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Bishops for Life?

On Civil Rights and the Silencing of Father Frank Pavone

Christopher A. Ferrara POSTED: 10/5/11

After having given $7.3 million to projects organized by the radical leftist ACORN, the American bishops are fretting over how Father Pavone is using funds raised by Priests for Life?

Father Pavone

( When I am not writing for the Remnant I am litigating for the civil rights of Catholics, especially pro-life advocates, in state and federal courts around the country.  Much of the litigation conducted by members of the pro-life bar proceeds under 42 U.S.C. §1983, a federal statute that provides remedies for the deprivation of federal constitutional rights by municipalities and police officers that are treating pro-life advocates today in much the same way that black Americans were treated in the South until the 1960s. In fact, §1983 is derived in part from the Civil Rights Act of 1871, enacted to combat the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Like so many of the federal interventions during the Radical Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the Act was the result of what Samuel Eliot Morison called “a combination of Southern folly and Radical malevolence.” Yet today, the statutory descendant of the Act is a powerful tool in the hands of pro-life attorneys.

One reason §1983 is so important is that it safeguards the right to engage in the only activity that has a chance of producing social change in the face of entrenched majority sentiment to the contrary: street activism.  Consider the famous case of Rosa Parks.  On December 1, 1955, Parks was riding Bus No. 2857 of the Montgomery Alabama transportation system when she refused to relinquish her seat in favor of a white passenger.  She had done so many times before under a system of segregation so ludicrously racist that when the front of a bus was occupied by whites, blacks had to pay their fare at the front door and then enter through the rear door to avoid passing through the white section on their way to the back, where they “belonged.” Whites-only sections on buses and trains was only one of innumerable elements of a longstanding regime of Jim Crow laws by which embittered, Calvinist Protestant diehards of the post-Civil War South had attempted to preserve a twisted version of their “way of life.”

But on this day Rosa Parks had had enough.  Her arrest and trial sparked an astonishingly successful black boycott of the Montgomery bus system, whose passengers were overwhelmingly black. For more than a year, private cars, car pools, and black taxi drivers charging minimal fares all but eliminated black passengers on the Montgomery buses. In one of many idiotic moves by Montgomery law enforcement, the police arrested a young Martin Luther King and scores of others for “conspiring to boycott” by organizing car pools, thus turning them into instant martyrs for the cause.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott ended when the Supreme Court, in Browder v. Gayle (1956), affirmed a district court decision declaring segregation on public buses unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Thanks to the bigotry, stiff-necked pride and sheer stupidity of politicians, what should have been settled as matter of local law and simple Christian decency had become a national cause célèbre. Having won its first major victory, an energized civil rights movement would launch the careers of King and a thousand demagogic descendants, many of whom still agitate today. Marching and demonstrating in cities throughout the South, the movement led by King—a  Baptist minister who achieved sainted status despite marital infidelities and a plagiarized doctoral thesis—achieved ultimate victory eight years later with massive federal intervention by way of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thus did street activism led by Protestant clergy change the political landscape of America.

Nine years after the Supreme Court recognized what any fool should have recognized without judicial intervention—that skin color ought not to determine access to the public facilities citizens of all colors pay for—the same Court violated the most fundamental right of any citizen: the right to life. During the thirty-eight years that have elapsed since Roe v. Wade (1973), a new civil rights movement has emerged in America.  But this movement has not attained any victory even approaching that represented by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  We members of the pro-life bar are engaged in a holding action, fighting to keep from losing ground in a battle that is not gaining any new territory.

Why?  For one thing, Roe merely purported to find a constitutional right to do what a majority of the states, including at least five in the South—Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas—had already legalized to some extent before Roe.  Even the Texas statute struck down in Roe allowed for “an abortion procured or attempted by medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.” The “sovereign will of the people” has since legalized abortion in every state in the Union, the only issue being exactly which circumstances will be held to justify murder in the womb.  The child in the womb is now subjected to a form of discrimination before which racial discrimination pales in comparison: throughout America the womb is now a ghetto whose occupants may be murdered at the whim of the electorate.

