Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Father Pavone's last stand

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 21, 2011

More than three years ago, readers on this site received fair warning that Father Frank Pavone was cruising toward a showdown with officials in the Diocese of Amarillo. Read the comment by Diogenes from August 2008, and you will find the simmering conflict neatly summarized, many months before it boiled over into full public view. Diogenes concluded his analysis this way:

The question isn't whether or not the Church will support pro-life work. The question is whether priests and religious, when they engage in pro-life work, remain subject to ecclesiastical discipline.

The answer, by the way, is Yes. You can learn that the easy way or learn it the hard way.

Now Father Pavone is learning the hard way, along with many of his loyal supporters. The controversy that finally hit the headlines last week is a sad one, a damaging one for the pro-life movement, but not a new one. It was all too easy to see it coming.

For years Father Pavone has sought autonomy for his organization, Priests for Life. His quest for independence caused some tension with the Archdiocese of New York, where he originally served. At first it seemed that tension was resolved when he moved to the Amarillo diocese. But it cropped up again with Bishop John Yanta, who had welcomed him to Texas. Finally it came to a head under Bishop Yanta’s successor, Bishop Patrick Zurek.

Bishop Zurek’s decision to recall Father Pavone to Amarillo, and restrict him to ministry there, was not a bolt from the blue, then. Father Pavone has disclosed that he had been discussing the possibility with his bishop for several months. No doubt both, the bishop and the priest, had been seeking advice from canon lawyers and support from friends, trying to influence each other, hoping to resolve the mounting tension without a public ruckus.

Especially in light of those behind-the-scenes negotiations, and the consultations that must have taken place, it is unfortunate that Bishop Zurek sloppily used the word “suspend” in the public announcement of his decision. Father Pavone was not suspended; he remains a priest in good standing. He was summoned to serve the Church in the diocese where he is incardinated. There is no question that the bishop has the authority to restrict a priest’s ministry in this way. Although Father Pavone has announced a canonical appeal, it is difficult to imagine how he could prevail.

In September 9 announcement, Bishop Zurek said that he took action because of “deep concerns regarding [Pavone’s] stewardship of the finances of the Priests for Life (PFL) organization.” But his concerns went deeper, he revealed. He was also worried about Father Pavone’s “incorrigible defiance to my legitimate authority as his Bishop.” Those two concerns, it becomes clear, were very closely intertwined.

Father Pavone says that he has answered every question the bishop asked about the finances of PFL. Bishop Zurek disputes that point, charging that PFL has managed to “rebuff my every attempt at calling for financial transparency.” How can we judge those two contradictory claims? The audited financial reports of PFL, which Father Pavone has now made public, provide a few clues. Last year PFL showed a $1.4 million budget deficit, and the group’s available cash balances dropped by over a half-million dollars. The latest PFL budget figures show an enormous $879,000 loan to Gospel of Life Ministries: another effort with which Father Pavone is personally involved. If those funds are not repaid, PFL faces an immediate financial crisis. Bishop Zurek has good reason to be worried about Father Pavone’s financial stewardship.

But financial reports only record the sums that were raised and spent; they do not necessarily tell how and why they were raised and spent. Therein lies the larger problem.

When he brought PFL to Amarillo, Father Pavone had ambitious plans to build a seminary there, and found a new religious order dedicated to pro-life activism. He raised enormous sums of money from donors who were encouraged to support that religious order and help build that seminary. But the seminary was never built, and within a couple of years the religious order had been disbanded.

In a revealing Amarillo television interview, Father Pavone admitted that much of the money raised for the seminary had been spent on “the things we did”—the operating expenses of PFL. Since the $10 million annual budget of PFL dwarfs the budget of the Amarillo diocese, it is eminently understandable that diocesan officials—who were hoping that a new seminary would provide benefits for their own pastoral work—would ask pointed questions about those “things we did.”

