How to Correct Bishops Correctly

It has become increasingly common today for the lay faithful (and, to a lesser extent, deacons and priests) to openly and publicly criticize bishops, the Apostolic See and even the pope himself. This criticism usually takes place on the internet, and some, having become especially proficient at the various forms of social media, have even developed professions out of targeting the bishops and the pope for ridicule, mocking and derision. Though there are common trends, this behavior does not necessarily align with any particular political or ecclesiastical view.

Many do not see this as problematic, seemingly justifying this behavior with the notion that the laity is tasked with renewing or saving the Church, especially from the hierarchy itself. Others, uncomfortable with an ongoing revolution against the hierarchy, have spoken up or even asked the hierarchy itself to act against this behavior, whether through canonical sanction or simply open condemnation. While the latter has occurred a number of times to various degrees of success, the former is far less common, perhaps because bishops are not entirely aware of the mechanisms in place to address these issues or perhaps because they have concern that taking action will merely exacerbate the problem.

The issue of improper correction of prelates has existed since the Church’s inception, and it is not likely to be resolved any time soon, particularly in a world that has become especially protective of the right to public speech, public criticism, and public protest. While there are clear canonical principles by which to address the issue, they do not appear to be well known, either by the laity or the hierarchy.

What follows is an explanation of what that canonical reality is today, especially following the Code’s recent update to Book VI (penal sanctions), with particular emphasis on the philosophical and theological reason for its structure. This does not represent a full historical account of public speech in the Church or what might be called speech delicts, but merely attempts to describe the framework for approaching these questions today. We will also consider the changes to the penal canons from the June 1, 2021 modification of Book VI of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Fundamental Principles

Before delving into the particulars of the law, a brief explanation of the underlying philosophical and theological principles should be helpful. St. Thomas provides a guideline for addressing correction of prelates, separating what he calls correction as an act of charity and correction as an act of justice (ST, II-II, q. 33, a. 3):

I answer that, as stated above, correction is twofold. One is an act of charity, which seeks in a special way the recovery of an erring brother by means of a simple warning: such like correction belongs to anyone who has charity, be he subject or prelate.

But there is another correction which is an act of justice purposing the common good, which is procured not only by warning one's brother, but also, sometimes, by punishing him, that others may, through fear, desist from sin. Such a correction belongs only to prelates, whose business it is not only to admonish, but also to correct by means of punishments.

Following this, he concludes (ST, II-II, q. 33, a. 4):

I answer that, a subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.

Now an act which proceeds from a habit or power extends to whatever is contained under the object of that power or habit: thus vision extends to all things comprised in the object of sight. Since, however, a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect [all italics mine].

St. Thomas holds that correction of prelates is not absolutely forbidden, but merely that it can only be done as an act of charity and not as an act of justice. Note that justice is not being directly juxtaposed with charity here, in the sense that justice is uncharitable, or that the real issue with correction of prelates as it is done today is that it not kind. What is actually problematic in the case of correction common today is that it attempts correction through the coercive nature of punishment; that is, as an act of justice and not of charity. While the laity or other clerics obviously have no competency to bring canonical punishment against someone they deem to be a bad prelate, they do, in a society that has open and unrestricted speech, have the power of public coercion through humiliation, threats, mass protest or campaigns to punish prelates by withholding giving.

This sort of action, according to St. Thomas, is improper in the fundamental sense, as it places one without competence over one with competence, like a child punishing his own father. It is in this way a kind of perversion of the natural and supernatural order of the Church. Or as St. Thomas puts it: “It would seem that a subject touches his prelate inordinately when he upbraids him with insolence, as also when he speaks ill of him: and this is signified by God's condemnation of those who touched the mount and the ark” (ST, II-II, q. 33, a. 4, ad. 1). Instead of threats or protests, according to St. Thomas, the laity should instead charitably warn or advise prelates on dangers or wrongs so that the prelate can avoid real harm to the Church and the faithful.

As has been seen in recent years, most correction of prelates has been a mix of both acts of charity and attempted acts of justice. This is partly why it is difficult to address these issues. Real complaints should and must be known. As we will see, the law considers it a duty to let certain concerns be known. But the starting point for anyone approaching these questions should be to ask the motive or result of their actions. Namely, is this correction being done, in the way it is being done, so as to punish a prelate? Or is the correction being done out of genuine love for the Church and the prelate himself, with his particular dignity, so that he can more fully and faithfully serve?

Canon 212

With these general principles in place, we can move to the law as it stands today, which takes these principles and codifies them. Canon 212, derived directly from Lumen gentium §37, provides the basis for how speech, public criticism and correction are to occur in the Church. The canon reads in full:

Canon 212. §1. Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church. 

§2. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.