Hence to the extent that it declares that abortion is simply murder and must be prohibited as such without exception, the pro-life civil rights movement squarely opposes, not only Roe, but the will of America’s sacred majority. Abortion is not, and never was, a sectional issue involving local stupidities on which the rest of the nation could readily look down with contempt. Abortion is, more or less, what the whole stupid nation wants—the same stupid nation whose latest Top 20 country music hit, by a wildly successful band from Georgia, offers this rationale for war in Iraq and Afghanistan: “May freedom forever fly/Let it ring/Salute the ones who died/The ones that give their lives/So we don’t have to sacrifice/All the things we love/Like our chicken fried/And cold beer on a Friday night/A pair of jeans that fit just right/And the radio up...”

A nation whose predominantly Protestant popular majority can be persuaded that it makes sense to bomb Arab nations in order to protect fried chicken, cold beer and blue jeans made in China needs more than another civil rights movement led by Protestant ministers to save it from final disaster.  It needs what the former Marxist and renowned historian of the antebellum South, Eugene Genovese, identified to a Protestant audience at Calvin College after his return to the Faith: “the one true, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.”

Legalized abortion and “gay marriage” represent the bottom of that “declivity to utter barbarism” which Orestes Brownson, writing just after the Civil War, projected for America’s combination of Protestantism and democracy. Fifteen years before the War, in an essay entitled “Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty” (1845), written only a year after his own conversion to the Faith, Brownson observed that “the Constitution is a dead letter… it has been becoming in practice, and is now, substantially, a pure democracy, with no effective constitution but the will of the majority…” Only religion could save America  from majoritarian tyranny. Yet the Protestant religion could not save America, he argued, because Protestantism, “like democracy itself, is subject to the control of the people, and must command and teach what they say…” Hence, he continued:

The holding of slaves is compatible with Christian character south of a geographical line, and incompatible north; and Christian morals change according to the prejudices, interests, or habits of the people, - as evidenced by the recent divisions in our own country among the Baptists and Methodists. The Unitarians of Savannah refuse to hear a preacher accredited by Unitarians of Boston…. The Protestant sect governs its religion, instead of being governed by it. If one sect pursues, by the influence of its chiefs, a policy in opposition to the passions and interests of its members, or any portion of them, the disaffected, if a majority, change its policy; if too few or too weak to do that, they leave it an join some other sect, or form a new sect.

Answering the charge that he would place religion in America  under the dominion of the Pope, Brownson turned that very charge into the proof of his argument: “this is good proof of our position, that Protestantism cannot govern the people, —for they govern it,—and  therefore that Protestantism is not the religion wanted; for it is precisely a religion that can and will govern the people and be their master, that we need.”  Of course, only one Church fits that description; only one is headed by a figure whose authority—spiritual, not political, Brownson stressed—is accepted as final and binding by the faith of its members. “The Roman Catholic  religion, then,” he concluded, “is necessary to sustain popular liberty, because popular liberty can be sustained only by a religion free from popular control, above the people, speaking from above and able to command them,—and such a religion is the Roman Catholic.”

And today it is only the Roman Catholic religion that has the power to halt America’s slide down the declivity to barbarism. It is no coincidence that the pro-life movement is overwhelmingly Catholic. Which brings me to Priests for Life and the travails of its national director, Father Frank Pavone.

As Remnant readers probably already know, Father Pavone’s bishop, Patrick Zurek of the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, has issued an administrative decree “suspend[ing] Father Frank A. Pavone from public ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo.” In a letter dated September 9, which he sent to the entire American episcopate to justify his decision in the court of public opinion, Zurek reveals his real intention: to destroy Father Pavone’s reputation and sink Priests for Life. Professing a desire to “strengthen Father Pavone’s sense of communicatio sacramentalis,” Zurek combines vicious public insults with outright calumny.

