It has become increasingly common today for the lay faithful (and, to a lesser extent, deacons and priests) to openly and publicly criticize bishops, the Apostolic See and even the pope himself. This criticism usually takes place on the internet, and some, having become especially proficient at the various forms of social media, have even developed professions out of targeting the bishops and the pope for ridicule, mocking and derision. Though there are common trends, this behavior does not necessarily align with any particular political or ecclesiastical view.
Many do not see this as problematic, seemingly justifying this behavior with the notion that the laity is tasked with renewing or saving the Church, especially from the hierarchy itself. Others, uncomfortable with an ongoing revolution against the hierarchy, have spoken up or even asked the hierarchy itself to act against this behavior, whether through canonical sanction or simply open condemnation. While the latter has occurred a number of times to various degrees of success, the former is far less common, perhaps because bishops are not entirely aware of the mechanisms in place to address these issues or perhaps because they have concern that taking action will merely exacerbate the problem.
The issue of improper correction of prelates has existed since the Church’s inception, and it is not likely to be resolved any time soon, particularly in a world that has become especially protective of the right to public speech, public criticism, and public protest. While there are clear canonical principles by which to address the issue, they do not appear to be well known, either by the laity or the hierarchy.
What follows is an explanation of what that canonical reality is today, especially following the Code’s recent update to Book VI (penal sanctions), with particular emphasis on the philosophical and theological reason for its structure. This does not represent a full historical account of public speech in the Church or what might be called speech delicts, but merely attempts to describe the framework for approaching these questions today. We will also consider the changes to the penal canons from the June 1, 2021 modification of Book VI of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
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