My thoughts and opinions follow…
The Church now refers to Fr. Pavone as Mr. Pavone, due to his laicization. I’ll refer to him as Fr. Pavone when speaking about him historically, that is, prior to his laicization — since he was at that time a validly and licitly ordained Catholic priest in good standing. Subsequent to laicization, I’ll refer to him as Mr. Pavone, since the Holy See has the authority to judge and to mete out discipline, including laicization.
CNA: In a Dec. 13 letter to U.S. bishops obtained by CNA and confirmed by multiple sources as authentic, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, wrote that the prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy issued the decision on Nov. 9, adding that there was “no possibility of appeal.” [Article]
The effective date of Fr. Pavone’s laicization is neither November 9th nor December 13th, since a law is not a law until promulgated. The date of a letter is generally not the date it is received. The exact that that Fr. Pavone was informed of his laicization is the effective date, but this is perhaps not entirely clear. The news became public on December 17th, and it may be the case that Fr. Pavone, if not already informed of this, would take a day or so to confirm the veracity of the news story. He does have a Bishop to whom he owes (or did owe) obedience. And he could confirm the laicization with the Bishop.
The Holy See is not obligated to communicate with Fr. Pavone directly, to inform him of his laicization, as priests are under the authority of a Bishop, and the Bishop would generally be informed first. In past centuries, partly also due to the difficulties of communication, the Holy See would notify the Bishop, who would notify the priest. As long as Fr. Pavone has been informed by the Holy See or his Bishop or the Bishops’ Conference (or a religious superior, in the case of a priest of a religious order), then the decision is promulgated and effective.
At this point, it is beyond dispute that Fr. Pavone has learned of his laicization, and so he is no longer permitted to present himself as a priest, nor to act as a priest. He may not: celebrate Mass, concelebrate Mass, assist at Mass in the role of a deacon, confirm candidates for Confirmation, or hear Confessions (except in the case of danger of death). Mr. Pavone lacks the faculty to absolve sins in Confession, due to loss of office.
Can. 975 Besides by revocation, the faculty mentioned in can. 967, §2 ceases by loss of office, excardination, or loss of domicile.
Can. 976 Even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present. [Link]
Mr. Pavone cannot ordinarily baptize or to “assist at” (i.e. celebrate) a wedding. In extraordinary cases, a lay person can baptize or assist at a wedding, but it is unlikely that any laicized priest would be given that permission.
Mr. Pavone is not excommunicated (ferendae sententiae), and so he can attend Mass and receive the Sacrament of Confession and can generally participate in the Church as any lay person. He can receive anointing of the Sick, but he cannot dispense that Sacrament. (There seems to be no provision in Church law, as is the case for Confession, for the administration of Extreme Unction to the dying by a priest ordinarily prohibited from that Sacrament.) And my understanding is that Mr. Pavone, having been dismissed from the clerical state, can validly and licitly contract marriage. He is no longer under any vow or promise of poverty, chastity, or obedience. However, he still owes the usual obedience of any of the Catholic Christian faithful to the Church and Her Pastors.
The “Supreme Decision” of the Holy See to laicize Fr. Pavone has “no possibility of appeal”, indicating that it is the decision of the Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis [Letter of Apostolic Nuncio, page two]. It is not possible, as Mr. Pavone has suggested, to appeal “to the People of God themselves”. The authority of the Roman Pontiff over doctrine and discipline does not admit of this type of appeal, as is clear from Vatican I (Pastor Aeternus) and Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 22).
Objections based on Canon law are not legitimate, as the authority of the Roman Pontiff is not based upon Church law, but upon the decision, promise, and prayer of Christ the Lord (Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32). As the Vicar of Christ with the full authority given to Saint Peter the Apostle and to each of his successors, the Pope is above Canon law. His authority is not limited to what is stated in the law. He can dispense from the law, act contrary to the law, and add, delete, or change that law. (Note, however, that some canons in Canon law are merely direct expressions of magisterial teaching on faith or morals, and not per se Church laws or regulations.)
Mr. Pavone has argued that the “communication to the bishops dated December 13th contains serious errors and omissions” [First Written Response]. Even if this were true, it would be irrelevant. The authority of the laicization rests with Pope Francis, and not with the letter in question, and his decision is not subject to appeal, nor to a contrary judgment by Cardinals, Bishops, priests or others.
Cause of Laicization
Mr. Pavone has also argued that the motivation for his laicization was opposition to his work against abortion:
“This is not just an attack on me, but an effort by forces both inside and outside the Church to intimidate every courageous pro-life priest and lay activist.” [Latest Developments]
But other pro-life activists have not been laicized or excommunicated by the Holy See. And the Church has continuously taught against abortion, even as early as the Didache (“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) and as recent as statements by Pope Francis and the clear teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Accusing the Holy See, the Roman Pontiff, or the Bishops of laicizing a priest for his pro-life work is untenable, especially in light of the Statement by the Nuncio on his pro-life work:
“Since Priests for Life, Inc. is not a Catholic organization, Mr. Pavone’s continuing role in it as a lay person would be entirely up to the leadership of that organization.”
