ASK FATHER: Is it a mortal sin to criticize the Pope?

peter-with-keysFrom a reader…

Can a Catholic criticize the Pope? Or is it a mortal sin to do so?


No. Not necessarily.

Catholics are obliged to have filial love for and obedience to our Holy Father. Neither that love nor that obedience are required to be blind or stupid.

Criticism of the Pope can become a mortal sin if one’s criticism is filled with a hatred and vitriol that shows a lack of respect or filial love for Our Sovereign Pontiff.  One must also consider to whom you show that lack of respect.  If by your words and actions you harm his reputation with others unjustly, you do him and them a grave wrong.  You also may be committing the sin of sacrilege.

The Pope is Christ’s Vicar, and deserves all the respect of that office.

The Pope is, however, not Christ. Nor does his charism of infallibility render him perfect in all his words and actions.

He may do things that are objectionable.  When he does, he can be criticized – respectfully.

But be careful in aiming criticism at the Pope.  Be careful to whom you open your mind or reveal your attitude.  Examine your conscience with brutal honesty, remembering that His Holiness has a perspective on the Church that we do not.

Catholics loves their Popes.  That doesn’t mean that we always like them or everything they do.

We should, however, avoid giving scandal.  Maintain respect for the Holy Father when speaking about him to others, heed his words on faith and morals, and give him obedience when it is called for.

You can bet that for this one the moderation queue is ON.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Gabriel Syme says:

    I think you have made a good summation Father.

    The Office of the Pope, as Vicar of Christ, always deserves respect. It is possible to offer criticism regarding something a Pope has said or done, as long as it is framed respectfully both to give due respect and to avoid scandal.

    It is not particularly difficult to identify various misjudgements which various Popes have made in recent times, (Assisi, “Altar girls”, lack of firm governance, one could go on), but these must always be discussed using an appropriate tone and language. Sometimes, if people are very passionate about a subject, they may use careless or inappropriate speech to express themselves and this must be avoided.

    At the same time it is necessary to avoid making an Idol of the Pope, or the clergy more widely. I used to belong to a Catholic men’s organisation which – like many modern Catholics – at times derided Catholic teaching, but on the other hand, it was almost as if they worshipped the Pope / other clergy. They would blindly do anything asked of them by the clergy, without question or thought, but at the same time would attack doctrine which clashes with modern secular sensibilities. Their heart was in the right place, but their understanding of what it meant to be Catholic was badly confused.

    Some people think the SSPX are disrespectful in their criticism. I personally tend to think they are blunt and “to the point” rather than simply disrespectful. I believe it is possible – necessary even – to make forceful criticisms at times, without straying into the error of being disrespectful.

    I often hear people of a traditional background criticise the “Papolatry” of modern Catholics; there is definitely an issue with this in the Church today – that someone would even ask the question “is it OK to criticise the Pope?” is a resounding demonstration of that. I believe that Catholics from throughout the ages would be baffled by the level of Papolatry in the modern Church.

    Ultimately, we have the best example in St Paul himself, who resisted St Peter (the first Pope) “to his face” when he was wrong to treat Christians of non-jewish orgin differently from those of Jewish origin.

  2. rickamdg says:

    As with our federal government in the distant past, I suspect Catholics did not see or hear much about the Pope the way we do today. Frankly, it’s too much. And with the plethora of bloggers reporting on his every word, even his every movement, it’s far more than we need to know. Perhaps it’s best to stop focusing so much on the man, or at least to pick the occasional spot when there’s some purpose to it, besides (in Francis’s case) “Did you hear what the Pope just said about that?” Yes, he does talk a lot about a lot, but so what? Maybe if we just remember that we were created to know, love, and serve God and that our goal is to get to Heaven, we wouldn’t have all this time to think about, talk about, or blog about the Pope.

  3. Tim in Dixie says:

    Father thanks for the clarifications and guidance on this particular topic. Our Holy Father Francis, quote Winston Churchill, can be “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” at times. The same goes for our bishops and priests. I have found myself dancing on the line of disrespect to often and have confessed when my public comments have crossed the line. I do pray for Pope Francis, bishops, and priest daily, for their courage and orthodoxy, as well as us in the laity to show greater fidelity to the Church and its leaders.

  4. KRD says:

    Very fair answer, Father.

  5. markomalley says:

    I would think that the common rules of discourse would apply doubly when speaking about any clergy (not merely the Holy Father): avoid calumny, detraction, and rash judgement. The one thing I’d add to that standard list is to be extremely careful in ascribing motivations. Unless we know “why”, it’s better to limit discussions to “what.”