§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 is imperative to note that the canon does not describe a generic free speech right. A universal right to publicly criticize prelates finds itself nowhere in Church teaching or history, and this is expressed in the canon, which begins with obedience. As a general rule, the lay faithful are called to obedience as a means of maintaining communion with the hierarchy and so the Church. It is proper to obey a sacred pastor’s teachings (addressed in more detail in canons 749-755) and a sacred pastor’s commands because of his authority. As Lumen gentium §37 puts it:

The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God. Nor should they omit to pray for those placed over them, for they keep watch as having to render an account of their souls, so that they may do this with joy and not with grief.

Note that “pastor” is used in this canon generically and it applies to all pastors: from one’s immediate pastor, the parish priest, to the pastor of a diocese, a bishop, to the supreme pastor, the pope, with increasing obedience upward by dignity.

The canon then moves to the next step that the faithful are to take in §2. They are to express their concerns and desires directly to their pastors. This is generally the most proficient means by which one’s concerns might be addressed, in that the immediate pastor is the most capable of responding to his own teachings or actions.

Finally, in §3, the right and sometimes the duty to make known their concerns to the rest of the faithful is addressed. While this is recognized as a duty, requiring the faithful to speak publicly about certain issues, this public speech right is not without restriction. Note specifically the ways in which it is limited:

1. It must pertain to the “good of the Church.” That is, no one has a right to make public idle gossip or ad hominem comments about pastors or their personal lives which have nothing to do with the management of the Church.

2. It is to be done by those with “proper knowledge, competence and prestige.” Despite the rapid increase of information in the world, actual knowledge of facts is often lacking, particularly among those who are the most vocal. When one speaks publicly, his or her obligation is elevated, and assurances should be made that the comments are in fact true and not merely hearsay. Additionally, when one speaks publicly, especially in a way as to condemn a pastor or prelate for a theological or administrative error, he or she should not do so without legitimate training and expertise in a particular field. Too often, and contrary to canon 212, do people elevate themselves to experts in fields in which they have only armchair experience. Additionally, should this knowledge or expertise actually be possessed, one should still speak with humility, recognizing that the expertise does not always shield one from error.

3. It can only be done “without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals.” When one speaks publicly, especially concerning faith and morals, he or she must be certain that what is being said is theologically and morally sound. Very often are prelates condemned for positions that are wholly in line with Church teaching, and these unjustified condemnations can create grave confusion and scandal among the faithful. canon 212 provides no protection for this behavior.

4. It must be done with “reverence to their pastors.” The canon does not permit attacks on prelates that are personal, vitriolic or vindictive. The public speech envisioned here is one done out of respect for the positions in question, “with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.” LG §37. Calumny (speaking falsehoods about a person) is always a sin and sometimes a delict (see canon 1390), and detraction (making public the failures of faults of another) is often a sin, unless it serves a legitimate end. Sins such as these would fall out immediately from the right described in canon 212.

5. It is to be done in a way “attentive to the common advantage and the dignity of persons.” Perhaps the most interesting of the restrictions, it notes that public speech should be done only in a way so as not to disturb the common good (or common advantage/benefit) of the Christian society and the dignity of its members. This ties together nicely with the first requirement above, but is more general concerning the proper nature of public human action; that is, aimed at the common good and not any individual’s personal (especially monetary) advantage.

Delictuous Speech

While these limitations are important, they do not represent the whole picture of public speech in the Church. Namely, the Church has identified the sort of public speech which can be considered delictuous. That is, so egregious and improper that it is deserving of penal sanction. Note that canon 212 could never supersede these penal canons, as the delict is always defined as limiting the right. For if it did not, and the right always trumped, the penal canon would have no reason to exist.

It is important to note that Book VI (penal sanctions) was recently updated, and the pope not only kept the prior canons concerning public speech in place, he seemingly expanded delicts related to public speech. This is a strong indication that the supreme legislator deems these canons presently relevant and important.

Canon 1368. A person is to be punished with a just penalty who, at a public event or assembly, or in a published writing, or by otherwise using the means of social communication, utters blasphemy, or gravely harms public morals, or rails at or excites hatred of or contempt for religion or the Church.

Canon 1373. A person who publicly incites hatred or animosity against the Apostolic See or the Ordinary because of some act of ecclesiastical office or duty, or who provokes disobedience against them, is to be punished by interdict or other just penalties.

Canon 1373 is likely more directly on point when it comes to improper public speech against prelates, but canon 1368 is helpful at understanding the standard as well. It is not uncommon for members of the faithful to do what might be described as railing at or exciting hatred of or contempt for the Church. While the behaviors here might be more generally described as crimes against good morals and not specifically related to individual prelates, because of the public speech element inherent to them, it is clear that the law does not envision an unrestricted speech right often appealed to by members of the faithful who engage in such behavior.

Canon 1373, more relevant here, provides the most helpful guidance. Two different actions are defined as delicts: 1. Publicly inciting hatred or animosity against the Apostolic See or an ordinary (diocesan bishop or equivalent in law) because of some act of ecclesiastical office or duty. 2. Provoking individuals to disobey the same.

