May Faithful Catholics Criticize Bishops Publicly?

Deal W. Hudson and Francis X. Maier discuss and debate the propriety of a Catholic leveling public criticism against a bishop. Is it a violation of canon law?

In this special Point/Counterpoint, Deal W. Hudson and Francis X. Maier, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, discuss and debate whether or not a Catholic may criticize a bishop publicly. Is it a violation of canon law? Must Catholic journalists avoid scandal or bad news or anything that shows the Church in a bad light?
Deal Hudson begins the exchange with this piece, arguing that a faithful Catholic may turn a critical eye on his bishop. Francis Maier’s opening statement is here. Both men’s closing responses appear together, here.
We encourage you to participate in the comments section with your own thoughts. Where do you fall on the question?
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An ongoing and thorny question among Catholic journalists is just how to treat the bishops. Should they be criticized at all in the pages of a magazine or newspaper or on radio and television? Some Catholic publications seem to revel in “bishop bashing,” others offer more sober criticism, and still others allow none at all as a matter of editorial policy.
It’s certainly fine if a publication wants to exclude critical comment on bishops, but that shouldn’t be the standard for Catholic journalism. If it were then there would be no need for any publications other than diocesan newspapers.
To me, the real point tucked inside the question above is not whether bishops should be criticized at all in Catholic media. The question we should be asking is about what we in the media can properly criticize bishops. For example, if a bishop were caught stealing money from his diocese, no one would object to a journalist reporting it or the editorial page condemning it. This is common sense, both about journalism and about bishops.
Journalism serves society and the common good by keeping the public informed about the world, near and far, and editorial comments spur public debate over values and practices that undergird a civil society.
Bishops are part of the world covered by journalists; they, like political and business leaders, fall under the journalist’s gaze for the simple reason that what they do is significant and newsworthy. Catholic bishops, however, have a special relation to the individuals they lead — a relationship with no parallel in politics or business. In this respect, a bishop is more like a general than a senator or a CEO. A bishop has “authority” in the Church over his priests and the Catholics in his diocese. That authority is spiritual and moral: The bishop’s interpretation of “faith and morals” is considered normative for all those Catholics under his care.
But the bishop has other responsibilities that do not come under his special authority — he hires, fires, manages, administers, fundraises, budgets, and so forth. In these areas he has no special competence by virtue of his office, thus his actions cannot be considered off limits to the Catholic journalist. 
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Of course even this argument avoids the toughest question of all. Should the Catholic media criticize a bishop in the area of his special competence: faith and morals?
To go further, we should clarify what is meant by “criticize.” No one would object to a journalist reporting a story, say, of a bishop hosting a conference featuring a speech by Pentecostal snake-handlers. A reporter tells the story, records some observers’ reaction, both positive and negative, and the reader thinks whatever he is going to think about the bishop’s conference. 

This is what is commonly called “shining the light” on an event. A journalist brings to the public’s attention something that could have remained unknown beyond those who witnessed it. If the bishop is subsequently questioned, it was not “criticism” that is to blame but the “shining of the light.” (This kind of journalistic reporting, by the way, can be much more effective than direct editorial criticism.)

Now we come to the nub of the question: Should the Catholic media publish editorial criticism of a bishop in his role as the authority on faith and morals? This criticism usually comes in the form of lay editorials and essays that take a certain bishop or group to task for not protecting or proclaiming the faith in some important aspect.


For a definitive answer, we have to leave the realm of common sense and take a look inside the Code of Canon Law. (This is not to say there’s no common sense in the Code, but that the Code is built around the special authority that bishops and priests have in the Church.)
Canon law contains three delicts that outline the lawfulness of responsible criticism of an ordinary. In my view, canon law does condone criticism, but within the boundaries of respect for authority and the principle of unity in communion.
The first canon acknowledges the right and duty to make “matters” known to pastors and, if deemed necessary, to others in the Catholic community.
Can 212§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.
It’s important to note that this canon specifies that any comment regarding a bishop be made in “reverence.” Journalistic tone often matters as much as the substance.
The second canon specifies a recognition that any lay expertise, including journalism, should be exercised with “the spirit of the gospel” and within the Church’s Magisterium.
Can. 227. The lay Christian faithful have the right to have recognized that freedom which all citizens have in the affairs of the earthly city. When using that same freedom, however, they are to take care that their actions are imbued with the spirit of the gospel and are to heed the doctrine set forth by the magisterium of the Church. In matters of opinion, moreover, they are to avoid setting forth their own opinion as the doctrine of the Church.
Finally, the third canon explicitly warns against anyone going to extremes by stirring up anger and hostility toward a bishop or the Holy Father. Hostile journalism can earn ecclesial punishment, which I am told came close to happening against a well-known Catholic newspaper several years ago.
Can. 1373. A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.
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.”
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.


This is the fourth entry in a multi-part, multi-week series on the issue of clericalism in the Catholic Church. The project will continue tomorrow with the closing statements from Deal Hudson and Fran Maier, and will conclude Friday with an online symposium, including dozens of prominent Catholics from various perspectives, offering their own analysis and solutions. All the articles will be gathered into a single printable volume, available for free download at the end of the week.




  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of “Church and Culture,” a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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