Therefore, Mr. Pavone can continue his pro-life work. He was not laicized for defending the unborn. The reasons stated for the laicization were as follows:
“Father Pavone was found guilty in canonical proceedings of blasphemous communications on social media and of persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop.” [Letter of Apostolic Nuncio, page two]
There is some discussion about which expressions on social media are considered blasphemous. One example is the picture he posted of an aborted fetus on an apparent altar, which turned out to be a table, not a consecrated altar, but a table used for online Masses. This image is emblematic of the problem with Fr. Pavone’s past work on abortion versus his life as a priest. He puts the abortion issue above his role as a priest — which is readily apparent from his response to laicization. He should have been willing to do more work as a diocesan priest, and less work on the prolife issue. Ultimately, the problem of abortion is not solved by politics or protests, but by faith and prayer.
Another problem with the work of Fr. Pavone, prior to his laicization, is his excessive involvement in politics and his willingness to ignore the moral teachings of the Church on voting and politics to put the prolife cause above all else. In a 2020 tweet, Pavone stated: “supporters of this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party.” [NY Times]
“I used the word G-D in a response to somebody in a tweet and for that they want to throw me out of the priesthood,” he told the Catholic News Agency earlier this week. [News story]
Fr. Pavone was not laicized for saying “goddamn” in a tweet in 2020. Pavone was wrong to express contempt for president Biden; it is unbecoming of a priest to call anyone a “goddamn loser”. And it is scandalous for a priest to refer to the Democratic party as “morally corrupt” and “God hating”. Many Democratic politicians and voters are devout Christians (or Jews or Muslims), who seek to follow their religion and their conscience. Many democrats are prolife as well. Such a rejection of an entire diverse group of people is a grave error.
Pavone’s offenses cover a long period of time. But the one offense that primarily led to his laicization is his unwillingness to submit to Church authority. He decides for himself what he teaches, preaches, and does, without any practical obedience to any Bishop. Any allegedly blasphemous expressions would generally not result in laicization for any priest who is willing to accept correction from his Bishop or the Holy See. Recall that only one sin results in condemnation to Hell: final impenitence. All sins are forgiven, except the sin of dying unrepentant from actual mortal sin. By analogy, a priest can commit a wide range of errors, and remain in holy orders if he only accepts correction from authority in the Church. This is the one issue that ultimately determined his laicization.
The typical sinful response of anyone corrected formally by the Church is to blame particular persons, recount particular conversations, and use an examination of all the details of a situation to claim an injustice. But in the case of Mr. Pavone, his unwillingness to accept the authority of the Church over himself as a priest is painfully clear — esp. given his post-laicization rejection of this decision of the Apostolic See.
And we see this attitude of refusing correction publicly expressed presently by Mr. Pavone. He has appeared on the YouTube channel of Dr. Taylor Marshall on 21 December 2022, discussing his laicization, while wearing the Roman collar.
He continues to call himself “father Pavone” on Twitter (and the epithet used on Twitter is easily changeable) and on his own website. His recent tweet on Twitter states:
“Babies are being dismembered and decapitated. And the people who should be defending them are quibbling about papers from the Vatican, canon law, and Roman collars. Never in history has there been more reason for such shame. What a disgrace. I’m not going to play those games.”
Here he refers to the authority of the Roman Pontiff expressed in his laicization as “papers from the Vatican”. This tends towards the error of schism, by rejecting in belief and practice that the authority of the Roman Pontiff and the Apostolic See is from Christ. Mr. Pavone even speaks with disdain towards his sacred orders by saying “quibbling about…Roman collars”. This issue is not a disgrace or shame; it is not a game.
I take offense that Mr. Pavone would wrap himself in the prolife cause in order to fend off the authority of Christ through His Vicar. Though Fr. Pavone has for years said that he wished to be under the authority of a supportive Bishop, it seems clear that he expects to be able to say and do whatever he wishes, to focus almost exclusively on the prolife issue, and to leave behind any obligations as a priest of a diocese under a Bishop. He wants a Bishop who will never exercise any authority over himself.
If you wonder whether the Church has erred, as is possible, in a particular case of laicization or ferendae sententiae excommunication, wait and see the reaction of the person. Padre Pio (Saint Pio) was restricted multiple times by Bishops and by the Roman Pontiff (Pope Saint John XXIII), and he accepted it all with humility, and was later exonerated … and canonized! But Mr. Pavone’s reaction to this decision of the Roman Pontiff to laicize him proves the Pope right. He refuses correction, refuses to stop referring to himself as a priest. He lashes out at Church authority. Any correction of his own behavior is treated as an attack on the prolife cause, which shows unwillingness to accept correction.
