I was going to write about the Virgin Mary today.
It’s the Solemnity of the Assumption and I wanted to write one of my weird interesting local color posts about honoring Mary in Steubenville during the pandemic. I still hope to do that, after we pray along with our livestream Mass. But I’m going to have to take a moment to talk about my least favorite topic in the world. Ironically, it’s become the topic that I am most famous for: the infamous Frank Pavone.
Pavone has commemorated Assumption Day by tweeting spiritually abusive nonsense, attempting to hijack the sacrament of confession for political purposes:
I’d like to say first of all that I really don’t care anymore about Father Frank Pavone’s canonical status. I’m fairly confident that he is indeed not a priest in good standing, because within 48 hours of my writing this blog post outlining the many times he’s been caught in a falsehood about his canonical status, a friend of mine called the diocese of Amarillo. And she says that the bishop’s administrative assistant told her he still belongs to Amarillo, and he’s not in good standing. That’s all I know right now, and that’s sufficient for me. It may turn out that he’s still a priest in good standing because of some clause in canon law I don’t know about, or because the diocese is lying or mistaken for all I know. I don’t know, and I don’t care. Let’s pretend that everything he’s said is true and he is really a priest in good standing with a mystery bishop he refuses to name. That’s fine with me.
I do care about the fact that Pavone has been a crass bully, ridiculing and humiliating people on social media for years. I’m concerned that post-abortive women are coming to him for counsel and perhaps becoming victims of the emotional abuse he displays on Twitter all the time.
I care deeply about the fact that, according to all the information I’ve been able to gather, he seems to be guilty of grotesquely inappropriate treatment of baby corpses he claims to be giving Christian burial. To me, his treatment of corpses is the real story here. We Catholics have a solemn responsibility to respect the bodies of the dead. He’s not doing that. That ought to be what he’s known for.
And I am concerned that he is violating canon law right and left by endorsing political candidates. The Church is very clear on this point. A priest can and ought to speak out on political issues, but priests are never to endorse political candidates and ought to stay out of party politics entirely. He can and ought to say that abortion is intrinsically evil. He can and ought to take an equally hard line on other intrinsic evils (believe it or not, there are more than one). He’s perfectly within his rights to outline the ways in which the major political parties encourage intrinsic evils (and both of them do). But he’s not allowed to lick the feet of a presidential candidate, present him as the only Catholic option, and direct the faithful to do so as well. It would be wrong for him to endorse Biden, Trump, Jill Stein or whoever the American Solidarity Party is running this year. I was incredulous when Pavone resigned from his position campaigning for Trump, and I see that I was right to do so because he just keeps telling his followers that they must vote for Trump. That is wrong.
Today, he is taking it a step further. He is directly using his authority as a priest and his ability to withhold absolution to bully and manipulate people out of doing something that is not a sin in the first place.
No, it’s not a sin to vote Democrat. It’s not a sin to vote Republican or third party either. This has been re-hashed again and again for years; my friend Scott Eric Alt has an excellent breakdown of the issue here, and my Patheos colleague Sean P. Dailey has one here. I wrote about it back in 2016, and that wasn’t just me shooting my mouth off but me quoting a bishop. It is a sin to vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsic evil BECAUSE of the evil he or she promotes, but you may vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsic evil IN SPITE OF the evil she or he promotes with proportionate reason, you do not sin. If you vote Republican because you think it’s fun that they promote the intrinsic evil of torture or murdering civilians, that’s a sin. If you vote Republican in spite of these evils, because you think they will do more good than Democrats, that’s not a sin. If you vote Democrat because you like abortion and want more of it, that’s a sin. If you do it in spite of their stance on abortion, or because you think that the GOP is lying about being pro-life and will cause more abortions with their economic policies, that’s proportionate reason and you do not sin. And so on for every political candidate. There are some things that Catholics must not support, ever, but there are plenty of different viewpoints on the best way to minimize the evil all around us. We can have opposite opinions on how to do it and neither of us be in sin.
I have been pretty clear about the fact that I am not a Republican. But I would say this to a priest who endorsed a Democratic candidate as well, and I would certainly say it to a priest who claimed it was automatically a sin to vote Republican. Priests mustn’t do this.
Pavone’s tweet is profoundly spiritually abusive and sacrilegious. It is sacrilege to use the sacraments for other purposes, such as political gain, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. His tweet is also scandalous– and her I’m referring quite strictly to the sin of scandal, of sinning in a way that makes sin look virtuous and causes other people to join you. Many people, including clergy, still view Pavone as a spiritual authority. They follow where he leads. They are going to view the sacrament of penance as a tool to bash, humiliate and manipulate political rivals now and they will commit that sacrilege as well. He is misleading the Faithful for political gain, and using his standing as a priest to do so. American Catholics will suffer gravely because of him.
And you know? I am no longer angry with Pavone about all of this. Not really. It’s evident to me that Pavone has no conscience and hasn’t for years. I expect this. He only knows how to do one thing and I’m nearly sorry for him.
I am deeply angry at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and I am particularly angry with Pavone’s bishop. Maybe that’s Bishop Zurek of the Diocese of Amarillo, whose contact information is right here. Maybe it’s a new bishop, overseas perhaps. Maybe it’s the Wizard of Oz. I don’t know. I don’t care. But I know and care that that bishop is, at this point, complicit in the sin of scandal.
Bishops have a duty to oversee the priests of their diocese and be sure that they’re not misleading the faithful. When a priest sins in public so blatantly, in front of thousands of people, and pretends the sin he’s committing is Catholic doctrine, it’s the duty of his bishop to make a public statement so that the faithful are not led into sin. If a priest continues to sin and won’t take correction, it’s the bishop’s duty to inform the faithful that he is not in good standing and must not be listened to.
That wouldn’t change Pavone, but it would protect American Catholics.
I encourage all of my readers to cry our against this spiritual abuse with a thousand tongues. Whether Pavone is in good standing or not, he is not acting in Communion with the church anymore. That he hasn’t been stopped is his bishop’s fault.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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