What is one to say about the laicization of Father Frank Pavone? (so we will refer to him, even in a posteriori sense, for ease of discourse). The sentence seems sudden and disproportionate, the decree irregular, not only in its text, but also promulgation, as is so much out of the Vatican of late. Yet there is much we don’t know, the situation is still ongoing, and the whole thing fraught. It does seem disconcerting that priests accused of heinous crimes are tolerated, even welcomed – peruse the recent scandals of Father Rupnik is accused (or, better yet, don’t), who is not only tolerated, but celebrated. And the annals of previous decades are filled with priests thumbing their nose at ecclesial and moral law. Recall the tragic ‘career’ of Jesuit Father Robert Drinan, a Democratic congressman – yes, I know – yet who supported the decision of Roe v. Wade (even if he personally held abortion to be ‘immoral’), and was lauded by the likes of Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi?[i]
It’s easy to be scandalized in the ecclesia moderna, tempted to throw in the towel and retreat to a cave, a la Saint Benedict or Obi-Wan Kenobi, and watch the whole thing burn.
But we must soldier on, Macduff, with prudence, defending what needs defending, but not losing sight of the bigger, eschatological picture. The decree states that there is ‘no appeal’ form this decision. To an earthly authority, perhaps. But there is always recourse to the heavenly court. God will vindicate His own, and see justice done, swiftly and mightily, sooner than we might think.
We’re living in an age of lawlessness, predicted by Saint Paul, who describes the antichrist as a-nomos, the ‘man without law’. What we must resist – whatever injustices we suffer – is to be goaded into our own sort of anarchy and rebellion, undermining the very structure of the Church herself, which, to paraphrase Thomas More, is what holds the whole thing together. Even if laws are badly applied, they can in turn be applied well. That is why we have law, canon, ecclesial and many others: it is the corrective, on this side of heaven. Without law, what recourse will any of us have? We would be left prey to any sort of chaos and evil. It would be might makes right in Machiavellian mayhem.
That is also why priests make a formal promise of obedience to their bishop, not to be taken lightly. True enough, obedience by itself is not a virtue, but only when guided by charity and prudence. This usually means that if a law is not intrinsically disordered, one should, in the main, obey. The question still looms, to whom did Father Pavone owe obedience, and where was he incardinated? (That may be a moot point, for now).
Father Pavone claims that Cardinal O’Connor, by whom he as ordained, assigned him to full-time pro-life activity, which seems to still bind him in conscience. But should it? The obedience owed to bishops by parish priests, especially to their verbal decrees, ceases to bind upon their death or retirement. When a new bishop is appointed, a priest owes him renewed obedience. We are the hierarchical Church militant, after all, and saints’ lives are filled with stories of unexpected fruit being borne of doing things they would rather not, which may be contrary to their proclivities, or even seen as futile. God can, and does, work through what we might consider ‘less than perfect’ and disagreeable.
Saint Philip Neri quipped that sanctity resides in the span of three fingers, measuring his forehead, in the mortificazione rationale – the mortification of our own reason in humility – submitting our own will to God’s, through His properly constituted authority.
Let us take a step back for a moment, and ponder the whole pro-life movement itself:
The primary work of the Church, especially her bishops and priests, is spiritual and sacred, not temporal and secular, far less political. I recall a certain good priest known for his own pro-life ministry, who years ago remarked to me, off the cuff, that ‘liturgy is not my thing’. I’m not sure quite what he meant by that. But I recall thinking, then, what is?
We must remember in our work for defending the lives of the unborn, that these and similar evils always have their roots in some sort of spiritual malaise, something that Pope Saint John Paul II emphasized at length in Evangelium Vitae: Abortion is the bitter fruit of many prior sins: contraception and the trivialization of sexuality; the lack of esteem for motherhood; the desacralization of marriage; the lack of the sacraments and, hence, of grace, and the loss of a deep relationship with God through prayer and conversion. The culture of death has deep roots, stemming ultimately from bad philosophy, from pragmatism to nihilism. Pro-life work is much more, and much deeper, than what we might consider so.
The primary remedy to these evils then, including all the evils now present in our beleaguered Church, is not political or pragmatic – even if these be necessary – but itself spiritual, to re-build the whole ‘culture of life’, as the Pope writes: Prayer, penance, personal conversion, holiness of life, renewal of marriage and family, the ordinary sacrifices of raising children, good works and charity abounding. All of this requires a deep immersion in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Holy Eucharist and regular confession. And, yes, obedience, even to the point of our own wills being crushed in sacrifice, from which God brings much good.
What this means is that hidden sacrifices can do as much, if not more, good than public demonstrations and political machinations. A single act of charity, especially one known only to God, one confession heard, one Holy Communion, one Mass, can save many babies and convert an untold number of hearts. Recall the widow and the two mites and, for that matter, the hidden and simple life of Our Lady and Saint Joseph, on this Christmas Eve. To return to Saint Philip, one of whose favorite maxims, and which was adopted as the motto of the Oratory he founded, was amare nesciri – love to be unknown, which is far more difficult than it might seem.
Which brings us back to Father Pavone. He has cancelled his own Masses, and seems to have ceased to function as a priest, and that must mortify his reason mightily. But we may trust that God can bring greater fruit out of this interior sacrifice he is now called to make, than all of his external pro-life work. There is hope, for although the Pope has ‘supreme, universal authority’ over the Church as the Vicar of Christ, he is not Christ, and there are limits. The Pope cannot remove a man’s sacramental character, which is what really makes him a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek. He can simply order that a priest cannot function as a priest, which is what ‘laicization’ here mean. But a disciplinary decree of one Pope, can be undone by another, and reinstate Father Pavone to the priesthood, with correction and clarification made, where needed.
Best for now on this Christmas Eve to pray for everyone involved in this tragedy, that God’s truth may be manifest, and His holy will be done, as perfectly as might be in this fractious and fallen world.
Peace to all people of good will. Dominus prope est. +
[i] Yet, when ordered by Pope John Paul to step down from political office, Father Drinan did so, saying to those urging him to just disobey the Pope, ‘that would be unthinkable’.