When public correction of a pope is urgent and necessary


May a Pope be publicly corrected for his reprehensible behaviour? Or should the attitude of the faithful be that of unconditional obedience, until the point of justifying anything the Pope’s says and does, even if  openly scandalous?

According to some, like the Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli, it is possible to express “tète a tète” one’s dissent to the Pope, without, however, manifesting it publicly. This thesis nonetheless, contains an important admission. The Pope is not infallible, unless he speaks ex cathedra. Otherwise it would not be licit to dissent even privately and the path to follow would only be that of religious silence.  On the other hand, the Pope, who is not Christ, but only his representative on earth, can sin and make mistakes. Yet, is it true that he may only be corrected privately and never publicly?

To respond it is important to recall the historical example par excellence which offers us the golden rule to follow; the so-called “incident at Antioch”. St. Paul records it in these terms in his Epistle to the Galatians, probably written between 54 AD and 57 AD. “[…] when they had seen that to me was committed the gospel of the uncircumcision, as to Peter was that of the circumcision. (For he who wrought in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, wrought in me also among the Gentiles.)

And when they had known the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship: that we should go unto the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcision: Only that we should be mindful of the poor: which same thing also I was careful to do. But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision. And to his dissimulation the rest of the Jews consented, so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?”

Peter, for fear of hurting the feelings of the Jews, with his behaviour, favoured the “Judaizer’s” position, who believed that circumcision should apply to all converted Christians along with other dispositions from the Mosaic law. St. Paul says that St. Peter had been clearly wrong and therefore “he had withstood him to his face”, that is publically, so that Peter would not be a scandal to the Church over which he exercised supreme authority. Peter accepted Paul’s correction, acknowledging his error with humility.

St. Thomas Aquinas deals with this episode in many of his works. First of all, he notes that “The Apostle opposes Peter in his exercise of authority and not in his authority of government” (Super Epistolam ad Galatas lectura, n. 77, tr. it. ESD, Bologna 2006).  Paul recognized that Peter was the Head of the Church, but he judged it legitimate to resist him, given the gravity of the problem, which concerned the salvation of souls. “The manner of the reprimand was appropriate as it was public and manifest” (Super Epistolam ad Galatas, n. 84).

This episode, again notes the Angelic Doctor, contains as many teachings for prelates as for their subjects: “To prelates (an example was given) of humility, so they would not refuse to accept complaints on the part of their inferiors and subjects; and to the subjects (was given) examples of zeal and freedom so that they would not fear to correct their prelates, most of all when the fault was public and abounded in danger for many” ( Super Epistulam ad Galatas,  n. 77).
At Antioch, St. Peter showed profound humility, St. Paul ardent charity. The Apostle to the Gentiles showed that he was not only just but [also] merciful. Among the works of spiritual mercy there is the correction of sinners, called by moralists “fraternal correction”. It is private if the sin is private and public if  the sin is public.  Jesus Himself established the manner: “But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican. Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. (Mat. 18, 15-18).”
We can imagine [then] that after having tried to convince St. Peter privately, Paul did not hesitate in admonishing him publically, but – says St. Thomas – “since St. Peter had sinned in front of everyone, he had to be reproached in front of everyone” (In 4 Sententiarum, Dist. 19, q. 2, a. 3, tr. it., ESD, Bologna 1999).

Fraternal correction, as the theologians teach, is a non-optional precept; it is obligatory, above all for those who have offices of responsibility in the Church, since it derives from the natural law and positive Divine law (Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, vol. III, col. 1908). The admonishment can also come from inferiors directed to their superiors, and from the laity towards prelates. To the question as to whether it is important to correct a superior publically, St. Thomas in his Comment on the Sentences of Pietro Lombardo, responds in the affirmative, making note however of the need to act always with extreme respect. Therefore “prelates should not be corrected by their subjects in front of everyone, but humbly, in private, unless there is impending danger to the faith; then in fact the prelate would become the lesser, if he had slipped into infidelity, and the subject would become the greater” ( In 4 Sententiarum, Dist. 19, q. 2, a. 2).

The Angelic Doctor expresses himself in the same terms in the Summa Theologiae: “[…]if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2-11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects (Summa Theologiae II-IIae, 33, 4, 2).

Cornelius a Lapide, summing up the thought of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, writes: “[…] Superiors may be corrected, with humility and charity by their inferiors, so that the faith is defended;  this is what is declared, on the basis of this passage [Gal. 2,11], by St. Augustine (Epist. 19) St. Cyprian, St. Gregory, St. Thomas and others cited above.  They teach clearly that St. Peter, despite being superior, was corrected by St. Paul […]. With good reason, therefore, St. Gregory said (Homil. 18 in Ezech.): “Peter was silent, so that, being the first in the apostolic hierarchy, he was also the first in humility.” And St. Augustine affirmed (Epis. 19 ad Hienonymum): “by teaching that superiors must not refuse permission to their inferiors to correct them, St. Peter gave to posterity a most exceptional and the holiest example in that of St. Paul, teaching that, in defence of the truth, and in charity, to the lesser is given the boldness of withstanding without fear against their greaters” (Ad Gal. 2, II, in Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, Vivès, Parigi 1876, tomo XVII).

Fraternal correction is an act of charity.  One of the gravest sins against charity is schism, which is separation from the authority of the Church, Her laws, uses and customs. Even a Pope can fall into schism, if he divides the Church, as the theologian Suarez explains (De schismate in Opera omnia, vol. 12, pp. 733-734 e 736-737) and Cardinal Journet confirms (L’Eglise du Verbe Incarné, Desclée, Bruges 1962, vol. I, p. 596).

Confusion reigns in the Church today. Some courageous cardinals have announced an eventual public correction of Pope Bergoglio, whose initiatives are becoming more disturbing and divisive each day that passes. The fact that he has neglected to respond to the cardinals’ “dubia” on Chapter 8 of the Exhortation Amoris laetitia, accredits and encourages heretical or near heretical interpretations on the matter of Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried.  Confusion, thus favoured, produces tensions and internal fights, or rather a situation of religious contraposition which foreshadows schism.  An act of public correction is [thus] rendered urgent and necessary.