Ratzinger: Avoid Criticizing Church in “Mass Media”

Ratzinger: Avoid Criticizing Church in “Mass Media” June 26, 2016


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) on 12 May 2001. Photograph by Manfredo Ferrari [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


Four days ago, I produced a post entitled, “‘Confusing’ Pope Francis & Prudent Public Discussion.” In it, I summarized my position in the following words:

Even if our objections are perfectly legitimate and worthy of attention and concern, it’s another question entirely, whether they ought to be aired in public, with the whole world watching. I say they should not. Why does everything have to be public, these days? And that gets back to the ubiquity of the social media and how the devil exploits this state of affairs: manipulating and influencing (Screwtape-like) the usual foibles and shortcomings of human nature.

I think some of the papal criticisms (such as those by respectable non-reactionaries) have at least partial or occasional validity and legitimacy. That’s one thing. Whether they should be aired publicly and instantly for one and all to see (as if they are themselves profoundly authoritative and sublimely momentous and helpful to one and all), is quite another issue. I say that they shouldn’t, and it would be quite easy to find lots of quotes from saints and Doctors of the Church to back up my point (but I’ll spare my readers that).On Facebook, all one would have to do to follow this approach is restrict such material to a smaller, private list of Catholic friends . . .

Since few seem to care about my opinions (I’m just a lowly lay popular-level apologist) — at least as soon as they disagree with what I express — , it’s good to see what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) wrote about this same sort of issue, in a document produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which he headed), on May 24, 1990. It’s called, Donum Veritatis (On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian), and is hosted on the Holy See website. It’s classified as an “Instruction”. The document states (my own italicized and bolded emphases):

24. . . . When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission. . . .

27. Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom 14:1-15; 1 Cor 8; 10: 23-33 ) . For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them. [complete] . . .

30. If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.

In cases like these, the theologian should avoid turning to the “mass media”, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders servite to the truth. [complete]

Note that this is written to theologians (hence would apply all the more to mere laypeople). They are not to write dogmatically, even in matters not applicable to “the doctrine of the faith.” They are to avoid “untimely public expression” and “turning to the ‘mass media'”. Rather, they are to “have recourse to the responsible authority.”

On the contrary, today, many fancy themselves experts enough to blast Pope Francis day in and day out, whether it regards the magisterial Amoris Laetitia or off-the-cuff statements that are so often misinterpreted or mistranslated (as I myself have written about time and again).

I recommended keeping these criticisms, even if perfectly legitimate, in a limited, private Catholic sphere and not out in the public for all (including atheists and non-Catholics) to see, leading to all sorts of problems and scandals and “bashing feeding frenzies” that could have been avoided. If folks won’t listen to me, maybe they will listen to a pope, writing before he was pope, in a very authoritative magisterial “Instruction.” Or then again, maybe they won’t.

You can bring a horse to water; you can’t make it drink. I’ve done my job as an apologist, by passing along what the Church has actually stated about this very issue. Now it’s up to you, the reader, whether you will abide by the Instruction from the Church or not.

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