  6. JamesM says:

    Unfortunately a strange sort of ultramontanism has arisen during this papacy. Much of this flows from a strange view that God directly chose Pope Francis and as such every utterance is the direct will of God.

    Pope Francis is our Holy Father and as such he is deserving of our love and respect. That doesn’t mean we can’t believe he is in error on something, and that doesn’t mean we can’t believe he is being foolish in something he does.

    What it does mean is just that if we wish to articulate these views, we have to do this respectfully.

  7. FL_Catholic says:

    A very timely question and wonderful answer. I know there are a few blogs out there today, one in particular I can think of, that while their hearts are in the right place for desperately wanting to see the restoration of the Church to its full glory, also are completely over the top in the names they call the Pope and what they accuse him of. Catholics, especially traditional Catholics, must always take care in how we approach the Holy Father’s words and actions. This is especially true when he may be doing or saying things in a way that isn’t our first preference. I know I for one am guilty of that, and need to be more careful in how I speak about him.

  8. Packrraat says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have often thought it was okay to disagree with the Holy Father on things that do not pertain to faith and morals. I do love the Pope, in that I wish all of God’s blessings for him. And I do pray for him and defend him in public when needed. But I dislike him and disagree with much that he says and does. I realize that much of my dislike has to do with his outgoing personality and spontaneity, his lack of thought before speaking. I try to not read much about him in the news, which is mostly not to be believed anyway. And I speak of him only to a very few close people and then in guarded words.

  9. roma247 says:

    Wait…so does this mean that I should resist laughing at LutheranSatire’s Frank the Hippie Pope? Because it plucks my heart strings, and it’s only a little bit irreverent, and it keeps me from crying?

    (And I was tempted to put a link here, but I wouldn’t want to give scandal if others deem it too irreverent…)

  10. Benedict Joseph says:

    No disagreement with Father’s fine essay can be legitimately offered. However, I sometimes wonder if the Chair of Peter is being disingenuously employed as a weapon fostering a program that is intended, ultimately, to undermine the respect and love owed to the Chair and its occupant. This is a great concern for me, a nasty dilemma that often makes me feel betrayed, deceived, and manipulated. Like many, I work out of a broad experience of heterodox priests and religious who to this day continue to practice pastoral work with the proverbial “wink and a nod.” I was recently offered counsel from a Jesuit that was so ludicrous one would have thought they were hallucinating 1968, but his advice appealed to the “debate” with which we are presently plagued.
    First and foremost he who holds the Chair should love and respect the grace it is, the insurance it offers the world of the clear proclamation of the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the responsibility it exercises in upholding the faithful in virtue.

  11. Geoffrey says:

    I’ve never felt comfortable criticizing the Vicar of Christ. I used to get into fierce debates about that, particularly when it came to defending Saint John Paul the Great and even Pope Benedict XVI to arch-traditionalists. God calls who He wills, and gives us the pope that we need at the time. Who are we to reason why?

    During the current pontificate, I find myself recalling the saying: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”, as well as one of the Pope Emeritus’ final words as reigning pope: “And among you, in the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope to whom today I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience”. If it’s good enough for Pope Benedict, it’s good enough for me.

  12. AnneE says:

    I read a post and discussion recently where the Holy Father was being taken to task about something he hadn’t acknowledged.( A petition.) I asked in the comments if, perhaps, the Pope had not been made aware of this. Lo and behold! I checked back today and there was a lengthy explanation which boiled down to: Well, maybe he hadn’t. This is the kind of stuff that should be called out, since many folks take what these better known Catholic bloggers say as the facts!

  13. Andrew says:

    To criticize is to point out someone’s merits or faults. Thus, to criticize the Pope, could mean to point out his merits. Which could be praiseworthy.

    [You make a good point. While in common parlance we tend to hear “find fault with” in the word “criticize”, criticism must also be just and fair, noting the positives.]

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  15. Cradle Catholic says:

    I very much respect and love the office that the Pope holds. And ofcourse, depending on who the Pope is, it’s very possible to have a heartfelt affection for the Pope. I have this kind of affection for Pope Benedict – because I found that my love for and my faith in Our Lord grew as a result of Benedict XVI. I love reading his work …and there is much to read….. I had long ago come to the conclusion that following Our Lord was the most important thing in my life, and also concluded that loving others, charity toward others, etc, would flow from this love. I found that to be the case. And what I mean by following Our Lord is that I have Him as centre in my life, and also embrace the doctrines of our Holy Mother Church. My understanding is that the doctrines were developed to protect the revelation as handed to us by Our Lord. And Revelation is Who God Is, and His relationship to us. I found that Pope Benedict XVI not only protected the doctrines, but explained them clearly, and hence my affection for him.

