In Defense of All Catholics
Re: The natural and canonical rights of clergy and laity in cases of abuse of ecclesiastical authority.
The Church is a hierarchical institution whose members owe obedience to the sacred Pastors in their authentic teaching on faith and morals and their acts of governance — most especially the teaching and governance of the Supreme Pontiff. Yet the rulers of the Church are no more permitted to abuse their authority and harm the common good than the rulers of merely civil commonwealths. Indeed, the sacred Pastors have an even higher duty than secular leaders to rule justly and accept correction where it is warranted.
Hence the greatest saints and doctors of the Church have not hesitated to affirm the right and duty of the faithful — including members of the clergy — to rebuke, even publicly if necessary, and seek the correction of a hierarchical superior whose actions give public scandal, endanger the faith or harm the common good of the Church. For example, in the Summa Theologica, under the question “Whether a man is bound to correct his prelate,” St. Thomas teaches:
“It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith. …”1
As explained in Sacred Scripture (Gal. 2:11-14), Peter had scandalized potential converts and threatened the mission of the Church by appearing to continue to follow some of the Mosaic dietary laws by refusing to eat with baptized Gentiles at Antioch.
St. Thomas here observes that the just public rebuke of a prelate by his inferior is not presumptuous but actually an act of charity, for “there is no presumption in thinking oneself better in some respect, because, in this life, no man is without some fault. We must also remember that when a man reproves his prelate charitably, it does not follow that he thinks himself any better, but merely that he offers his help to one who, ‘being in the higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger,’ as Augustine observes in his Rule quoted above.”2
St. Robert Bellarmine, in answer to the spurious Protestant claim that Catholics view the Pope as an absolute monarch who is not bound by any law or restraint, wrote as follows:
Just as it is licit to resist the Pontiff that aggresses the body, it is also licit to resist the one who aggresses souls or who disturbs civil order, or above all, who attempts to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by preventing his will from being executed; it is not licit, however, to judge, punish or depose him, since these acts are proper to a superior.3
Likewise, the eminent 16th Century theologian Francisco Suarez, whom Pope Paul V praised as Doctor Eximius et Pius, (“Exceptional and Pious Doctor”) taught that
If [the Pope] gives an order contrary to right customs (morality), he should not be obeyed; if he attempts to do something manifestly opposed to justice and the common good, it will be lawful to resist him …4
Examples of such teaching by Church Doctors and Saints could be multiplied, but the point is made: the Church's loyal subjects have the right and the duty to voice loyal opposition to wayward prelates whose acts or omissions harm the Church, and to seek correction of the damage caused.
In conclusion, the Church’s Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 recognizes the irrevocable God-given rights of the faithful, both clergy and laity, in this regard:
• All baptized Catholics, obviously including clerics, “are at liberty to make known their needs, especially their spiritual needs, and their wishes, to the Pastors of the Church.”5 • With "respect for the integrity of faith and morals" and with "due reverence to the Pastors," all baptized Catholics "have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ's faithful …”6 • All baptized Catholics have the right to make direct and immediate recourse to the Supreme Pontiff, in matters pertaining to ecclesiastical jurisdiction, without any intervening canonical procedures.7
1. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II-II, Question 33, Article IV, Ad. 2.
2. Summa Theologica, Part II-II, Q33, Art. V.
3. St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Book II, Chapter 29.
4. Francisco Suarez, De Fide, Disp. X, Sec. VI, N. 16.
5. Code of Canon Law, Canon 212, § 2.
6. Code of Canon Law, Canon 212, § 3.
7. First Vatican Council (1870), Dz. 1830, D.S. 3063; Second Council of Lyons (1274), Dz. 466; Code of Canon Law, Canons 212 and 1417 § 1.