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C. S. Lewis never read the newspapers. Though this habit led to some memorable blunders—he was under the impression that the Yugoslav dictator Tito was King of Greece—he felt it was intellectually and spiritually healthy. If something important happens, Lewis believed, somebody will always tell you.

Some Catholics take a similar view of Church politics: It should, they say, be treated as a distant irrelevance. Frequent the sacraments, say your prayers, do your duties at work and home, feed the hungry, visit the sick; don’t waste time in fruitless anxiety about what Cardinal X said to Monsignor Y about Bishop Z’s remarks on the latest papal press conference. Even if you are concerned, you shouldn’t go around shouting about it—that’s against the spirit of obedience we owe to our superiors. And what impression does it give to the world when Catholics are at each other’s throats in a Church that is supposed to be defined by unity and fraternal love?

There is a lot of truth in that. But it is not the whole truth, and now is the time to ask where its limits are, since criticism of Pope Francis is growing: Three unfavorable books, by Philip LawlerRoss Douthat, and the soon-to-be-unmasked “Marcantonio Colonna,” have been or will be published in the next two months. These authors will be told that it would be better to keep silence. I am less certain.

Let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that parish life goes on largely independent of actual bureaucratic decisions in Rome. Even so, the Vatican’s reach, its “soft power,” is incomparable. Quotations from the pope fill the official literature of dioceses and parishes, the classroom materials of Catholic schools. When millions of young Catholics gather, the pope is, humanly speaking, the main event. For the secular media—which is harder to ignore now than in C. S. Lewis’s day—the papacy practically is the Church. The pope and his advisors have an unparalleled ability to decide, from day to day, what is seen as important or fashionable.

So even if one tries to ignore it, Vatican politics still works its influence. When Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, shocked his admirers by expressing qualified support for assisted suicide laws, he explained: “Pope Francis continues to tell us that everything cannot be regulated by a law and there are always exceptions.” Vanier’s is not the only interpretation of Pope Francis’s ideas—the pope is ambiguous on the question of moral absolutes. The point is that Vanier, in so many other ways a hero of the faith, might not have made such a serious mistake without the influence of the Vatican.

Vanier is just one example of how the pope changes people’s minds. And if he is changing them—even by accident—in the direction of doctrinal errors, then those errors should be named and rejected. Even if the pope does not intend the present doctrinal confusion, it still calls for an urgent remedy. Leo XIII was speaking out of a well-established tradition when he quoted an ancient warning: “There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition.” If a single false word is so fatal, then how can Catholics ever be relaxed about major ambiguities being broadcast and major errors being allowed to spread? It is right to be on one’s guard against false doctrine, and it may be right to put others on their guard too.

Some will agree with this, but say that only the errors should be pointed out, without naming names. It is not for laypeople to identify false or confusing teaching from bishops, they say, let alone from popes. Which, again, is a reasonable argument …

… And yet, deliberately to ignore the source of an error makes that error harder to uproot. Nor is there any clear principle that says the little people in the Church cannot speak up to the great, or St. Catherine of Siena would have been wrong to rebuke the pope, and St. Thomas Aquinas and canon law would not identify a possible duty for the faithful to address their superiors “even publicly.”

This is not to justify every word of mockery, anger, and vindictiveness in the Church. But the line between prideful rebellion and justified remonstration is not easily drawn. Also unclear is the question of scandal, of whether Catholics should debate these matters publicly. True, the Church is less attractive to non-Catholics when it resembles an especially vitriolic debating society. But it is also less attractive when truth is marginalized. I have heard more often of people drifting from their faith, or being deterred from entering the Church, because of unchecked heresy than because of public disagreement. There is potential scandal in open debate—but also in pretending that everything is fine, thus making Catholicism seem a game in which one conceals one’s opinion when the most serious truths are at stake.

The question of how far a Catholic can criticize a pope is at least as old as Jacopone da Todi, who wrote fierce satires on Pope Boniface VIII—while, on other occasions, abasing himself before the pope’s authority, and enduring excommunication in humble obedience. Although he has often been called Blessed Jacopone, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that he has never been officially declared saintly by the Church, probably because of those same attacks on a sitting pope. Jacopone had less excuse, I think, than many of Pope Francis’s critics; his concerns were more political than doctrinal. But his never-resolved story confirms that we do not quite know how far a Catholic may go in openly criticizing the Vicar of Christ. It remains one of the gravest questions of this strange crisis. What it calls for, to use a much-misunderstood term, is discernment.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.

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Photo by Sailko via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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