Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

L'Affaire Pavone

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 16, 2011

I don’t profess to know who is right and who is wrong with respect to the serious concerns expressed by Bishop Patrick Zurek over Priests for Life founder Fr. Frank Pavone’s handling of his apostolic affairs (see CWN coverage). The claims and counter-claims are sufficiently at odds that only time and further investigation are going to reveal the truth. But as proponents of Fr. Pavone rush to man the barricades, I would like to offer several principles which should serve as a guide to situations exactly like this one.

  1. Suffering and Obedience are Joined at the Hip: Man is fallen, and both human perceptions and human virtue are exceedingly fallible. For this reason, ecclesiastical obedience always includes a measure of suffering: the perceptions and virtues of the one in authority will be different (whether superior or inferior) to the one in obedience. Inescapably, the proper response to suffering in this context is to obey. As the lives of innumerable saints reveal, it is not always the weakness or obtuseness of the one under obedience which causes the conflict. But the saints also demonstrate that the key to fruitfulness in these situations is to…obey.
  2. Diocese Jumping is a Two-Edged Sword: Obedience never precludes the proper use of the canonical procedures the Church prescribes for the resolution of disagreements and conflicts. In various situations, it is also possible for a priest to exchange one ordinary for another (to change dioceses). Given the agreement of both bishops, a priest may be released from one diocese and incardinated in another. But when this is done because of a disagreement with the first bishop, it raises a legitimate concern. When it happens more than once, it raises a huge red warning flag. For a priest to get himself passed around like a hot potato suggests serious problems…with the priest.
  3. Personal Apostolic Commitments Don’t Trump a Vocation: This is an area in which I fault Fr. Pavone’s public statements regardless of the nature of his bishop’s concerns. Let me take a layman’s case as an example. I may vow in the presence of God and the Holy Angels that I am going to dedicate myself to disseminating the Catholic Faith. I may visit the Pope at the Vatican and tell him of my sturdy resolve. But if my wife tells me I’m neglecting my children, I had better adjust my priorities in a hurry. My personal and private priorities and commitments pale into insignificance.

    You’ve heard the expression, “Don’t quit your day job.” A vocation trumps particular apostolic interests. In exactly the same way, Fr. Pavone’s insistence that he vowed in the presence of a cardinal to do pro-life work for the rest of this life ought to matter not a whit to anybody, including himself, unless he has the necessary Vatican approval and dispensation from his ordinary role in the Church—not when it comes to his vocational response to the legitimate authority of his bishop.

Again, with respect to the concerns about the handling of Fr. Pavone’s apostolic affairs, I have no idea who is right and who is wrong. But all Catholics ought to adhere relentlessly to the points I’ve raised above, and particularly the third principle. The more Fr. Frank Pavone insists on the inviolability of his personal apostolic commitment to the pro-life cause, however noble a commitment that may be, the more he will put himself in the wrong. And this is not just a matter of principle but a matter of the economy of salvation, the economy of grace.

When any of us insists on our own apostolic work against the judgment of the Church, we squeeze the fire hose of Divine grace down to a few ineffectual drips. Let Fr. Pavone pursue the legitimate means available to resolve the dispute between himself and his bishop. But let him do so quietly, without rallying the troops in favor of his own indispensability, his own necessity for a cause. Let him demand that the picketers go home, and let him ask for prayers instead, prayers that both his bishop and himself will accurately discern God’s will.

Now it may be that Fr. Pavone will suffer unjustly for taking this course. As I said, I do not know who is right in the questions that have been raised. But at least such a response will release a roaring cataract of grace into the Church. This is true for all of us, and our heroes are no different. The key is to do God’s will, not our own. It is a great gift to have God’s will made clear to us by authority, a gift that Catholics should be the first to recognize and treasure.

