I was listening to Pints With Aquinas this evening where Dr. Richard DeClue, a professional theologian, not a priest, was interviewed, but he didn't want to comment on some motu proprio (probably Traditionis Custodes) citing there were "canonical penalties" for doing so.

What is a "canonical penalty"? Does it affect the laity or more the priests and religious? And what exactly constitutes an act that requires someone to be canonically penalized?

  • Your question text appears to be rather more general than the title. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 12:17
  • @AndrewLeach I removed the 'the'. If this question is too general, I can break it up
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 13:38
  • Thanks Peter. I still think it's too general. "What is a canonical penalty?" "What act warrants such a penalty?" are very different from "What are the consequences of criticising a pope?" Obviously @KenGraham disagrees, but his answer doesn't really match the question because the question is unclear. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 15:09
  • @AndrewLeach I believe I have answered the question quite well whether you hold the post to mean "What is a canonical penalty?" or "What are the consequences of criticising a pope?"
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 15:41
  • @ken it's a good answer, but I guess I want to know, in light of it (if the only thing you can't do is physically harm the pope), why would Dr. DeClue recuse himself from commenting on the moto proprio because of Canonical Penalties. Is it because of his association with Word on Fire / Bishop Barron? He was talking specifically about the moto prorprio, not about off-the-cuff comments from Pope Francis. I'm guessing that what I really did wrong with this question was equate criticizing the Pope with criticizing Traditiones Custodes.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 17:08

2 Answers 2


What are canonical penalties for criticizing the Pope?

According to Canon Law there no canonical penalties for criticizing a pope.

That said however, Canon 1370 states only that excommunication is to be imposed on someone who uses physical force on the pope. An act of criticism in completely absent in Canon Law.

Can. 1370 — § 1. A person who uses physical force against the Roman Pontiff incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; if the offender is a cleric, another penalty, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, may be added according to the gravity of the crime.

§ 2. One who does this against a Bishop incurs a latae sententiae interdict and, if a cleric, he incurs also a latae sententiae suspension.

§ 3. A person who uses physical force against a cleric or religious or another of Christ’s faithful out of contempt for the faith, or the Church, or ecclesiastical authority or the ministry, is to be punished with a just penalty.

Thus stated, many believe that the faithful, clergy and lay persons are not allowed to criticize the pope at all. This is simply not true.

Some Catholics would feel it a religious duty to report possible cases of heresy or unclear wording of a papal document committed by a pope. This calls for spiritual fortitude!

The People of God may manifest their concerns or criticisms about the actions or teachings to their bishops and even the pope as the Supreme Pastor himself. This is backed up by Canon Law:

Can. 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.

This all stated, shows not only that can we in good conscience criticize a pope in certain situations, but may also have the religious duty to do so.

I would like to mention also, that although criticism of a pope is rarely done, the fear of some form of reprisal weighs heavy on some individuals, either from their own bishop or the pope himself. Pope are not perfect and can express things that are not congruent with the faith or tradition, yet not stating such things infallibly.

Here the four dubia cardinals come to mind as well a the recent situation with Bishop Strickland.

One notable case concerns Dr. Anca-Maria Cernea, Doctor at the Center for Diagnosis and Treatment-Victor Babes and President of the Association of Catholic Doctors of Bucharest (Romania) who criticized Pope Francis regarding his "inversion of priorities" in Laudato Si'.

Pope Francis seems to be afraid of criticism from some and not so much from others and this shows in his reactions through Vatican channels.

Pope Francis is terrible for not being clear enough in regards to some of his teachings. Yes, popes can be respectfully criticized!

For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears. - 2 Timothy 4:3

The following articles may be of interest to some:


It may be interesting to know that St Catherine of Siena criticised pope Gregory XI a lot and with such conviction that the pope finally left Avignon and returned to Rome. She has been canonised by pope Pius II, and pope Paul VI declared her Doctor of the Church.

I would think she would be a great patron for all faithful who criticise the pope respectful, out of a sense of duty.

Because we all, as catholics, lay and clergy, have a duty and I would hope a love, to the Church, even if this means disagreement with the pope.

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