Developments in the Zurek-Pavone showdown UPDATED

“The Church is bigger than Amarillo,” Pavone says.

Fr. Frank Pavone is pictured in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the March for Life in Washington in this 2009 file photo. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) (Sept. 13, 2011)

Catholic News Agency’s most recent article on the conflict between Priests for Life director Father Frank Pavone and his bishop, Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, includes several interesting details about the controversy’s “back story” as well as possible resolutions to the situation.

First, Pavone indicates that in addition to financial matters, increased pastoral work within the Diocese of Amarillo had been a subject of discussion between him and his bishop for some time; after being ordered back to the diocese, however, Pavone found Zurek gone and no instructions left for what the priest was to do in the bishop’s absence:

In an interview with CNA, Fr. Pavone said that he arrived in Amarillo on Sept. 13, in obedience to Bishop Zurek’s order, but found that the bishop left town that day and would be out of the country for two weeks. …

[Pavone] said that he has been given no assignment and left no instructions, so he is continuing to do work for Priests for Life from Amarillo. …

According to Fr. Pavone, the bishop initially expressed a desire for him to spend more time in the diocese to fill a need for pastoral work.

The two clergymen had talked about an arrangement that would allow Fr. Pavone to come to the diocese periodically for several weeks in order to do pastoral work. In the course of this discussion Bishop Zurek asked for dates that he would be able to come to Amarillo.

“I sent him those dates two or three weeks ago,” the priest said.

But according to Fr. Pavone, the bishop never acknowledged receiving the dates, and instead sent a letter to the U.S. bishops accusing him of disobedience and demanding that he return immediately.

This seems consistent statements released by the diocese earlier in the week that Pavone was called home “because the well-known pro-life priest is needed for work in Amarillo.” It does seem to contradict the explanations for the move originally expressed in Bishop Zurek’s letter to his fellow bishops.

Meanwhile, CNA reports that Amarillo’s vicar for clergy, Msgr. Harold Waldow, gave an interview in which he stated that the missing financial information at the heart of the dispute pertains not directly to Priests for Life, but to affiliated ministries Rachel’s Vineyard and Missionaries of the Gospel of Life: “Two of the major pieces of the international pro-life movement and national pro-life movement are missing,” Waldow said. “People give their money over the understanding that it goes to the Church or Church auspices and programs and ministries.”

Later, in a letter of clarification, Waldow stated that while the “complete audit for all the entities of Priests for Life, Rachel’s Vineyard, and the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life” is the source of the dispute between Pavone and Zurek, Pavone is not “being charged with any malfeasance or being accused of any wrong doing with the financial matters of Priests for Life.”

Interestingly, the CNA report also includes a quote from Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, recently named grandmaster of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher in Rome, in which O’Brien expresses his support for his brother bishop’s move: “I appreciate Bishop Patrick Zurek’s statement and would hope that Father Pavone would adhere fully to the requests of his bishop,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “Bishop Zurek has been so very patient and thorough in dealing with this matter over many months. I appreciate his decision and support it completely.”

Finally, the CNA article includes some interesting—and possibly problematic—statements from Pavone about possibilities he sees for his future priestly ministry:

If he is not allowed to continue his work with Priests for Life, Fr. Pavone explained that he is looking into the possibility of being incardinated into a different diocese.

“I do have various options,” he said. “The Church is bigger than Amarillo. The Church is the Church.” …

“I have experienced the call to full-time pro-life work,” he said. “I want to do that for the rest of my life.”

“It’s a vocational matter,” he added, explaining that he has never had the slightest doubt about his call to the priesthood, or about his call to pro-life work. He does not see them as incompatible but believes that he is called to both.

Fr. Pavone stated that he is “confident” that he will be able to work toward a positive resolution with both Bishop Zurek and the Vatican. He believes that part of the solution may lie in creating a new type of pro-life ministry within the Church. …

He said that he would be open to pursuing such a structure to welcome the commitments of both religious and lay people who feel called to give their whole lives to the pro-life cause.

Fr. Pavone pointed to saints who founded religious orders to devote their lives to working with the poor or disabled. Opposition from the local church was sometimes present as part of the “growing pains” of beginning their ministry, he explained.

“But ultimately, the Church vindicates the mission,” he said.

At his blog In Light of the Law, canonist Edward Peters has been following the Zurek-Pavone controversy and parsing the public statements made on both sides. If you follow the link to his blog, you’ll see he has numerous “updates” as the story has unfolded over the last few days; updates #2, 3, and 5 have particular bearing on Pavone’s comments above.

About incardination:

The bond between a secular cleric and his home diocese, known in canon law as “incardination” (cc. 265-272), is canonically, ecclesiologically, and spiritually very important. It is not an exercise in adminsitrivia nor is it a mere relationship of convenience between a cleric and an ordinary, but rather, it organizes a relationship rooted in love and law by which an ordained minister of Jesus Christ serves the People of God. By incardination, every secular cleric receives a bishop to whom he owes obedience. …

Incardination is not temporary, it is not conditional, it is not revocable, and it is not capable of being held simultaneously in two or more dioceses. Incardination, for these and a dozen other reasons, should never be undertaken hastily.

Incardination can be transferred from one diocese to another, but not upon the simple, or even the emphatic, request of the priest (or for that matter, by a bishop acting unilaterally). In brief, three parties must freely agree to the change: the current bishop, the receiving bishop, and the cleric. Any one of them can prevent the transfer, and in case of disputes, Rome is, for obvious reasons, very reluctant to interfere. …

While a contract between an incardinating bishop and an incardinating priest would bind in accord with canon and civil law, and while even appropriate modi vivendi between former bishops and priests should not be casually overturned by newer bishops, it is most unlikely that an “understanding” between a former bishop and a priest can be parlayed by that priest into a bar against the new bishop’s making lawful provisions in regard to the priest for his future work.

On Pavone’s commitment to pro-life work:

Pavone’s reiteration of the “permanent, lifelong commitment I have to spend every moment of my time and every ounce of my energy defending the unborn from abortion” is stirring rhetoric, but it can’t be taken literally. No one is called to spend every moment and every ounce of energy defending anyone from a specific evil. It is certainly not the call of one who possesses the holy priesthood of Jesus Christ. A priest, especially a diocesan priest, must strive to be all things to all people, not just one thing to some people.

Pavone invokes the memory of Blessed John Paul II, Blessed Mother Teresa, and Cardinal John O’Connor and urges “clergy and laity alike [to] learn from their total commitment to ending abortion.” Fr. Pavone should plumb those examples more deeply himself.

Do read all of Dr. Peters’ thoughts on the subject here.

UPDATE: Dr. Peters has weighed in on one effort to support Father Pavone, led by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, which melodramatically demands Bishop Zurek “Free Father Frank”:

I have defended, I don’t know how many times, the canonical right of Catholics to express their opinions on matters affecting the good of the Church (c. 212 § 3), and I will continue to defend the lawful exercise of that right. But what CBR has in mind is, I think, a caricature of the prudent and informed communication of views—even conflicting views—within the Church. It is, I suggest, not an exercise of the rights recognized by Canon 212, but an abuse of those rights. And, speaking of canons, any Catholics thinking about showing up for a CBR picket of an Amarillo parish or school, should read Canon 1373 as well as Canon 212.

Finally, I can only imagine that CBR’s plans in behalf of Fr. Pavone make him cringe at the prospect of being associated in the public’s mind with it. If, by chance, he has any sway with them, now would be a good time to use it.



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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.