A Letter to Father Pavone

Your case has provoked much commentary from many points of view. I can only say I sympathize with you.

I still call you “Father” because I believe the sacrament of Holy Orders gives an irrevocable, indelible character to your soul. You are a priest “forever, according to the order of Melchizedek,” as the words written in Latin on a stained-glass window in my seminary chapel said.

I remember one of the good sisters in my Catholic grade school talking about a priest who had hung up his cassock being able to administer the sacrament of Penance to a dying man he encountered in an accident. Indeed, one of the most famous Catholic novels, The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos, has a dying priest who confesses to a classmate who has left the ministry.

Your case has provoked much commentary from many points of view. I can only say I sympathize with you. It may be prejudice, but I have come to be skeptical of purported commitment to “due process” in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

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Your case has provoked much commentary from many points of view. I can only say I sympathize with you. It may be prejudice, but I have come to be skeptical of purported commitment to “due process” in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy. Tweet This

I wonder at your “laicization,” not only because it conflicts with sacramental theology but also because canonical-administrative decisions may not be appealable here on earth; but pure justice certainly resides in heaven alone. Think of St. Mary MacKillop, the Australian nun who was excommunicated by her bishop but eventually was canonized. Even Padre Pio had to navigate censure and all sorts of penalties on his own path to the altars.

I do not know you and am not making you a saint. For what it is worth, I am just saying that I do not accept at face value what seem to me to be partial and not very clear declarations that have come from authority about your “case.” You have stated that your “blasphemous” remarks involved using a word that George Bernard Shaw has St. Joan call the English soldiers because they were always cursing the French. Catholic high schools put that play on, I am sure.

I think the other colorful tweets cannot justify what some have called the “nuclear option” of laicization because a pastor who was a former Navy chaplain (RIP) would have been laicized several times a week if the chancery were counting what I call strong language that has nothing to do with blasphemy.

I understand your thinking that the real issue was your outspoken and prophetic opposition to the horrendous sin of abortion. It is obvious that many opinion makers in the Church, and their bishop-hostages, are more worried about how things will play out on CNN or in the pages of The New York Times than God’s truth.

What some radical Catholic writers like Leon Bloy and Bernanos meant by the term bien-pensant would apply to some middle-class Catholics in America who are much more middle class than Catholics. Radical statements rock the boat, and you were unfortunately exceptionally good at a religious form of épater les bourgeois—upsetting the self-righteous and complacent who don’t want their religion to get in the way of their careers or their social relationships. 

A Catholic journalist told me that he could not “get over” when you had the body of an aborted fetus in an altar-like setting. I told him even though I was uncomfortable with the image, the fact of the abortion is much more repugnant than trying to make people face its ugliness. No doubt they would like to edit out the extreme language of St. Paul’s suggestion to the Galatians about those advocating circumcision (Galatians 5:12). Life is too messy for some people, and they take their revenge on those who keep reminding them of that.

I am praying for you and would like to remind you of a few other cases of dissident priests punished by their higher-ups. Fr. Leonard Feeney, S.J., a chaplain at Harvard University at one point, was a media priest in his time—like the ubiquitous James Martin—and many of his poems were included in reading books used in Catholic schools back in the day. He ended up with an extreme interpretation of the extra Ecclesiam nulla salus that excluded even baptism of desire. The Vatican excommunicated him, which is much worse than your case, but he was clearly involved in a doctrinal matter. Post excommunication, he formed a religious community but eventually was restored to communion with the Church twenty years after the break.

The other figure I think of is Fr. Charles Coughlin. Like you, he was close to some controversial political leaders and perhaps had even more of a public profile than you. His magazine Social Justice—a term he borrowed from Mussolini—was wide-ranging in its teaching and preaching about social issues. That included, before he was silenced, his criticism of the Roosevelt administration and its conduct in the Second World War. Coughlin’s isolationism had become increasingly anti-Semitic, and he had many enemies in Washington, chief among them the president, who wanted him prosecuted for sedition. 

This led to a Grand Jury investigation. Eventually, Church and State worked together to silence Coughlin, who continued his ministry at the famous Shrine of the Little Flower as “The Ghost of Royal Oak” in the words of one biographer. Eventually, he was forced into early retirement by his bishop, but he never received suspension of his faculties, despite the FBI investigations (sound familiar?) and international pressure.

Both these cases were of men who did much more to upset the hierarchy and the powers that be than you did, one with what sounded like heresy and the other with partisan political stances outside of pastoral ministry. I see more of a parallel with Daniel Berrigan, S.J., an activist who went to prison because of breaking the law in his protests but was never sanctioned by clerical authority. I suppose he was fortunate to be a Jesuit and not under a diocesan bishop’s authority. Even now, some of his brothers get away with things that make your case scream “injustice!”

“Life is not fair, and especially in the Church” an old curmudgeon pastor told me. 

It is easier said than done, especially for me, but the first letter of St. Peter should give you strength: 

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened. But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 1 Peter 3:14-18

Finally, Brother, I share your optimism that your canonical status will be restored in the future. Meanwhile, let us pray for each other.

  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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