Monday, December 19, 2022

No, Frank Pavone Was Not Defrocked for Being Pro-Life

I scarcely knew who Frank Pavone was before the news broke that the longtime Catholic priest and pro-life activist has been defrocked. I've heard his name, and I knew he was a Trumper. But what disturbed me more than his laicization were the instant assumptions from his supporters and other traditional and conservative Catholics that he was stripped of the priesthood simply for being pro-life. To a lot of Catholics, judging by the reactions to the news, Pavone's punishment is further proof that Pope Francis is deliberately trying to undermine the very values and teachings that make the Catholic church Catholic.

Here are the facts, the best I can work them out -- and the facts are what we should be looking at, not our feelings or allegiances.   

Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life. His group has been very vocal in its opposition to abortion. For Catholics, opposition to abortion is not unusual, nor is it a controversial position. If you're Catholic, you support the protection of human life from conception until natural death.  

What got Pavone got in trouble, it seems, was the manner in which he carried out his advocacy. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, for example, Pavone placed an aborted baby on an altar and posted a video of it to Facebook, while suggesting that anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton would be voting for those whose politics led to the abortion of that same dead child.

Following that incident, Pavone's bishop, Patrick J. Zurek of the Diocese of Amarillo, denounced Pavone's stunt, calling the action "against the dignity of human life" and "a desecration of the altar."

Pavone and Zurek have a contentious history. In 2011, Zurek told Pavone to accept a pastoral assignment within the diocese and give up his extracurricular work. Pavone refused, so Zurek suspended him. Zurek had concerns about financial mismanagement within the Priests for Life organization, but more than that, Zurek wrote at the time, Pavone's "fame has caused him to see priestly obedience as an inconvenience to his unique status." 

Pavone didn't stop there. In 2020, he became the co-chairman of Donald Trump's pro-life coalition and continued to rankle his superiors who wanted him to curtail his political activism. Canon law prohibits priests from taking an active role in political parties unless they receive permission from their bishop.

He ultimately stepped down from his position in the Trump campaign, but he continued to use social media to advocate for Trump. His Twitter profile shows him standing side-by-side with Trump and wearing the red "Make America Great Again" hat that's so tightly identified with Trumpism.

In particular, he used his platform on Twitter to call Joe Biden a "goddamn loser" and claimed that Democrats "can't say a goddamn thing in support of their loser candidate without using the word Trump." 

"What the hell do you have to say for yourselves, losers?" he taunted.

To top it all off, he said that he would refuse absolution to anyone in confession who admitted to voting for Democrats. Again, Bishop Zurek had to write a statement, this time denouncing Pavone's words and actions as being "not consistent with Catholic Church Teaching." 

I hope it's become quite clear at this point why Pavone was stripped of the priesthood. It's not because the church leadership is out to get him. It's because he's proved time and again to be a loose cannon. As the letter from the papal nuncio announcing Pavone's laicization explained, Pavone has demonstrated "persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop" and engaged in "blasphemous communications on social media." That's the issue, not his pro-life advocacy.

The blasphemy charge relates to his taking the name of God in vain in his Twitter posts. In directly violating of one of the Ten Commandments, Pavone committed a mortal sin -- the kind of sin that dooms your soul to hell, and for which the faithful go to confession in the first place, so that they may be absolved.

Which brings us to Pavone's threat to refuse absolution to anyone who voted for a Democrat. Put simply, he's not supposed to do that. If someone shows up to confession and expresses genuine contrition for his or her sins, then the priest is supposed to absolve that person, issue a penance, and send the person on his or her way, with a fresh start and a caution to sin no more. To refuse that fresh start because Pavone didn't like the way someone voted is an abuse of his office, not to mention plainly uncharitable and wildly self-righteous. That's the way the woke behave, never allowing anyone to repent, forever condemning them for their ideological "sins." And lest we forget, holding absolution hostage was one of the things that triggered the Protestant Reformation.

