What did the Vatican really decide in Father Pavone's case?
The “victory” of Father Frank Pavone in his appeal to Rome illustrates something seriously wrong with the ordinary application of canon law.
The word “victory” belongs in quotation marks above because we don’t know whether the Congregation for Clergy accepted all, or even most, of Father Pavone’s canonical argument. The text of the Vatican decision has not been released. Therein lies the problem.
Priests for Life has claimed vindication for the group’s president, happily announcing that “Father Pavone is not now nor has ever been suspended.” But that is the answer to a question no one was asking. The Diocese of Amarillo put things in a different perspective, issuing a brief statement from Bishop Patrick Zurek, which can be quoted in full:
In its decree of May 18, 2012, the Congregation for the Clergy has sustained Father Frank A. Pavone’s appeal of his suspension from ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo and his appointment from me on October 4, 2011 as Chaplain of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in Channing, Texas. Father Pavone is to continue his ministry as chaplain until further notice. As a gesture of good will, I will grant permission to him in individual cases, based upon their merits, to participate in pro-life events with the provision that he and I must be in agreement beforehand as to his role and function.
All other matters are outside the purview of this statement.
Pay particular attention to that curt closing sentence. Bishop Zurek is acknowledging that the public will have other questions, and announcing that he doesn’t plan to answer them. Therein lies the problem, too.
The Vatican does not announce its ruling; the bishop does not explain his policies. So the faithful are left to speculate about what actually has been decided, and why.
There are times, certainly, when secrecy is appropriate in canonical affairs. This is not one of those times. Father Pavone is a very public figure, whose continued leadership in the pro-life movement was called into question by the bishop’s action last year. Thousands of good Catholics, who in good faith donated funds to Priests for Life, deserve a clear answer to their questions about this episode. The public statements released to date are anything but clear.
Yes, we know that Father Pavone is not suspended. But anyone familiar with canon law knew from the outset that “suspension” was the wrong term for the bishop’s action. As canonist Edward Peters explained last September, Bishop Zurek “should not have used the term ‘suspend’ in regard to Pavone, for ‘suspension’ is a canonical penalty for crime (c. 1333), and Pavone has not been accused of any crime.”
What Bishop Zurek actually did was give Father Pavone a new pastoral assignment, making it impossible to continue his full-time work with Priests for Life. As Peters also explained, there is no question about a bishop’s authority to give his priests whatever assignments he sees fit. In the convoluted first sentence of his public statement, Bishop Zurek seems to be saying that the Vatican upheld his decision to assign Father Pavone to a position as chaplain of a religious community. That was always the likely outcome in this case.
If there was never any real question that Father Pavone remained a priest in good standing, and never any real question that Bishop Zurek could reassign him, what do we really learn from this week’s news? Nothing at all.
The key question—the question that no one in authority has addressed publicly—is whether Bishop Zurek had real cause to worry about Father Pavone’s work with Priests for Life. When he called the pro-life leader back to Amarillo, Bishop Zurek explained to his fellow bishops that he was concerned about the financial management of Priests for Life and about Father Pavone’s resistance to episcopal authority. The bishop had good reason to be concerned, but oddly, he did not present those reasons to the public, and to the donors who might have wanted to reconsider their support for Priests for Life.
Apparently many donors, reading the tea leaves, did decide to cut back. Father Pavone acknowledges that Priests for Life now faces a severe financial squeeze. But the organization faces other serious questions as well. Should Father Pavone be acting as president? Is he handling the group’s finances responsibly? Is he properly accountable to Church leadership?
Justice—for Father Pavone, for Priests for Life and its supporters, for the pro-life movement in general—requires clear answers to those questions. After months of uncertainty, and an appeal to the Vatican, we still don’t have them.
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