As to the first, this makes up much of what occurs today. Specific pontifical or episcopal actions, usually with respect to management of the Church or its ministry, are directly criticized in a public way, often so as to incite the greatest level of public outrage toward the action. Private disagreements with the actions are made public and sometimes explicit calls for ridicule and scorn follow, which regularly take place.

As to the second, it is not uncommon for individuals to call other members of the faithful to actively disobey their pastors and especially their bishops, either by rallying people to ignore legitimate orders or to withhold support (despite canonical obligations: canons 222, 1260-1262, etc.). But, as canon 1373 shows, public speech in the Church is not to be done in a way so as to create movements or political activity contrary to legitimately placed actions. Public speech in the Church instead exists in order to aid in providing information for proper governance.

The Church is not an institution instilled with values of self-governance or a right to protest. The law does not envision public speech to be used in such as a way as to pressure removal of prelates or for calls of disobedience until members of the faithful find a prelate’s actions fitting. Note that this does not mean the law presumes that bishops or popes always make correct choices. This is explicitly not the case. Instead, what the law envisions is a proper order and a means by which the faithful can speak about what they feel may be an incorrect course of action, so that appropriate governance, according to the authority’s judgment, can take place.

We can see clearly how St. Thomas’s principles are at play here. He recognized that the lay faithful need and must be able to speak up to their sacred pastors as a matter of charity, but he also recognized that the means in which they do so must be done in a way in line with the nature of the Church. The law does precisely the same. It notes the general right and duty to speak publicly, but it places clear guidelines on that speech so that the speech can remain properly ordered.

Perhaps most interesting to note with these canons is that canon 1373 actually provides for additional explicit sanction beyond canon 1368. Namely, canon 1373 calls for the imposition of the penalty of interdict and a just penalty, while canon 1368 only permits a just penalty. While this may seem initially backward, the difference may become clearer should one see that public steps to separate one from communion with the hierarchy through insolent behavior is in fact a step in separating one from communion with the Body of Christ itself. This is so because the hierarchical structure constitutes the foundation of the Church:

Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion (LG §18).

That is, one’s communion with the Church relies on one’s communion with the hierarchical structure, and in cases where public actions are made against bishops and the pope, one is taking steps to sever that communion, which can place a person in a state where interdict (removing his or her ability to exercise the rights of that communion) would be appropriate. While blasphemy is no doubt the greater sin, the canonical punishment for one who intentionally and disobediently acts in a way to sever communion may be immediately harsher so the individual can be shepherded back to the flock, since communion with the Church is the means by which one might be rescued from that blasphemy.

Finally, there is an important change added to the new Book VI that should also be noted here. Canon 1365 (formerly canon 1371) was modified to permit more serious punishments for a person who:

Teaches a doctrine condemned by the Roman Pontiff, or by an Ecumenical Council, or obstinately rejects the teaching mentioned in canon 750 §2 or canon 752 and, when warned by the Apostolic See or the Ordinary, does not retract . . .

Canon 750 § 2 refers to those teachings proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church and canon 752 refers to those teachings declared by the pope or the college of bishops which are not necessarily proclaimed by a definitive act. While these categories may seem overly technical for the purposes here, generally speaking they indicate that public teaching contrary to official or formal teachings, past or present, of the pope or the whole college of bishops are subject to punishment. Formerly, such behavior could only receive a “just penalty,” while the new modification of the canon permits censure, deprivation of office, monetary fines, etc.

There is strong indication, considering the continued inclusion of speech delicts in the new Book VI as well as additional penalties, that the Church sees public speech as an issue to be addressed directly according to the law.


We must be careful in responding to the above with claims that the situation is so dire today that these standards do not apply, even if they are generally true and usually applicable. A soft Donatism (the belief that a cleric loses his authority unless he is faultless) is always in the background with claims to this effect. The standards described here do not express merely ecclesiastical laws, but instead principles of our faith that speak directly to its legitimacy.

The Church has worked diligently to strike an appropriate balance between a liberal free speech standard and a draconian restrictiveness where the laity cannot express true concern. This balance begins with obedience and entails genuine freedom in charity, seeking to properly uphold the natural and supernatural order for the sake of the Church. As Lumen gentium optimistically puts it:

A great many wonderful things are to be hoped for from this familiar dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders: in the laity a strengthened sense of personal responsibility; a renewed enthusiasm; a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their spiritual leaders. The latter, on the other hand, aided by the experience of the laity, can more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfill is mission for the life of the world (§37).

While it is evident that in many ways we have fallen short of this aspiration, it is the hope to which the Church calls us. Whether prelates find it appropriate to utilize penal sanctions is a difficult prudential decision, but the laity should better understand that they do something contrary to the Church in ignoring the standards she has laid out for them.

Featured Image: Photo by Rhododendrites, Blessing Bishop (Saint Nicholas of Bari), ca. 1350-75, at the Met Cloisters; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Gregory Caridi

Gregory Caridi, a civil and canon lawyer, is chancellor for the Diocese of Dallas.

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