Nor was Bishop Zurek wrong in admonishing Pavone for placing an aborted baby on an altar. Not only does Catholic canon law forbid the use of altars for anything but worship only, but Pavone unquestionably used the body of a dead human being as a political prop to get out the vote for his preferred presidential candidate. Pavone was guilty of both exploitation and desecration. "We believe that no one who is pro-life can exploit a human body for any reason," Zurek wrote at the time of the incident, "especially the body of a fetus."  

Look, I'm as pro-life as Pavone is, and I don't even necessarily disagree with him in principle on shocking people into an awareness of what it is they support with their views and their actions. As the great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer is reported to have said, "Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight." Just think about it: If people witnessed executions, they may not be so eager to support capital punishment. If people saw the carnage on the battlefield, perhaps they'd be less willing to cheer on the empire's bloody war machine (or at least they might wonder why they cheer on Ukraine while ignoring the plight of, say, the people of Yemen). Heck, if people saw animals being slaughtered, there would probably be a lot more vegetarians in the world. Go ahead and show consumers the working conditions in the sweatshops that keep capitalism profitable. And yes, show them that the result of an abortion is actually the taking of a human life, not just the removal of an amorphous clump of cells. 

But there's a time and a place, and a consecrated altar is not an appropriate medium on which to display a dead body to make a political point -- all the more so if you're a priest. If you want to be a political activist first and foremost, then go be a political activist. If you want to couch your activism within the framework of Catholic theology and social teaching, that's fine too, because at least you have your priorities straight, inasmuch as everything you do as a priest is supposed to be directed toward saving souls. You can't serve two masters -- in this case, the sacred and the mundane, or God and Caesar, if you like. One has to take precedence, and if you're a priest, you'd better be sure which one comes out on top. 

There's also a certain way to comport yourself when you're a priest. First, you have to be obedient to your bishop. That's not negotiable. And given that Pavone has burned bridges with more than one member of the church hierarchy, it's safe to say that obedience to his superiors is not his strong suit. Even staunchly pro-life Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York cut ties with Pavone when the priest refused to accept ecclesiastical financial oversight of Priests for Life. I'm not big on obedience for its own sake, but if I were a Catholic priest, I would understand that what my boss says, goes. It comes with the job description. If you have a problem with that, then, again, you should probably find another line of work. 

In tandem with obedience comes humility, which is a trait that Trump and Pavone both appear to lack. 
We've already addressed Pavone's combative (and blasphemous) language in his tweets. Michael Voris behaves similarly, and although it was never explicitly stated at the time, the Archdiocese of Detroit was no doubt reacting to Voris' acerbic and decidedly uncharitable demeanor when it asked him to stop using the word "Catholic" in the name of his media outlet. Now known as Church Militant, it was at the time called RealCatholicTV. 

But even now that he's been defrocked, which should have prompted at least a fleeting moment of reflection, Pavone remains defiant. For one thing, he still refers to himself as "Father," as if his priestly faculties haven't been stripped away. In an open letter to his supporters, he asks the pope to reconsider his laicization while accusing people in the church hierarchy of lying about him and abusing their authority over him. And in a video following the Vatican's decision on his priesthood, he continued to use belligerent language, referring to his critics as "the dumbest in the world." Sound like a certain politician you know? And more importantly, does it sound like something you'd expect a priestly servant of God to say? 

Pavone is trying to play the martyr, claiming that church authorities are singling him out for his abortion advocacy. In doing so, he ignores the plainly obvious fact that the church is pro-life on abortion, and that many other Catholic clergy advocate for an end to abortion. They just manage to do it without being offensive and insubordinate. 

The man clearly has learned nothing from his predicament. Like the politician he idolizes, he seems utterly incapable of self-reflection or contrition. 

Many of Pavone's defenders claim the church is exercising a double standard in its punishment. They've been quick to point out, for example, that Fr. James Martin has suffered no ecclesiastical punishment for his LGBT advocacy. But Fr. Martin has not, to my knowledge, ever disobeyed his bishop, nor does anything he promotes oppose Catholic teaching on homosexuality. The only thing he's really calling for, as far as I can see, is a little bit more compassion and openness toward people who, if the scientific research holds up, have no control over whom they're attracted to. We all know of the fundamentalist Christian tendency to focus on homosexuality to the exclusion of almost all other social and moral issues. Fr. Martin just seems to want to create an environment where gays and lesbians don't feel singled out. 

