The Vatican’s action against Frank Pavone: overdue yet unexplained
Yes, there are other priests—many others, really—whose conduct has been far more egregious, whose public statements have been far more injurious to the faith. Yes, it is painful to see a leading figure in the American pro-life movement disciplined, while others who undermine Church moral teaching are showered with Vatican honors. Yes, many thousands of loyal Catholics have lost confidence in their bishops, and they see a blatant double standard in the handling of disciplinary cases.
Nevertheless the laicization of Frank Pavone is not an injustice. In fact it should not be a surprise.
“What took so long?” Those are the words of Pavone himself, in his response to the announcement that he had been defrocked. His bishop had warned him, long ago, about the exactly that possibility. After nearly fifteen years of fighting against episcopal authority—years in which he refused to accept his bishop’s directives—Pavone could not have been surprised by this weekend’s news.
If it is true (and I have no reason to doubt it) that Pavone first heard the news from a CNA reporter a few days ago—although the Vatican order for his laicization was issued on November 9—that can only be because he had broken off communications with his bishop. “Father Pavone was given ample opportunity to defend himself in the canonical proceedings, and he was also given multiple opportunities to submit himself to the authority of his diocesan bishop,” wrote Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the US. By his own account Pavone had been very actively involved in canonical appeals for years. Finally the appeals ran out.
Father Pavone was certainly not the first priest to fall into an adversarial relationship with his diocesan bishop. But other unhappy clerics recognize that on the day of their ordination to the priesthood, when they promised obedience to the ordaining bishop and his successors, they gave away all the high cards in their hand. In a battle with his bishop, the diocesan priest inevitably loses.
And frankly, despite all the problems that are so sadly evident in the Catholic hierarchy today, that is as it should be. A Catholic priest must be subject to some hierarchical control; otherwise he is a loose cannon: a minister who represents the Church but does not accept the Church’s authority.
In defending himself against his bishop, Pavone has consistently taken the line that he has been persecuted for his pro-life advocacy. “They just don’t like the work I’m doing for these babies,” he told CNA. That argument is disingenuous at best. Many other priests have been outspoken in their defense of the unborn, without causing any such conflicts with their superiors. His conflicts with his bishops—first with Cardinal Edward Egan in New York, then with Bishops John Yanta and Patrick Zurek in Amarillo, Texas—have revolved around his role in the secular corporation that he founded: Priests for Life.
Full-time work for a secular corporation?
Priests for Life (PFL) is a large activist organization, with an annual budget of about $10 million—more than the budget for the Amarillo diocese where he served. The group has its own board of directors, its own professional staff, its own headquarters in Florida. Yet Pavone is the unquestioned leader, the figurehead, the public spokesman, the decision-maker for PFL. So a question naturally arises: can a diocesan priest devote his full-time attention to a secular organization? Can he set his policies for that organization, disregarding input from his bishop?
That question becomes more pressing when, as in this case, the priest refuses to open the organization’s financial books to his diocesan superiors. In September 2011—yes, more than a decade ago—Bishop Zurek intervened because of his “deep concerns regarding [Pavone’s] stewardship of the finances of the Priests for Life (PFL) organization.” As I reported at the time:
Father Pavone says that he has answered every question the bishop asked about the finances of PFL. Bishop Zurek disputes that point, charging that PFL has managed to “rebuff my every attempt at calling for financial transparency.”
Later, in an effort to mediate the disagreement, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York suggested an independent audit of PFL, and the appointment of a few representatives of the hierarchy to the group’s board. Again Pavone refused.
In 2005, Father Pavone had moved to establish a religious order, called the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, which he saw as an arm of Priests for Life. That plan posed a novel challenge to the normal working plan of the Catholic hierarchy: a religious order that would be controlled by a secular corporation. The nascent religious order was quietly disbanded a few years later, amid complaints that its young members were being used as fundraisers for PFL.
The blasphemy charge
In announcing Pavone’s laicization to the American bishops, Archbishop Pierre said that the priest was disciplined for his “blasphemous communications on social media” as well as his “persistent disobedience.” The charge of disobedience is easy to understand; Pavone had insisted that he could not accept Bishop Zurek’s order to work in the Amarillo diocese. He explained that the late Cardinal John O’Connor, who ordained him, had approved his work with PFL. But it seems highly unlikely that Cardinal O’Connor gave him carte blanche to define his own priestly mission. And in any case, at ordination a priest promised obedience to his bishop and that bishop’s successors. When Cardinal Egan sought to put some restraints on his PFL involvement, Father Pavone arranged to transfer to the Amarillo diocese. But the problems with obedience followed him to Texas.
But what about those “blasphemous communications”? The apostolic nuncio did not explain the charge, but Father Pavone had often pushed the boundaries of taste in his condemnations of the abortion industry and its supporters. During the 2020 presidential campaign he wrote on Twitter about “supporters of this goddam loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God-hating Democratic party.” Can we agree that sort of language is inappropriate for a man of the cloth?
Pavone’s heavy involvement in partisan politics was a concern, certainly. (He made few friends among the American bishops when he took a high-profile stand in support of Donald Trump’s campaign.) But his willingness to use religious occasions for political purposes—even for purposes as worthy as the pro-life movement—also made bishops uneasy. Their concern reached new heights in 2016, when he put the body of an aborted fetus on an altar, and posted a video of it on social media. Critics saw this action as a desecration of both the altar and the unborn child’s remains.
(Pavone has said that the fetal remains were placed not on an altar, but on a table, which he sometimes used as an altar. The distinction is obscure. What do you call a table on which a priest sometimes celebrates Mass? An altar.)
The bishops’ tattered credibility
Why are so many Catholics upset by Pavone’s laicization? Three reasons.
First, because loyal Catholics—especially those of us who have been active in the pro-life movement—are tired of hearing bishops play lip service to the Gospel of Life, while tolerating the scandalous behavior of prominent Catholics who support the slaughter of the unborn. Why is Pavone disciplined, and not Biden or Pelosi?
Second, because the scandals that have ripped through the Church in the past few decades have shredded the credibility of the hierarchy. A generation ago, a bishop who reined in a rebellious cleric could assume that loyal Catholics would accept his disciplinary action in good faith. No longer.
Third, while Pavone has spoken out frequently in his own defense, the voice of the hierarchy has been virtually silent. Archbishop Pierre offered only a sketchy explanation for the laicization, with no specific charges. Bishop Zurek and the Amarillo diocese had no comment. We have heard Pavone’s defenses, but we have not heard the charges against him. If the purpose of disciplinary action is to protect the Catholic faithful from being misled, in this case the action has failed.