[Updated] Fr. Pavone, Priestly Obedience, and Avoiding Needless Scandal

[UPDATE, Fri Sep 16: "Why the “Free Father Frank” Movement is Misplaced and Counter-Productive"]

I’ve observed the dispute between Fr. Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life and his bishop, Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, with sadness. I suppose it was unavoidable that the dispute would become public but these disagreements always cause harm to Catholic unity and it would have been better if it could have been resolved privately.

Already Catholics are “picking sides” — those who know Fr. Pavone from his pro-life work are prone to support him and those who understand the good reasons for clerical obedience are more prone to support his bishop.

Joan Frawley Desmond at the National Catholic Register has published (as always) an excellent summary of what is happening and my father, canon lawyer Ed Peters, has posted expert observations about what is happening canonically over at CanonLaw.info.

The mainstream media, of course, has already decided to frame this dispute as one over financial improprieties and Fr. Pavone overstepping his bounds. The Associated Press reports:

A Roman Catholic priest nationally known for his anti-abortion activism has been ordered back to his diocese for “prayer and reflection” amid questions about whether he properly accounted for millions of dollars in donations.

I believe that making all of this about money is misleading. I think the main thing here isn’t about whether Fr. Pavone/Priests for Life is mishandling finances or overstepping his bounds, it’s about how Fr. Pavone/PFL is responding to Bishop Zurek’s demands for transparency.

A Catholic priest is solemnly bound to be obedient to his bishop. Fr. Pavone’s comment that “Bishop Zurek is quite aware that my heart is in pro-life work; it is a commitment I made to God” ignores the fact that Fr. Pavone has also made a commitment to God to be obedient to his bishop. Furthermore, Catholics believe that God is the primary actor in history, so whatever someone’s personal actions on behalf of the unborn are –and Fr. Pavone’s have been extraordinary– God will only bless and make those actions fruitful if His commandments are kept, and His commandment for priests is to be obedient to the legitimate authority placed over them, in this case, Bishop Zurek. So Fr. Pavone’s passion to protect the unborn is actually fulfilled through his priestly obedience, in addition to his tangible pro-life work.

Why do I bring this up? Because otherwise Catholics will be tempted to see Bishop Zurek’s actions vis-a-vis Fr. Pavone as an impediment to Fr. Pavone’s pro-life work, and that’s just not how the Church sees it, or what good theology tells us is this case. Fr. Pavone ought to humbly submit to this process, appeal his case using the legitimate canonical means at his disposal, and minimize the scandal caused by appearing to be and acting fully and joyfully cooperative with Bishop Zurek’s requests.

All of this is not to pick sides –I’m not saying Bishop Zurek is in the right by any means– I’m saying only through humble obedience will this matter be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Bishop Zurek is also bound by the same standards to have the true and objective good of Fr. Pavone’s priestly ministry at heart. Egoism has no place here, and sadly the public nature of this dispute makes me think egoism is in play.

It is my prayer that Catholics will prayerfully support both Fr. Pavone and Bp. Zurek, and that they might resolve this matter promptly through a renewal of their priestly and episcopal vows and duties.

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51 thoughts on “[Updated] Fr. Pavone, Priestly Obedience, and Avoiding Needless Scandal

  1. JoAn Karkos says:

    Could you kindly update us on the status of Fr. Frank Pavone. How much longer will he be aware from his ministry at P F L?

  2. Pete says:

    I am just commenting unoficially as a reader of this website on the problems of Father Pavone.

    This looks like a matter of egos, the Bishop is big and he wants the little priest to tell him everything, so maybe the Bishop gets some of the money. Also the Bishops across the world are getting their ears bent by the secular world that thinks abortion is necessary, and there should be only 500 million people in the whole world.

    And this could be a lead-in to the predicted great apostacy as predicted in many 20th century marian apparitions which most bishops did not like very well.

    And across this land [ USA ] many churches have been closed and the bishops taking the spoils.

    We must realize that this is not all black and white, this particular bishop may not be 100% bad guy and Fahter Pavone 100% good guy.

    Men are men and they do things good and bad. Father Pavane has stuck his neck out for the unborn being killed all over this country while others including bishops and politician say ” what can I do?”

    I think Father Pavane is mostly a good guy who has dedicated his whole life to God and the practical work of savings lives about to be terminated.

    1. JoAn Karkos says:

      Why the silence on the status of Fr. Frank Pavone? Updates were promised and cannot be found.

  3. John P Denzer says:

    JMJ Just wanted to report something I’ve seen for the first time. My newspaper the Express and News has reported that Priests for Life is in the hole $1.4 Million.+

  4. Dan says:

    Bishop Zurik’s public grandstanding is why this in the press. He went straight to the entire national audience with overheated rhetoric and accusation. Frank Pavone obeyed, but simply defended his work from being destroyed, in the most reasonable of matters.

  5. steveh says:

    Fr Pavone wrote this morning: “But let’s be clear. Nobody needs anybody else’s permission to save a human life…”

    This subtle disregard for Church authority (and therefore for the nature of Fr Pavone’s own priesthood) shows that Bishop Zurek has made a good decision.

    On that phrase alone, I would require that Fr Pavone spend a year in seclusion, for his own sake as well as for the long-term sake of the Catholic pro-life movement.

    Despite his protestations of obedience, this is clearly moving toward a Fr Corapi – type situation. Not good.

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