In l’affaire Pavone, then, let us pray that all parties will behave as if they treasure the Church, not only in the abstract, but in the concrete. Let us be patient. Let us not preempt God’s will. Let us instead remember Our Lord’s words to the woman at the well, words which apply as much to the Church as to Himself, and to Peter the Rock, and to the bishops in union with Peter: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Gerry H - Sep. 20, 2011 12:22 PM ET USA

    This bespeaks a systemic problem. Fr. Pavone's work is not a spare time undertaking, undertaken to fill idle hours. It is a very significant endeavour. So, how did it get to the point where an apparent difference has surfaced between him and his Bishop? Did he strike out into areas on his own, without the knowledge or approval of his Bishop? Did the Bishop simply turn one of his priests loose, only to become surprised about where he ended up? There's been a disconnect here, and that's sad.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 19, 2011 2:04 PM ET USA

    So why did Fr. Pavone contact me (and the rest of his list) by e-mail this morning denying any conflict, suspension or investigation of any kind? What in the world is going on?

  • Posted by: Te_Deum - Sep. 17, 2011 7:58 PM ET USA

    lauriem5377 says: While I agree with what is written here, one important aspect has been overlooked. What about the thousands of pro-life faithful who every single day coordinate their efforts through Priests for Life." I would bounce a question back: Has Fr. Pavone put a contingent plan into place, and to groom other "faces" for PFL in the event of his absence. An entire team of Russian hockey players was lost when plane crashed. We do not know the hour.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 17, 2011 1:22 PM ET USA

    Airing his differences with his Bishop in public is definitely the wrong way. Such action will not benefit either party to the dispute

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 16, 2011 11:00 PM ET USA

    Your comments & analysis hit the mark. What I don't understand is why can't Father Pavone do prolife work as a parish priest? So the specific activities may be different from present duties - so what? Have hearts been converted that abortion no longer occurs in Amarillo? Events carry God's messages to each of us; we need to step back and quietly seek what God is asking us - each of us. Please all pray and participate in the sacraments.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 16, 2011 9:15 PM ET USA

    Good job. In this case the proper course is pretty much cut and dried and is well elucidated in this piece. With all due respect, the pro-life movement will be just fine with or without Fr. Pavone. As one traditional priest used to say, "No one is indispensible." There is no one more pro-life than the priest performing his sacred duties by providing the Holy Mass and sacraments to Christ's flock.

  • Posted by: mwean7331 - Sep. 16, 2011 7:39 PM ET USA

    I agree with Jeff (case in point the Corapi affair) regarding the "obedience" issue but also agree with the comment from Lucius49. I assume Fr Pavone received permission to operate in the diocese where Staten Island is located. He didn't just "take off" on his own. Why isn't that Bishop questioning the financial status of PFL? Like Jeff I await further developments though.

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - Sep. 16, 2011 6:56 PM ET USA

    While I agree with what is written here, one important aspect has been overlooked. What about the thousands of pro-life faithful who every single day coordinate their efforts through Priests for Life. Where are the Bishops in reaching out to assure our service to our Lord goes forward? Are we just to be ripped out of our work, projects and pledges while babies are murdered each hour? I respect the Bishop's authority, but have to wonder about about the attention to the flock - and the babies.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 16, 2011 5:07 PM ET USA

    This is becoming such a common occurrence in the US that if the USCCB wanted to do something worthwhile, they would exercise some oversight on all manner of apostolic activity nationwide. When I was in a Latin Mass Community, the Bishop's offering Mass required the tabernacle to be emptied and a seventh candle lit on the altar to signify the presence of Christ in the Bishop. Perhaps we need to revive the custom.

  • Posted by: John3822 - Sep. 16, 2011 4:47 PM ET USA

    Excellent piece and well thought out! Thanks Jeff!

  • Posted by: joyfulcolors2389 - Sep. 16, 2011 4:42 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this thoughtful reminder.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Sep. 16, 2011 3:59 PM ET USA

    I agree very much with sentiments expressed here about obedience, diocese hopping, personal ministries but there is a sense that this is also about some bishops desire to get at the money of this pro-life organization and control it just as they attempted to "control" Mother Angelica and EWTN. I don't think that can be ruled out.