Father Pavone is publicly known to have had longstanding conflicts with multiple Bishops, causing him to move from one diocese to another. One problem seems to be his desire to devote himself to the prolife cause, and not to participate substantially in any diocese as a diocesan priest. Another issue is that he declined to submit his prolife work to the authority of his Bishop. The “Priests for Life” organization is not overseen by any Bishop. And so this organization, which Pavone founded and retains much influence over, is not a Catholic organization. Pavone’s independence from the leadership of the Church in his prolife ministry has been a continuing problem and source of conflict with Church leaders.
The Council of Trent dealt with the problem of priests not attached to a particular church or bishop.
“Those who are ordained shall be assigned to a particular church.
“Whereas no one ought to be ordained, who, in the judgment of his own bishop, is not useful or necessary for his churches, the holy Synod, adhering to the traces of the sixth canon of the council of Chalcedon, ordains, that no one shall for the future be ordained without being attached to that church, or pious place, for the need, or utility of which he is promoted; there to discharge his duties, and not wander about without any certain abode. And if he shall quit that place without consulting the bishop, he shall be interdicted from the exercise of his sacred (orders). Furthermore, no cleric, who is a stranger, shall, without letters commendatory from his own Ordinary, be admitted by any bishop to celebrate the divine mysteries, and to administer the sacraments.”
An analogous problem arises today of priests who attain notoriety online or in association with an organization (other than a religious order). They have much financial support from their followers online or their organization. They have a “flock” attained in the same manner. They act as if they and their flocks are a particular church, but without oversight from a Bishop. Such priests have influence over many persons, and they teach or preach whatever they wish. Often they focus on a particular topic, which is the basis for their notoriety, money, and influence.
An example would be Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (“Fr. Z.”), who preaches and teaches a version of traditionalism. He has gathered a large following online. He has supporters who pay him a monthly donation, with multiple supporters signing up for each day of each month. He sometimes complains that certain days of the month are sparse in support, with only a few persons giving their monthly donation on that day. He frequently posts pictures of himself on a plane, in a restaurant at Rome or other cities, and other travel photos. There seems to be no Bishop who takes responsibility for Fr. Z., as he resides in the U.S. in one diocese, but is apparently incardinated at a diocese in Italy. Complaints about Fr. Z. are said to be declined by both dioceses and Bishops. He is essentially a priest who does not accept the oversight or authority of any Bishop. And as for the Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis, he has frequently ridiculed the Pope and has sold merchandise emblazoned with expressions of such ridicule. He seems to accept no authority over himself, and simply stands on his own like an itinerant preacher of the time of Trent.
Fr. Pavone fell into the same error, in my opinion. He used his work on the prolife issue to gain followers and influence. On the question of money, his reported salary is low (~$14k), but he has much influence over the multimillion dollar budget of Priests for Life, which gives him influence. And he gradually threw off the yoke of obedience to any Bishop. Now that he has been corrected by the Roman Pontiff, we see his disdain for Church authority expressed openly in social media and on his website.
Mr. Pavone has accused the Church of abuse of authority.
“Abuse of Authority by Church Leaders Against Me and My Work”
“We all expect that the pro-abortion groups, like Planned Parenthood, will target, harass and try to intimidate us on the pro-life side. And they do try.
“But fewer expect such treatment from bishops and other Church authorities. Yet there are some in the hierarchy who will do exactly that, and have done so to me for many years. Instead of supporting and encouraging the pro-life work of the Church, some of these men try to obstruct and hinder it, and abuse their authority to try to intimidate priests like me who make ending abortion the top priority of our lives.”
These expressions show no acceptance of Church authority. Any criticism or correction of Mr. Pavone is met with the claim that persons in authority in the Church are attacking the prolife cause. Mr. Pavone writes on his website: “To those who want to cancel me, I ask, to which of these works do you object?” The answer is, of course, that Fr. Pavone’s past work on the prolife cause and his work as a priest (Mass, Confessions, sermons, etc.) are extensive and praiseworthy. But no priest can stand on his own, do whatever he sees fit to do, preach whatever he likes, and be free from the authority of Bishops and the Apostolic See.
Though Mr. Pavone complains about his laicization, I think ultimately it is what he implicitly has wanted all along: to be free from the restrictions of a diocesan priest, and to devote himself entirely to the prolife cause. However, I am concerned that he is making an idol to be worshiped of the fight against abortion. There is a danger among prolife activists that they will make the entire Faith about abortion, overriding every other consideration. But in truth, the real solution to abortion is found in faith and prayer, not in politics and activism.
Edited to add, 12/26/22: In his live streaming video from Christmas Eve, Frank Pavone does not wear the priestly collar and the title of the video is “A Christmas Eve Message from Pro-Life Leader, Frank Pavone” — which is absent the term “Fr.”
Ronald L. Conte Jr.