Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.
Frank Pavone*, the founder of Priests for Life and a long-time pro-life leader, was laicized last month by the Vatican. Pavone has a long history of tussles with the Church hierarchy, but this extreme action stunned most Catholic observers.
So what led to his dismissal from the clerical state? After all, forced laicization is reserved for only a small number of outrageous situations (think Theodore McCarrick). Telling a priest that he can no longer publicly present himself as a priest (which includes publicly celebrating the Sacraments) should always be—and usually is—the absolute last resort.
It’s important to know Pavone’s history to see how we got to this point. While Pavone’s laicization understandably raises many emotions among pro-life Catholics, it’s not as simple as “ Vatican bad, canceled priest good.”
Though it’s true that Pavone has a history of conflict with ecclesial authority, he wasn’t always at odds with it. In the early 1990s, John Cardinal O’Connor of New York (where Pavone was a priest) approved Pavone’s idea to work full-time in pro-life ministry. O’Connor, the founder of the pro-life Sisters of Life religious order, understood the importance of dedicated clergy and religious working full-time in the pro-life battle, and Pavone had the energy and personality to engage in this important struggle.
Pavone’s efforts were largely successful. He quickly became one of this country’s most influential pro-life leaders, and the organization he founded, Priests for Life, has done immeasurably good work over the decades. But by the 2000s, Pavone’s tensions with the hierarchy were brewing.
Edward Cardinal Egan succeeded O’Connor in New York in 2000. He wanted Pavone to return to parish work, and herein lies the root cause of all Pavone’s later battles with the Church. Pavone sees his full-time pro-life work as a vocation, not just an assignment. Whether or not O’Connor saw it the same way is unknown, but it’s clear that all of Pavone’s superiors since O’Connor disagreed with this assessment. To them, Pavone’s pro-life work was always simply an assignment, much like a priest’s assignment to a parish or hospital. Assignments can be changed as desired by the proper Church authorities. Pavone fundamentally disagreed.
After Pavone’s dustup with Egan, he transferred his incardination to what he felt was a more friendly diocese, Amarillo, Texas under Bishop John Yanta. He even started the process of founding his own pro-life religious order: the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life. He raised millions for this endeavor, but the order was scuttled after only two years. Questions arose about how he used the funds raised on its behalf.
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A new bishop, Patrick Zurek, was assigned to replace Bishop Yanta in Amarillo in 2008, and he soon sought to rein in Pavone. He wanted a closer look at Priests for Life’s finances, and he also wanted to transfer Pavone to a parish assignment. Again, the fundamental issue arose: Pavone felt his pro-life work was a vocation, not an assignment and therefore would not obey Zurek’s order.
In 2011, Zurek announced that Pavone was “suspended,” but that language was sloppy at best, as Pavone remained a priest in good standing. Pavone appealed this decision and eventually won at the Vatican. His work for Priests for Life continued, but he started looking to be incardinated in another, more friendly, diocese.
Things are a little confusing at this point. Pavone himself suggested that he transferred to the Diocese of Colorado Springs under Bishop Michael Sheridan in 2016, but other reports say only that he transferred to an “unknown” diocese. The Amarillo diocese itself never publicly acknowledged that Pavone was no longer under its authority.
What is known is that he relocated to Florida, to the Diocese of Orlando, and continued to run Priests for Life. (The Diocese of Orlando has made no comment about his affiliation.) The Priests for Life website for years has declared he is a “priest in good standing” without stating his diocesan affiliation.
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In 2016 Pavone became a very vocal supporter of Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, even serving on multiple official campaign outreach programs. Canon Law forbids clergy to have an active role in political parties without permission from their bishop, but who knows if Pavone received such permission since it’s not even known who his bishop was?
In his most controversial act, Pavone filmed a video in November 2016 where a dead unborn baby was shown on what appeared to be an altar while Pavone urged Catholics to vote for Trump. Even many supporters of Pavone felt he went too far with this deed. Ultimately Pavone admitted that the video sent a confusing message, as the table was not a consecrated altar, but had been used in previous videos as an altar for online Masses.
Pavone continued, however, to be vocal in his support for Trump and his attacks on the Democratic Party and its candidates. In 2020 tweets that were later deleted, he called Joe Biden a “[expletive]ing loser,” accused the Democratic Party of being “God-hating” and “America-hating,” and claimed that Biden’s supporters “can’t say a [expletive] thing in support of their loser candidate without using the word Trump.” He then asked, “What the hell do you have to say for yourselves, losers?”
While Pavone continued to be criticized—or at least kept at a distance—by many Church leaders, he still had substantial support from stalwart pro-life Catholics. Many assumed he was going to be largely ignored by the hierarchy moving forward.
But not anymore. On Saturday Catholic News Agency reported that a letter dated December 13 from the United States Apostolic Nuncio was sent to all the bishops in this country, informing them that Pavone had been “dismissed from the clerical state” on November 9 and that there was “no possibility for appeal.” It further stated that this action was taken because Pavone had engaged in “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop.”
When CNA contacted Pavone, he stated that CNA’s inquiry was the first he had heard about the dramatic act. This itself is highly unusual. How can a priest be laicized and not informed? The priest obviously would continue to present himself as a priest if he has no reason to do otherwise. Either the Vatican is highly incompetent (very possible) or cowardly (also possible) or Pavone isn’t telling the truth (less possible).
In a response posted on the Priests for Life website Pavone again brings up the fundamental issue as he sees it: “Since Cardinal O’Connor granted my request in 1993 for permission to work full-time to save the unborn from abortion, that has been my consistent—and only—request of Church authority: allow me to devote my life and ministry to saving the unborn.”
