[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.