We could also have a discussion about folks like Thomas Merton, the Berrigan Brothers, Dorothy Day, and Sr. Helen Prejean, and their advocacy and activism against war, capital punishment, and exploitation of the poor. All of these Catholics have brought forth different aspects of what it means to be pro-life. Pavone's pro-life focus just happens to be abortion. In a sense, they're all fighting the same fight, upholding the Catholic belief in the dignity of life. I don't doubt that Pavone is just as genuinely passionate about his pro-life cause as they are, and were, about theirs. I do, however, wish that the militantly anti-abortion folks would show just as much passion about other humanitarian issues. Here where I live, our deacon invited us to pick up a Christmas card from the church narthex and send it to the folks in the county jail, as a reminder that one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy in the Catholic church is to visit the imprisoned. Jesus implores us to do as much in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. So why do we not show as much of a dedication to all of "the least of these" as we do to the unborn? Where is the equivalent concern for, say, the poor and the refugee? Maybe that's yet another thing for Pavone to reflect upon.

Heck, we could go on all day about the German church that's in near-schism at this point, or the way the church shuffled around abusive priests for years instead of punishing them, or its comparatively soft treatment (so far) of Fr. Marko Rupnik, accused of the systematic sexual exploitation of several nuns. But the point remains that even if the church is inconsistent and falls short in other cases, in Pavone's cases it did exactly what it ought to have done.

All I'm calling for is some intellectual honesty when dealing with situations like this. Whether anyone likes Pavone and his views is secondary to whether he did something to warrant punishment from the Vatican. If you would condemn acts of disobedience and sacrilege from the "other side" of the political fence, then you have to condemn those things when "your side" does them. If you have no problem with Pavone's MAGA hat, would you feel the same if you saw a priest campaign for a Democrat or wave a rainbow flag? If not, why not? Jesus didn't have nice things to say about hypocrites. 

I'm not a tremendous fan of the current papacy, and I've made that known in the past on this very blog. I especially don't like the way Pope Francis has taken a hard line against traditionalists, in particular Catholics who attend the Latin Mass. But it's people like Pavone who make the Vatican want to clamp down on traditionalists in the first place. Peter Kreeft once astutely pointed out that while leftists have soft heads to go along with their soft hearts, conservatives tend to have both hard heads and hearts. And that's why traditionalists can sometimes look a whole lot like the same Pharisees that Jesus so roundly condemned, stuck as they were in their rigidness, their lack of charity, their resistance to change, and their attachment to the letter of the law without regard for the spirit of the law. That goes a long way toward explaining why Pavone is the way he is. It's not really something to be proud of. 

As Kreeft observes, Christians are called to combine soft hearts with hard heads, to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Pavone falls short of that call, as do many. The way of Christ doesn't look like the modern Democratic Party or like Trumpism, and we miss the mark when we try to cram Christ into either one. Our job is to conform ourselves to him, not him to our contemporary political views. Pavone is not unusual in failing to figure that out. 

I have my eye on pursuing holy orders in 2023. I would be ordained as a priest with apostolic succession, albeit through a line that the Catholic church doesn't recognize. In the meantime, I enjoy attending Catholic Mass, and I don't intend to go out of my way to announce my priesthood to the churches I visit. But I have no doubt that if word of my ordination reached the bishop of our diocese, I'd run a good risk of being excommunicated. And I would accept that sentence if it were handed down, as I would be knowingly running afoul of church law. The problem with Frank Pavone is he wants it both ways. He wants to be able to disobey his superiors while carrying on being a priest. Sorry, Frank, but you're just not that special. If you don't like the rules, don't be surprised when your rogue behavior leaves you standing out in the cold. 

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