First of all, Zurek expresses “deep concerns regarding his [Father Pavone’s] stewardship of the finances of the Priest For Life”—thus suggesting grave financial impropriety without a scintilla of evidence. He alleges “incorrigible defiance to my legitimate authority as his Bishop,” but fails to provide any examples of this defiance. Rather, he reveals to his fellow bishops a personal animus clearly engendered by Father Pavone’s international reputation: “his fame has caused him to see priestly obedience as an inconvenience to his unique status... inflated his ego with a sense of self-importance and self-determination.” How so? Father Pavone has given him “the impression that I cannot invoke obedience with him because he is famous.” Examples? What specifically has Father Pavone done to justify Zurek’s accusation of disobedience?  Since Zurek saw fit to air the controversy in a letter to every bishop in the United States, knowing that letter would be published to the whole world, it was incumbent upon him to state the grounds for his action. Instead, he expresses indignation without substance.  The letter is little more than a public hissy fit.

But in the lowest blow of all—again, without the least evidence of financial impropriety—Zurek suggests to all the Bishops in America that they direct the faithful to withhold their donations to Priests for Life: “If you judged it to be prudent, I would like to ask that you would inform the Christian faithful under your care to consider withholding donations to the PFL until the issues and concerns are settled.” This is nothing but a naked attempt to cripple the organization.

In his letter to the American Bishops of September 12, Father Pavone defends himself against Bishop Zurek’s public accusations of September 9.  The reply is devastating.  For one thing, it shows that Bishop Zurek has absolutely no jurisdiction over Priests for Life, a nonprofit, federally tax-exempt civil corporation of the State of New York, headquartered on Staten Island, with an independent Board of Directors, including other priests, 55 employees in the United States, and affiliated U.S. organizations and branches overseas with other directors and employees. Not one of these people owes any duty of obedience to an angry prelate in Amarillo who is trying to destroy their work.

The reply demolishes Bishop Zurek’s false allegation that Father Pavone has “consistently refused to subject Priests for Life to a complete and transparent auditing of all expenses.” Father Pavone, who takes no salary from the organization, has provided both Bishop Zurek and the Archbishop of New York, Timothy M. Dolan, with certified financial audits every year since his incardination in Amarillo, prepared by an accounting firm whose clients include numerous federal agencies. The reply includes a lengthy list of other detailed financial information Father Pavone has supplied to Bishop Zurek—far more than nonprofit law requires for full accountability.  Father Pavone notes that he met with Zurek to discuss the finances of Priests for Life during Holy Week of this year and that during this meeting the Bishop indicated that he had no questions whatsoever—months before Zurek wrote the American Bishops to allege totally unsubstantiated “deep concerns” about the organization’s finances.

Clearly, Father Pavone is the victim of a hatchet job.  But, with dreary predictability, that neo-Catholic schoolmarm of post-conciliar correctness,  Jeff Mirus, has called upon Father Pavone to “obey” by submitting quietly to the destruction of his apostolate and the ruin of his reputation with public innuendos of financial impropriety and accusations of egomania and disobedience. “When any of us insists on our own apostolic work against the judgment of the Church,” Mirus pontificates, “we squeeze the fire hose of Divine grace down to a few ineffectual drips. The key is to do God’s will, not our own. It is a great gift to have God’s will made clear to us by authority, a gift that Catholics should be the first to recognize and treasure.” Whatever a bishop commands is ipso facto God’s will, and we must blindly obey.  This is the classic neo-Catholic nominalism that has in large measure contributed to the worst crisis in Church history. Obedience for its own sake is made into the very channel of God’s grace; it becomes a theological virtue.  Mirus is brimming with inept amateur theology of this sort.

