Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Monday, September 26, 2011

Is John Wesley really the ministerial model Fr. Pavone wants to invoke?

Disputes between public figures often turn, at least in part, on private personalities, but the on-going dispute between Bp. Zurek and Fr. Pavone reveals, I suggest, some deeper questions. Both sides have made mistakes in this mess but Zurek’s errors have to some degree been corrected. Pavone, however, continues to operate, I fear, on a faulty understanding of, among other things, Church structure and practice. While I still do not know how this matter will be resolved, and while a number of outcomes are possible, continued high-profile comments and actions by Pavone and his supporters impede progress toward that resolution and warrant, I think, continued commentary here.

During the period of prayer and reflection to which he was directed by his bishop, Pavone has continued his testy tweets, a laEver notice how many people presume to know more about your life than you do?" One might be tempted to ask in return—oh, never mind, such repartee gets old quickly. In any case, Pavone has not, so far, been silenced by his bishop, and one might yet hope for more self-restraint from a major public figure and priest, instead of more carping.

Meanwhile, the Center for Bioethical Reform (endorsed by Pavone, who apparently still sits on its board) began its protests against Zurek on Friday last by circling the Amarillo cathedral (and its elementary school!) with trucks bearing color pictures of aborted babies as a similarly bannered plane flew over the city. CBR President Cunningham, who describes himself as a “friend of the Church”, manned a sign sporting Zurek’s office phone number and email address, and promised to bring his Pro-Pavone campaign to every parish in the diocese until Zurek decides to “Free Father Frank.” If Pavone is a member of the CBR Board, then—and this, no matter how his own case is resolved—he should immediately and publicly resign.

But it was a couple of comments made during a lengthy, two-part radio interview last week with Al Kresta that raised in my mind new questions about the ecclesiology of Fr. Frank Pavone.

I thought it a bad idea for Kresta to give Pavone what amounted to a 40 minute infomercial while his dispute with Zurek was in full swing. Whatever problems provoked this conflict, its correct resolution must draw heavily on objective principles of canon law, and neither Pavone nor Kresta are competent to explain that canon law to the public. Indeed, Pavone’s characterizations of canon law went unchallenged in the interview and he deftly skirted some other key issues. But parsing that discussion is for another day.

In his interview Pavone recounted for Kresta that, while he was a seminarian, he had on the wall of his dorm room a map of the world underneath which was written Methodist John Wesley’s famous line “All the world is my parish” (Pt. I, 21:30 ff). Granted, a Catholic sense can be given Wesley’s point, but such a slogan falls well short of the Catholic vision of pastoral organization, and its continued use by Pavone is telling.

Wesley’s low* ecclesiology let him see the world as a sort of parish, but Catholics can see more. We have "particular churches" known as dioceses (c. 368) under the direction of bishops (c. 381) who have the fullness of Orders, and it is within the context of the particular Church that most Catholic men ordained to diocesan priesthood are called for most of their lives to work out their salvation, yes, in fear and trembling. Pavone and many of his allies, however, are applying Wesley’s model of the Church against Zurek.

Consider: However Methodism might expect its ministers to graduate from seminary and find communities to serve, diocesan Catholic priests such as Pavone are not ordained for at-large ministry wherever they decide to carry it on. Church law knows of extra-diocesan priestly work and makes certain provisions for it, but paradigmatic ordained Catholic ministry is generally offered, and will always be offered, by clergy working over extended periods in a specific place under a local ordinary. It is Pavone’s style of national (for that matter, international) priestly ministry that needs special authorization, and not Zurek’s exercise of authority that needs to be tailored to Pavone’s perception of his mission.

Pavone’s diminished appreciation of diocesan priestly work, coupled with his own sense of importance in the pro-life movement (whether that sense is accurate, I do not know), leads to his apparent negative view of possible pastoral assignment “in a little diocese in the middle of Texas” (Pt. II, 11:55 ff). You know, as if Catholics in Amarillo are less deserving of quality priestly care than are Catholics in Gotham City, or as if, more broadly, any really smart and truly pro-life priest would protest the prospect of his caring for the faithful in a dinky parish in the middle of nowhere, at least when there are yet abortion mills open for business.

Wesley's model of the Church as essentially a parish without boundaries is not the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church. If Pavone uncritically imbibed that view in his youth, he needs to move beyond it now.

* Update, 28 Sep: Following various discussions of the Pavone matter, I see that some folks think that my reference to John Wesley’s “low ecclesiology” is inaccurate. I am happy to take correction from others on this point, but I would remind critics that I write from a Catholic point of view for a Catholic audience facing questions in the Catholic Church. Now, Methodism does not have sacred Order (as Catholics use that term) and therefore Methodism cannot be a Church (as Catholics use that term). When a Christian ecclesial community has no hierarchy as Catholics use that term (pace Methodism’s “bishops”), then, by our lights, Methodism is a “low ecclesiology” Christian belief system. People who know more about Wesley and Methodism than do I (or for that matter, than does my father, the family Methodist), may argue whether modern Methodism is or is not Wesley’s ecclesiology, or is or is not the logical consequence of Wesley’s ecclesiology, and, as I say, I am willing to take instruction on that point.

But none of this changes my fundamental concern about the deep impact on Pavones thinking that Wesley’s famous remark (about the world being his parish) has obviously had on him. However one might describe Wesley’s ecclesiology, it simply is not Catholic ecclesiology, and Pavone’s invocation of Wesley provides him, and others, with precious little guidance toward correctly understanding the structure of the Catholic Church and accepting its implications for his own life and work.