Are Ordinary Catholics Too Frightened to Discuss Pope Francis?


Is criticizing the Pope a sin? Catholics and journalists around the world have begun to express confusion and uncertainty about the direction that the Church is taking. While Pope Francis has gained universal acclaim in the secular media as the ‘approachable face’ of Catholicism, his admirers tend to avoid the essential question his behaviour raises about the nature of the papacy itself — its powers and limitations. Instead, they rely on Catholics’ long-standing love of the papacy to deflect any uncomfortable queries.This tendency – termed ‘papolatry’ and particularly strong in the late 20th century — prevents many ordinary Catholics from reflecting critically on the challenges that face our Church.

Just what is ‘papolatry’? What are its consequences for honest debate within the Church? Five ordinary US Catholics got together on Facebook recently to hash it out. Here’s what Zachary, 31, a security guard from California; Robert, 61, a lawyer from Maine; Malia is 44, an entrepreneur from LA; Sean, 34, a laboratory technician from Chicago, and Rosemary, 59, a substitute teacher from Jerome, Idaho had to say to REGINA MAGAZINE recently, in this first in a seven-part series.

MODERATOR: My experience is that many are very reluctant to criticise, even question the words and actions of the pope. Often people react with anger and frustration, because they see questioning and criticism as betrayal of the church. Others see that there are problems and that we are in dangerous waters, yet they seem scared of assessing the situation and openly discussing these issues. 

 Sean: My experience has been that, while some defend Pope Francis against criticism by expressing their agreement with one or more of his statements or actions, or describe their overall impression of him, others resist any criticism of Pope Francis from the angle you describe in your question.  They express a conviction that criticism of the pope can only be a betrayal of the Church or an affront to apostolic authority. 

Rosemary:   I really haven’t spoken to anyone about the Pope lately except to my sister. I told her that I thought Pope Francis was causing a schism. Her only response was “we need to pray for him”. I knew she didn’t want to say anymore so I dropped the subject. She’s not up on current events on the Pope. The people in the parish we are at now seem pretty non-traditional. We’ve been at this parish for about six months and I don’t know who it’s “safe” to talk to.

Zachary: In my experience, Catholics in the United States either ignore or try to rationalize the Pope’s actions/words, I know that the few who question the Pope publicly (sometimes on Catholic Answers or the Patrick Madrid show) will either get a condescending answer or an extremely elaborate explanation trying to say the Pope didn’t mean it or say it that way. I do not have many close Catholic friends but my confirmation sponsor does think Pope Francis will not answer the dubia, and there was an interesting moment in my RCIA class last year where the instructor pivoted away when one classmate brought up the SSPX…I personally do not discuss these things since frankly most Catholics would need heavy historical background knowledge to understand the issues at stake.

Robert: My experience has been varied. Still – at this late date – I am reluctant to criticize the Pope, though I believe it is important to do so when Francis says, does or teaches something that is scandalizing the Faithful. Even now, we must moderate our outrage out of respect for the Petrine Office, but at the same time, as Melchior Cano, Bishop and Theologian at the Council of Trent said,

“Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the Supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See—they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations”

MODERATOR: Why is this, do you think?

Robert: People don’t seem to understand that in their defense of a current Pope, in certain cases where he is speaking outside his authority, they may end by contradicting the Popes of the past who were speaking in complete conformity with the perennial teaching of the Church.

I find it quite frustrating that people, even now, seem to insist that Popes are impeccable and entirely beyond reproach. As the situation in the Vatican continues to deteriorate, it becomes increasingly obvious that we must speak up – but how do we do so unless we make clear the authentic teaching of the Church regarding the Petrine Office and Infallibility?

MODERATOR: What specifically are you referring to?

Robert: Look, I understand, on the one hand that it is a noble and Catholic instinct to want to defend the Pope. So I try to be patient and understanding. I see also, on the other hand, that Christ is the Point. No one, not priest, nor bishop, nor even Pope can do anything (for example) but defend the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of Marriage and the proper reception of Holy Communion. If they teach otherwise, or are even ambiguous on the matter when they ought to teach, it is a dereliction of duty and we may, or sometimes must resist and speak out.


TOMORROW: Celebrity culture and mass media – do they call the shots in today’s Catholic Church?

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