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Correcting priests and bishops

By Kresta in the Afternoon

Ann Arbor, Michigan, 15 June 2021 / 12:00pm

Bishops listen to a speaker Nov. 14, 2018, at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Since the rise of the internet, the laity have been more involved in Church politics than at any other point in history.  Many times, they feel obligated to make their voices heard about particular decisions or fraternally correct in the hierarchy.

On some corners of the internet, however, this fraternal correction has turned into mud-slinging, uncharitable and deconstructive criticism, and outright lying.  It is true that we are called to admonish the sinner and instruct the ignorant but what is an appropriate temperament for that?  Are there Church laws on this subject?

Gregory Caridi is a civil and canon lawyer and the chancellor for the Diocese of Dallas.  He joined Al Kresta on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon to discuss correcting priests and bishops.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Has this ridicule, mockery, derision of priests, bishops, and the pope been a common problem in the Church or is it a relatively new phenomena?

 I think it’s always existed in some capacity, but since the rise of the internet, social media, mass communication, and Pope Francis, to a certain degree, it’s become much more common for this sort of behavior to take place. The laity now is much more directly involved with Church politics than they’ve ever been in the history of the church and that has a role in this change in behavior.

This is more of a traditionalist or a liberal problem?  Is it a right-wing or a left-wing thing?

I don’t see it as either. I think it’s primarily an issue in America and maybe in the west to a certain degree. It really depends on which bishop or which pope they do or don’t like when they people criticize in this way. You will see trends in certain groups, but I don’t think it’s necessarily partisan.

Oftentimes people who participate in this public criticism believe they’re filling the role of whistleblower.  You’re not denying that there is a place for that?

No, definitely not.  The problem is not correction, as such, rather it is really the means of correction.  There is a difference between correction as an act of charity and as an act of justice.  As an act of justice, the faithful have the right to correct in public if the circumstances warrant it, and that is not necessarily often.   Correcting someone out of charity means you are correcting them because you are concerned for their soul and for the sake of the church.  If something is causing scandal that does not mean you have the right to correct as an act of justice.  You don’t have a right to punish or harm or get the secular or religious media to attack a bishop, which has become extremely common.

What are some of the underlying philosophical and theological principles we should keep in mind when we feel the urge to correct someone?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that a bishop is your brother in Christ and the pope is your brother in Christ.  You are all members of the body of Christ.  In that way, they are our equals.  However, in another way they are not your equals; they are your superiors.  A bishop and a pope has been ordained sacramentally for that special role.  That special ordained role has created a certain authority that your baptism does not grant you. 

Another good analogy is how you might correct your father.  You don’t punish your father or get the media to attack your father as an act of justice.  You correct him out of love, talk to him one on one, you say “dad, don’t do that.”  We are all part of the body of Christ with Christ as the head.  We are all part of the Christian family and, like in our immediate family, the bishops and pope are our leaders and guides.

So we shouldn’t treat our bishops or pope like an elected congressman?

No and that is one of the reasons I think this problem is so severe in the United States; some think that the bishops are supposed to represent us, but it doesn’t work like that.  With elected officials, you can write to them and say basically whatever you want. 

Does canon law have anything that addresses how to fraternally correct bishops?

It does.  Canon law starts with obedience; that’s where all Christian faith starts.  But, maybe your conscience goes beyond that and you feel the pastor, the bishop, is doing something wrong or has gone too far.  What do you do then?  You’re supposed to address him directly and, really, in private.

If your conscience goes beyond that and you feel he’s not listening and it’s a matter of public scandal, you can address the Christian faithful, including the person you’re trying correct.  It might the other members of your diocese or your parish.

However, canon law sets out certain qualifications for the correction to take place. First is that it must pertain to the good of the Church.  The second is that it must be done by those with proper knowledge, competence, and procedure.  The third is that it can only be done without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals.  The fourth is that it must be done with reverence to the pastors because of the dignity and in a way attentive to the common advantage of the dignity of all persons.

Are there canonical penalties to those who violate these principles?

Yes, you can find it in the revised Book VI of the Code of Canon Law: 1373 and 1368.*  When people attack the pope or bishop in a verbal way, they can be punished with interdict or other just penalties.  This is not commonly used as far as I know.  But, it could also be that a bishop does this privately to protect the dignity of that person and for the sake of the faithful. 

*Canon 1368 is the number for the revised Book VI of the Code of Canon Law.  In the current Code, which will be used until December 2021, it is Canon 1369.

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