What are Catholics to think of this mess? To repeat, I don’t think we should have a knee-jerk “Vatican bad, canceled priest good” reaction.
First, it’s obvious we live in a lawless Church. When rules are selectively enforced by authorities, that’s not the rule of law, it’s the rule of dictators. We see countless examples of priests preaching heresies and supporting evil with no punishment coming their way. Also, the irony is too rich when the Vatican that allowed the Pachamama idol to be venerated on its grounds would now suddenly have a problem with blasphemy. It’s hard not to see this action against Pavone as a vindictive act against someone whose politics does not line up with the current regime at the Vatican.
Yet this action also raises an important question: what makes a faithful priest? Or, worded differently, what makes a priest unfaithful and therefore worthy of punishment? The faithful priest is faithful to two things: (1) the teachings of the Church; and (2) his legitimate ecclesial authorities. Being unfaithful to either of these two requires discipline and possibly even punishment from a priest’s superiors.
Thus, a priest like Fr. James Martin violates the first rule of priestly faithfulness. He rejects Church teaching on human sexuality (although, like his master the devil, he presents his dissent deceptively enough to fool many). Because of this, he should have been disciplined long ago by his religious superiors in the Society of Jesus. Yet he continues as a priest in good standing with a very public (and papally-endorsed) profile. A lawless Church indeed.
Pavone, however, has shown no indication of being unfaithful to Church teachings—by all accounts, he is committed to orthodox Catholicism. But has he been faithful to his legitimate ecclesial authority? That’s not so clear.
Ultimately it comes down to whether one accepts that Pavone’s full-time pro-life ministry is a vocation or simply an assignment. If it’s a vocation, then one can be sympathetic to his desire to remain in that work no matter what any bishop might say.
However, it’s hard to accept Pavone’s line of reasoning. “Vocation,” in the Catholic sense, is a very restrictive word. It only applies to a small number of states of life: the priesthood, the religious life, and the married life (modern misguided efforts to call the single life a vocation notwithstanding). Pro-life ministry is not a vocation. Even the vocation of members of the Sisters of Life is not pro-life apostolate; rather their vocation is consecrated life, which includes a vow to protect the sacredness of human life.
Whatever Pavone’s own feelings on the matter, and no matter how effective he has been over the decades, his pro-life ministry is an assignment, not a vocation. And one thing has always been clear in Church history: bishops have the authority to change the assignments of priests under them. In an ideal world, they do this with prudence and charity, and insight, but even when they do it for less-than-ideal reasons, they still have that authority. When a diocesan priest like Pavone is ordained, he makes a promise to obey his bishop and his bishop’s successor—that promise is far more sacred and engrained in the priestly vocation than any later desire to a specific ministry.
Although I admire much of Pavone’s work over the years—and I believe that pro-life work is one of the most important works of our day—his problem, at least as I see it looking from the outside, is that he believes he is too important to the pro-life movement to leave it, for any reason. Yet no one is above the movement, and faithfulness to our sacred vows and promises is far more beneficial to the unborn than any human work we might do. Yes, Pavone has at times done effective work for the unborn, but if Pavone had obeyed Cardinal Egan’s desire for him to return to parish work in 2000 or Bishop Zurek’s command for him to take up parish ministry in 2011, who knows how God might have blessed that faithfulness?
Now, note that I’ve been on record arguing that true Catholic theology always recognizes limits on obedience, even beyond the basic limit that a superior can’t order an inferior to sin. St. Thomas Aquinas made the actual limits clear. Blind obedience to illegitimate commands is the cause of many of our problems in the Church today. Most importantly, a superior can only issue orders when they fall within his sphere of authority, which is why bishops did not have the authority to order lay people to wear masks at Mass.
But priestly assignments clearly are within a bishop’s legitimate authority, and thus priests are bound to obey those assignments. Yes, there are general canonical rules a bishop must follow, and there is a canonical process for appeal. Still, for the vast majority of assignments, a priest must do what his bishop orders when it comes to his assignment. Based on the public information available, I see no reason to think that Pavone’s reassignment did not fall under the general rule.
This might be difficult for many of Pavone’s supporters to hear. After all, isn’t this a case of a conservative priest being canceled by a highly corrupt and politicized Vatican? Absolutely it is. Isn’t this another example of Church authorities abusing their authority? Yes.
Pavone has been one of the few priests today who has consistently fought for the unborn. His work has likely saved countless babies over the years, and many other pro-life leaders have him to thank for his example and commitment to the unborn. Further, heretical and immoral prelates and priests are running amok in the Church today without any fear of punishment. In a sane Church, Pavone would be allowed to continue his pro-life work, and priests like Fr. James Martin would be janitors in a remote hermitage, miles from civilization.
But the faithful do not respond to unfaithfulness with the unfaithfulness of our own. Neither should we be “party Catholics” who defend “our guy” no matter what. As St. Paul wrote to the divided Corinthian church long ago, we cannot be “for Apollos” for “for Paul” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:4). We must be for Christ, and to be for Christ, we must be for the Church and the authority Christ gave her bishops, even when that authority is used in ways that appear contrary to the ways of Christ.
*It might be legitimately asked why I call Pavone “Frank Pavone” and not “Fr. Frank Pavone” (especially since I call James Martin “Fr. James Martin”). The reason is simple. Because the Vatican has the authority to dismiss Pavone from the clerical state, as I explain in this article, he can no longer be presented publicly as a Catholic priest, thus the title “Father” no longer applies.