    It’s hard to describe my feelings toward Pope Francis. I think it’s mostly fear, and it’s extremely difficult to feel affection for someone who you think may do great damage to what you hold very, very dear….[very, very, dear is an understatement]. He doesn’t seem to hold doctrine in high regard; evidence the petition to him regarding the clarity of the definition of marriage. I also have a gut feeling that he will bow to what Cardinal Kasper wants…(i.e. local churches having the autonomy to interpret the doctrine as they see fit…such as giving Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried… resulting in doctrine being undermined). My fear is that Pope Francis will diminish the role of the Church in Rome, and the CDF in relation to the local churches: this has been an on-going dispute between Kasper and Ratzinger – it was settled by Saint JPII – but it has been reopened under the guise of “mercy” to the divorced and remarried.

    But mea culpa, I’ve expressed these fears to at least one person who really loves Pope Francis, and that person was very hurt by what I said. I’ve apologized to that person, and have resolved to only pray for Our Holy Father, and for the most part, keep my deep fears between myself and Our Lord and His Mother – except for a few comments on blogs like this. Hopefully, my comments are respectful, but still express my deep and real fear of what Pope Francis may unleash.

  16. Thomas Stewart says:

    My greatest grievance with the current Pope is that he either fired or refuses to listen to the entire communications apparatus of his predecessor. The modern 24/7 news cycle puts an impossible burden on the Pontiff, where his every word will be flung across the world almost before he finishes saying it, and he needs the help of professionals to manage his message. Help he does not seem to be getting. Where is the person at his elbow telling him, it doesn’t matter how your interviewer wants to proceed, we require a recording for ourselves? Where are the translators, to produce accurate, timely texts of His Holiness’ actual words rendered properly in the major languages of the world? It staggers the imagination to suppose that the Vatican has too few functionaries, but an entire department appears to have come up missing.

  17. Benedict Joseph says:

    With respect for Cradle Catholic’s willingness to withhold reasonable critique of the current pontificate out of concern for others, there is an objection to be made about that position. It is exactly what the most sophisticated supporters of radical heterodoxy count on. I have referred to it a number of times as using lawful obedience as a weapon – and that is not merely unjust, I would call it sacrilegious. This mode of action is still rife in religious life and in the clergy culture. It has been the battering ram for the heterodox since the beginning of the Council. It is easy to slip behind the curtain of obedience when a blunt corrective is called for. Kindness is often called for, but I wouldn’t mollycoddle too many of the hypersensitive left when they need a firm hand. Believe me, they see discretion as camouflage, not an act of charity.

  18. Bea says:

    What a conundrum!
    One goes to confession on this and I get three different responses.
    1. I came out crying once, for the priest called me “arrogant” to presume I knew more than the Holy Father even after I explained the warnings of modernism that various previous Popes had warned about. He appeared to know nothing of these statements.
    2. Another warned me of time in purgatory and I must pray for the Pope and Bishops (which I already do).
    3. The 3rd priest completely agrees with me and tells me not to worry and then concentrates on my personal foibles.

    @ FL_Catholic: you said: “when he may be doing or saying things in a way that isn’t our first preference.” Actually, at least in my case, it’s not doing or saying things in our preference but in what appears to be contrary to Catholic teachings.

    St. Paul wrote that we must weigh everything that “even if an angel came down from Heaven and preached a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you let him be anathema” Gal 1:8

    Because of this I believe it is our duty to discern, lest we be led astray. It is not that we criticize the Pope for the Pope’s sake, himself, but for our own discernment. We don’t criticize the Pope, but only weigh in on his words and actions.
    Is this right?
    Is this wrong?
    Is it only an opinion and one I am free to disagree with?

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  20. Geoffrey says:

    “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church “Lumen gentium”, n. 25).

