infallible but the Pope isn't?" A caricature of the argument. Last time I looked, McBrien, Chittister, et.al. don't have publicity machines leaking punishments and prohibiting Scott Hahn or Ted Sri or anybody else from teaching at their universities, monasteries, etc.. McBrien, like most academics, would probably relish the chance to go toe-ot-toe in a brisk theological discussion. One doesn't get the impression the CDF is so eager.
8 years 10 months ago
RE: ''Too often Catholics writers, bloggers, speakers, authors, commentators forget that being Catholic also means being Christian.'' Ah, yes. That is something I wish the CDF would heed as well in their dealings with those they ''question.'' The anguished writings of Yves Congar, Bernard Haring, and John Courtney Murray on what it meant to experience the heavy hand does not exemplify a Christian approach, IMHO. Haring reportedly found it worse than the cancer that killed him. Jacques Dupuis, Charles Curran, and now Roger Haight...the list goes on. The CDF reaps what it sows.
8 years 10 months ago
The church may indeed ''require that the criticism not demean the authority of the bishop or his office or create harmful divisions in the Body of Christ.'' But what if the bishop's own actions demean episcopal authority and help to create divisions? At what point do criticisms of such a bishop become ''demeaning'' of his authority? If I criticize someone like the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, am I demeaning his authority? Or the family values of Archbishop Wolf Dietrich of Salzburg, who fathered 15 children by his mistress (Salome Alt) and built her a lovely castle (Schloss Mirabell?) Or, for that matter, those more recent bishops who protected predators, drove the American church into a crushing debt, and have never been disciplined by the church? Of course criticisms should always be charitable, more in the mode of fraternal correction than of a Rotweiler's attack. Perhaps we all need to meditate deeply on Luke 11:37-52 and Matthew 23:1-32, asking ourselves whether it is only the Scribes and Pharisees of ancient times whom Our Lord has in mind, or whether his words might have some relevance for us, lay and cleric alike, today.
8 years 10 months ago
There have been an awful lot of comments here on what seems to me to be, ultimately, a fairly simple question. In almost all cases, those of us who think that the words and actions of the bishops should be critiqued have no grounds to consider ourselves infallible. We should, therefore, not critique the bishops (or anyone else, for that matter) in a tone that suggests that we're just obviously correct and that those who disagree with us are just obviously wrong. If we disagree, surely it must be for reasons (if not, then why are we disagreeing?). If we turn out to be wrong, then surely the bishops (or whoever else) can respond to our reasons for disagreeing with reasons why we shouldn't disagree. It's difficult to keep disputes at this level, of course, because they are so often about extremely important questions. Yet it's hard to see any good reason why we shouldn't strive to keep them that way. All this requires is the modesty of recognizing one's own fallibility, respect for those who disagree with us, and a commitment to working on the disagreements reasonably rather than through merely rhetorical appeals. It's hard for one party of a disagreement to maintain these standards when the other one doesn't, but so long as we look upon our lapses from those standards as failures rather than taking up a self-righteous stand, we should at least do better. It seems to me that the Church has an opportunity to make itself a model for the rest of the world in this respect.
8 years 10 months ago
One more concern about Deal Hudson. I wish America would not give him credibility by including his views online or anywhere. As an advocate for clergy abuse survivors, I find it disturbing he is granted a venue, given his own abuse of a student when he taught at Fordham. Here is a section from my published letter in NCR in 2004 when he was forced to resign as editor of Crisis. It speaks for itself. ''In my view, what Hudson did amounted to rape, taking advantage of a drunken, troubled student, when the power differential was obvious: a 44-year-old faculty leader with a vulnerable 18-year-old. How dare he adopt the benign public relations language of bishops about ''mistakes,'' ''grievous sin'' or ''embarrassing event'' when I believe ''crime'' is the more appropriate term? And shall we parse the definition of rape to exclude Hudson's action? His version of consent must be breathtaking. What was missing in the article though was some indication of how _________is faring today. I pray she is a victim turned survivor, and has come through the darkness somehow. The perpetrator goes on to power and glory while the wounded copes as best she can.'' America readers deserve better.
8 years 10 months ago
May faithful criticize bishops? Come again? Have you not heard of Athanasius? Or of St. John Chrysostom? "The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops".

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