Since being recalled, Father Pavone has assured his supporters that he plans to continue his pro-life activism. He has reminded reporters that he took a vow “in the presence of a Vatican cardinal” to devote himself full-time to the pro-life cause. The presence of a cardinal would not affect the binding force of a vow, of course; Father Pavone is reminding us that he has friends in high places. By insisting on his dedication to the pro-life cause, he is (intentionally?) feeding suspicions that his bishop wants to rein him in because he has been too outspoken in his opposition to abortion—an assertion for which there is no supporting evidence. But there is something even more troubling about Father Pavone’s claim here.

When he made that special vow, in August 2006, Father Pavone was founding a religious order: the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life. Two years later that order was defunct. Looking back on the order’s history today, Father Pavone is surprisingly unconcerned about its demise. “We knew it was an experiment,” he told the Amarillo television interviewer. It is odd—and not at all healthy—that the founder of a religious order would look upon it as an experiment. In the course of that interview, Father Pavone makes it clear that in his mind, the religious order was always a means to an end; it was intended to act as an arm of PFL. (As Diogenes pointed out when the order was suppressed, that was a major concern for Church officials: that a religious order might be controlled by a secular corporation.) Yet once the order was dissolved, Father Pavone’s special vow lost its force, and he became an ordinary priest of the Amarillo diocese.

Now Father Pavone wants to leave Amarillo, to become a priest in another diocese that will allow him to continue his pro-life work without unwanted supervision. His desire for complete independence is easy to understand: Which one of us doesn’t want to be free from supervision? But in light of his track record—in particular, his insouciant approach to the details of raising, spending, and accounting for money—it is equally easy to understand why his bishop would not think it prudent to grant him that degree of independence. Canon lawyer Edward Peters has written perceptively about this case in general and about Father Pavone’s quest to be free of Amarillo in particular. To state the matter in simple terms, a diocesan priest has a responsibility first and foremost to his bishop and his diocese, and only secondarily to any apostolate with which he is associated. Bishop Zurek spoke of the need for Father Pavone to “readjust his priestly bearing” and recognize that he is a priest first, an activist second. To date there is no sign that the embattled priest is getting that message.

In his quest to be rid of the irksome restrictions that he now faces in Amarillo, Father Pavone says that he will seek incardination to another diocese. That won’t be easy. He has already switched his diocesan affiliation once, and any thoughtful bishop would look askance at a priest who wanted to switch for a second time. To aggravate matters still further, another pro-life group with which Father Pavone is affiliated (as a board member) is now planning to picket Catholic churches in the Amarillo diocese. What bishop would want to take on a priest who has become embroiled in such an openly adversary relationship with his diocesan superiors? What bishop would want a priest who has made it so abundantly clear that he considers his own personal apostolate more important than the work of the diocese—to the point that he is willing to attack the diocese in order to further the apostolate?

For years Father Pavone has run PFL as his own personal fiefdom. He has been answerable only to the PFL board of directors—on which he and his paid subordinates have formed a solid voting majority. That long run of complete autonomy is now coming to an end. This is not a case in which a bishop has set out to squelch pro-life activism. It is a case in which a bishop has realized that a priest and a Catholic apostolate are both in urgent need of supervision.

Recognizing this reality may be a difficult process for Father Pavone. Until now, PFL has been his project: his baby. But he cannot continue running PFL the way he has been running it. If the mission of PFL is to continue and thrive, it will be under some new form of leadership.

Painful though it will be, Father Pavone should realize that the time has come to offer his baby up for adoption. He of all people should realize the most likely alternative: the baby will die.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: EiLL - Oct. 20, 2011 8:27 PM ET USA

    Thank you for the facts once again. I changed my support to monthly instead of intermittent single donations. I don't know where I'd go to get the truth if Catholic Culture disappeared.