As Mirus would have it, Father Pavone must offer no resistance even if Zurek’s actions are unjust: “Now it may be that Fr. Pavone will suffer unjustly for taking this course. As I said, I do not know who is right in the questions that have been raised. But at least such a response will release a roaring cataract of grace into the Church.” A roaring cataract, eh?  You mean like the roaring cataract of grace that followed “obedience” to the unjust suppression of the traditional Mass and the destruction of the Roman Rite after Vatican II? I would like to take a reading of Mirus’s grace-o-meter over the past forty years to see how many graces the Church received from the passive acceptance of its auto-demolition.  And what about the scores of innocent people engaged in the work of Priests for Life?  What about the babies that apostolate saves from abortion?  According to Mirus, Father Pavone must have no concern for any of these people; his one and only duty is blind obedience to the irate Bishop of Amarillo.

Of course, if Saint Athanasius had followed Mirus’s “spiritual advice,” he would have ceased resisting the spread of the Arian heresy and tamely submitted to his fraudulent excommunication. Likewise, the entire traditionalist movement, beginning with Archbishop Lefebvre, would have “obeyed” the non-existent “command” to abandon the Church’s own liturgical patrimony, precisely as Mirus and his fellow schoolmarms did before Pope Benedict admitted that the traditional Mass had never been abrogated and was always permitted.  Oops.

Bishop Zurek’s power play against Father Pavone is a prime example of why the pro-life movement has yet to win a major victory in America: the Bishops are not behind it.  The closest they have come to unity of action in the public sphere is support for Obama’s “Dream Act”—a federal gift basket for illegal aliens. Their chanceries and seminaries riddled with modernists and homosexuals, the American bishops—of course there are noble exceptions—have betrayed the greatest civil rights movement of our time, just as they have betrayed the defense of Holy Matrimony by their cowardly failure to offer a serious and united opposition to “same-sex marriage” initiatives. How is it that their demands for “obedience” so rarely  advance the cause of Gospel, but so often advance the Church’s surrender to modernity?

Yet the power of the Catholic episcopacy is not entirely dormant elsewhere. In 2008 one Catholic commentator noted the “seemingly miraculous transformation” of the Brazilian hierarchy, producing a “pro-life Pentecost” that has led the Brazilian bishops to adopt strategies that “are a lesson to the whole Catholic world,” including the direct confrontation of “pro-choice politicians,” the excommunication of doctors performing abortions, and a massive educational campaign depicting abortion  procedures in graphic detail, with the result that “Brazilian lay Catholics  are horrified by what they see, and are inspired to act against abortion.” The Brazilian bishops’ goal is not only to “stop new anti-life legislation, but to eliminate all exceptions in Brazil’s penal code regarding abortion.”

The same commentator asks: “What effect would such an approach have if all of the Catholic bishops of the world were to imitate the Brazilian bishops, and declare war on abortion, euthanasia, and other offenses against human life?” While the American population is only twenty-five percent Catholic, he notes, “[i]f this ‘sleeping giant’ were to awaken, galvanized by clear preaching and educational campaigns that clearly reveal the crime of abortion, how could any political party stand against it?”  How indeed?

But it is precisely that kind of episcopal witness that is lacking in America. If our bishops would not only stand behind the pro-life movement and organizations like Father Pavone’s, but also lead the movement—especially its vital street activism—and declare a holy war (not a shooting war) on the abominable crime of abortion, legalized abortion would have no more chance of survival in this country than the rule that black people must ride in the back of the bus. As Father Pavone rightly observes in his reply to Bishop Zurek’s blatant attempt to scuttle Priests for Life: “[I]t is impossible for me to believe that there would be no place in the Church for priests to exercise full-time ministry in the service of the unborn. We do it for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the imprisoned.  But where in the Church is the place where a priest can exercise the same kind of full-time ministry for the children in the womb?”

As the blood of millions of murdered unborn children cries out to heaven for vengeance, that is a question the Bishops must answer. That racial discrimination respecting public facilities has been eradicated while the abortion holocaust continues in every one of the fifty states is an immense scandal the Bishops have it in their power to rectify. That is something Bishop Zurek ought to consider as he ponders his next move in the Father Pavone affair. Perhaps the Bishop’s interest in obedience might better be directed toward the higher law Father Pavone’s apostolate is defending so vigorously while the American hierarchy dutifully lines up behind President Obama’s plan to buy himself more votes.

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