  21. Benedict Joseph says:

    Conundrum? Maybe in one sense of the word, but it is not mystery or a riddle, an enigma or a puzzle. It is ecclesiastical politics sticking its head into the confessional where nonsense has no place. When the priest ascribes to himself an insight, or the pope a power, that contradicts the Catechism, that defies common sense, especially when such was not ascribed to a couple of recent pontiffs, you know you a dealing with a pickle. The guidance that is offered in the confessional derives from the Magisterium of the Church, not a debatable notion flying among those with a “secret insight” as yet undisclosed to us groundling Roman Catholics. This goes for the Holy Father as well. Father Hunwicke’s illuminating blog brings forth often this diamond from the First Vatican Council. Read it well.
    “The Holy Spirit was not given to the Roman Pontiffs so that they might disclose new doctrine, but so that they might guard and set forth the Deposit of Faith handed down from the Apostles.” As you see, the doctrine of papal infallibility requires the Holy Father to abide by the Magisterium.
    My recent experience exhibits that there are men in the confessional who have been set free in the past couple years to offer their personal point of view, no substitute for the timeless teaching of the Church, for the Gospel. This is only going to amplify if the autumn produces the fall many fear.

  22. Bea says:

    What’s your point in quoting Lumen Gentium?

    If bishops speak “in the name of Christ” but tell us something contrary to what the apostles have handed down (see St..Paul’s letter to the Galatians that I quoted above: Gal 1:8) are we to adhere to a heretical teaching and adhere to it with religious assent?
    Do we not then, become heretical ourselves and anathema?

    Yes I can see:
    “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence”
    the key word being: AUTHENTIC magisterium. In this case we, of course, follow with due reverence.
    if he speaks ex cathedra, he is then voicing a personal view.
    Do I have to adhere to accepting the Iran deal, when I see it as a politically bad move?
    Do I have to adhere to accepting the release of prisoners (as he just recently said) when they can be a danger to peaceful society?
    Do I have to adhere to believe in global warming when I believe that God is still in charge of the planet no matter what man does or doesn’t do?
    And so on ad infinitum?

    Peter, our first pope, was confronted by Paul on the matter of circumcision of gentiles. He did not adhere to the first pope’s mind and will and Peter acquiesced to Paul’s recommendations.
    As Fr. Z. said: “Catholics are obliged to have filial love for and obedience to our Holy Father. Neither that love nor that obedience are required to be blind or stupid.”

  23. Christ_opher says:

    Just my view for what it is worth. If we remember that firstly the Pope is human and that the best way to solve any problem with any other human should be to discuss the problem directly with the person. This option exists in the form of jotting down a letter an email or having a face to face with the person. The internet is not the place to make comments about others by name and at the moment in my opinion in Europe and America we are experiencing pollution of the mind via the media whilst other parts of the world are suffering persecution and death for being Christian (Asia Bibbi for example). I rest in the satisfaction of knowing that Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against my church so therefore in my humble opinion is it not a test of how much we believe and trust in God when we get dragged into these situations.

  24. ppb says:

    Bea: all the examples you cited are examples of prudential judgments. They certainly aren’t ex cathedra statements and no, you don’t have to adhere to them. But they also aren’t heretical or “contrary to what the apostles have handed down,” so if you’ve been thinking or telling others that Pope Francis is heretical for saying these things, you need to think again. Heresy is the denial of a dogma. These statements aren’t denying any dogma. If they are mistaken, they are mistaken at the level of practical application of Catholic principles to current political problems, and we all know Popes can and have made mistakes at that level.

  25. Bea says:

    I was not referring to Pope Francis’ statements in mentioning heretical statements, but bishops’ statements as referred to in Geoffrey’s quote (lumen gentium). ( please re-read my statement).
    Some speak as if hell does not exist or there is almost no one there. This is contrary to what the Church teaches. These and other statements is what I had in mind.

    It was not the ex cathedra statements that I was referring to as heretical, in my post (re-read my statement). This is how things go out of context.

    As to telling others, I would do no such thing, only to a handful of people who understand. I do not think the Pope is heretical in no way shape or form. He has not said anything against dogma and as many prelates have stated, he cannot.

    Let us pray for the October Synod, that it not lead people astray.

  26. VLL says:

    I remember we have very well respected saints who publicly criticized the pope. Some were made Doctors of the Church. Some of those letters are still read for the good of souls even to this day. But criticism and hatred are not the same thing.

    Now, much evil has been said about our current one, much that is not fair and certainly not true. But it is not unprecedented. Look up Protestant broadsheets from the 15-19th centuries, and don’t get me started on the English… some of those old slanders are deathless zombies as far as I can tell.
    As to my personal feelings… I think we drastically underestimate the skill, spirit and diplomacy of Pope Benedict. We could have used a few more years of his care. It is sad he did not have that to give.

    HOWEVER– I feel compelled also to point out that much of what we see here with Pope Francis… was true about Pope JP II in the early years of his pontificate. IT was a media circus and there was much drama in the traditionalist circles. We laugh to think on it now!

    Things have…deteriorated culturally speaking, but who here is surprised by that?

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