  • Posted by: seewig - Oct. 05, 2011 1:52 AM ET USA

    Phil's commentary is well balanced. I don't mean balanced as mixing truth with falsehood, but Phil keeps the emotional component out of this discussion. Fr. Pavone may need some time off to rethink his mission. It is not he, or PFL who changes people's minds. It is God, the Holy Spirit who does that "job". Radicalism only has meaning if it means radically surrendering ourselves to Jesus Christ. Besides that, our mission can only be to spread the truth among the faithful.

  • Posted by: newsh188576 - Sep. 23, 2011 2:03 AM ET USA

    The war against abortion is taking a hit if Fr. Pavone's work is limited. What did Christ say - “Who among you, if your son or ox* falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?” Let's not get caught up in pleasantries about "obedience" ot the bishop. Money - who cares - why it is always about money - so he has been reckless with money - the question is this - Who is the leading priest in the fight against abortion. One Answer. Father Pavone. Amen.

  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - Sep. 22, 2011 12:48 PM ET USA

    This is exactly the kind of analysis that keeps me coming back to Catholic Culture. I now feel I have some flesh on the bare bone statements being made by the principles. Thanks Phil. I've just raised by donation.

  • Posted by: schndj2254 - Sep. 22, 2011 10:57 AM ET USA

    There should be no question from any orthodox believing Catholic as to the legitimacy of authority expressed by this Bishop. As a priest and Auxiliary he has demonstrated his fidelity on numerous occasions so he certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt before any rush to judgement. What is truly unfortunate beyond the potential for scandal and "taking of sides", is that there seems to be no similar and timely mechanism to rein in Bishops when they go off the reservation.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 22, 2011 1:42 AM ET USA

    Although Pavone has been very successful with priests for life, I believe it is more the laity's vocation to start groups like this, and the priests vocation to shepherd his flock. As far as those that have decided they will protest the bishop, they are acting no better than the liberal "Catholic" colleges that continually fight their bishops authority.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 22, 2011 12:45 AM ET USA

    Why can't Father Pavone do Pro-Life work in Amarillo? Why is it so important that HE be in charge of Priests for Life? Yes, his present situation is about obedience but... Come on man-you are a Roman Catholic Priest for Goodness sake wake-up! How many young people will seek you out in the confessional begging for God's mercy and forgiveness; seeking healing for emotional and sinful conditions brought on by confusion between love and lust? Get your helmet on and get in the game!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 21, 2011 8:41 PM ET USA

    Michael Davies: “… every prayer in the traditional rite [of Ordination] which stated specifically the essential role of a priest as a man ordained to offer propitiatory sacrifice for the living and dead has been removed [from the New Rite of Paul VI]." If there is a problem with regard to proper orientation among popular priests in recent years this insight might prove useful. But don't hold your breath.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Sep. 21, 2011 7:38 PM ET USA

    This is an excellent piece of commentary. I believe that it was St. Ignatius of Loyola who observed that Obedience is the Incarnation of Love. Even if bishops ignore the disobedience of every schismatic and heretic, we are not thereby absolved of our own obligation to obey the legitimate directives of legitimate authorities in communion with the Roman Pontiff.

  • Posted by: skladach - Sep. 21, 2011 7:38 PM ET USA

    "The obedient man shall speak of victory." Proverbs 21:28.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 21, 2011 2:44 PM ET USA

    Fr. Pavone's homilies on EWTN were marvelous. It just goes to show that we have to watch our emotional responses to charismatic leaders of ALL stripes. We the Faithful need to learn to run like hell in the face of pride. Obedience is the first virtue we learn and the last one we master.

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Sep. 21, 2011 1:35 PM ET USA

    I am sure the only entities that will benefit from this are the likes of NARAL & Planned Parenthood. Given the Bishops effete response to the abortion culture I have 0 confidence in their ability or interest in this issue. ( do we have evidence to the contrary?) Whatever Fr. Pavone's limitations etc.. I concede them all. I still prefer the way he does it to the way the Bishops do not do it.