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Public Criticism of Bishops

Despite Bishop Daly’s key role in the Benalla crisis, many people, including faithful Catholics, find public criticism of bish­ops unpalatable. It still goes very much against the Catholic grain to “go public” with scandal and one is not without a de­gree of sympathy for the instinct that inspires such repugnance. At the same time, the notion must be rejected as a manifesta­tion of false-charity incompatible with a truly Catholic response to the situation.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic laity in Australia assumed that public criticism of a bishop was never justified. But this attitude was conditioned by an era when bish­ops were generally staunch upholders of Catholic faith, moral­ity and discipline, and were strongly committed to the defence of Papal authority. Since Vatican 11, however, there has been such a radical change in the attitude of our bishops toward the protection of Catholic doctrine and discipline and toward the administration of their dioceses that this previous assumption no longer holds.

Of course, public rebuke is usually not to be engaged in be­fore private admonition has failed. But the experience of countless parents and orthodox Catholics shows that, where most bishops are concerned, private admonition has no effect what­soever. In fact, it is often difficult to get to see a bishop when he knows that people are going to remonstrate with him about the way he administers his episcopal office. Most bishops are mass-media conscious, which means that they think in terms of avoiding adverse publicity; hence only abuses which get into the media have the note of reality for them. As a consequence, these bishops cannot be reached by private admonitions, but only by adverse criticism in books and newspapers or on television or radio. As a general rule, without public criticism, most bishops are unreachable.

So, in view of this tragic and incomprehensible situation, should the layman suffer in silence, and ignore widespread abuses against the teaching and discipline of the Catholic faith? Or does the pastoral responsibility of the bishop demand that others call his attention to his neglect of his crucial duties, when he ignores them or pretends that he has no such obligation?

In the Summa Theologica, Question 33, Article 4, of the Second Part of Part II, St. Thomas Aquinas has this heading: “Whether a Man Is Bound to Correct His Prelate?” His reply says in part:

…. 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.

St. Thomas reinforces this teaching by a statement from St. Augustine:

Augustine says in his Rule: “Show mercy not only to your­selves, but also to him who, being in the higher position among you, is therefore in the greater danger.” To this Aquinas adds: “But fraternal correction is a work of mercy. Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected.”