ROME — For a variety of reasons, “especially in relation to the political situation” in the United States, the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome will not honor Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said the head of the university’s bioethics faculty.
The bioethics department of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum had announced Jan. 7 on the university’s website that it would give Father Pavone its “A Life for Life” Award and that a Switzerland-based association would provide a monetary prize “to recognize and support Father Pavone’s mission.”
Less than a week later, the university’s academic vice rector issued a statement saying, “Taking into account elements that were not considered at the time of the original decision, the Faculty of Bioethics will forego the awarding of the prize to Father Frank Pavone.”
“We are very sorry for the misunderstandings and objections this situation caused,” said the statement signed by Legionaries of Christ Father David Koonce.
Asked what the additional “elements” were, Legionaries of Christ Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the bioethics faculty, told Catholic News Service Jan. 14, “It was a sum of factors, especially in relation to the political situation, but also ecclesial.”
Father Pavone, a staunch supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, had been in the news for his political rhetoric and for his continuing tensions with his bishop.
In an email Jan. 14, he told CNS that the university, which he has worked with for years, did not inform him of any specific concerns. “All they told me was that ‘controversy’ was stirred up because of this. But that is no news to us, and in the end it helps us, because the only bad press is no press.”
“It is no secret that some bishops don’t like our work,” Father Pavone wrote. “That’s fine, because the feeling is mutual. This is nothing new in the church.”
The initial plan was for Father Pavone, a priest of the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, to receive the award Jan. 25 during an online event.
When it announced the award, the university said it would recognize the priest’s “decades of service in the promotion of a culture of life,” and his role as founder and director of Priests for Life. “In addition,” the original announcement said, “it will recognize his activism in speaking in defense of the unborn.”
But in addition to his role at Priests for Life and with the Rachel’s Vineyard program of retreats for women who regret having had an abortion, Father Pavone has engaged in very public, very controversial election support for President Trump.
Father Miranda had told Catholic News Service Jan. 11 that members of the faculty considered possible objections to honoring Father Pavone, including the “political questions where people can have different opinions, but that is not what we are rewarding.”
The faculty initially had decided to move ahead because “the award honors a person who has dedicated his life to defending the sacredness of human life,” he said.
As recently as Jan. 8, Father Pavone’s “End Abortion” podcast included a prayer in which he said, “Lord, we acknowledge the blessings you have given us — you are still giving us — through President Donald Trump. We thank you for all the accomplishments. Lord, we pray for our fellow citizens who are so very blind — blind with a capital b — so blind that they do not see the greatest political leader that we’ve ever had.”
“Lord, we pray their eyes would be opened and their hearts will repent. Lord, we pray for those who embrace the Democrat Party, that they may repent,” he continued. “We pray in reparation for all the damage done to our country, to our values, to our church, to our faith, to our freedom, to our economy, to our military by those who vote Democrat. Lord God, cleanse their hands of blood because they are ruining our nation.”
“This Democrat Party is sunk deep in evil,” he said.
Asked if he believed his political rhetoric was the cause of the university’s change of plans, Father Pavone told CNS Jan. 14: “We need to be far more outspoken as a church. Otherwise, we end up with an irrelevant church and a godless politics.”
“I served both of President Trump’s campaigns. Some fake news reporting gave the half-truth that I ‘resigned’ from my role with the campaign.” He said that was a “half-truth, because the reporting didn’t explain the reason, namely, that priests cannot have official titles with political campaigns — I had asked for an exemption, which canon law envisions.”
“But the impression was left that I somehow backed away from the campaign,” he said. “On the contrary, although I was obedient to the law and no longer kept an official title, I became MORE involved with the campaign, not less. Church leaders and groups should be overflowing with gratitude for all that President Trump has done for the freedom of the church in America and around the world.”
He had already caused controversy before the November presidential election by using profanity on Twitter and claiming that it would be sinful to vote for Democratic candidates and even appearing to threaten that Democrats who do not repent of their political choice could not receive sacramental absolution.
He tweeted Aug. 15: “I’ll be ready to hear the confessions of those who vote #Democrat, but we are trained that in the absence of repentance, absolution has to be withheld.”
In response, the Diocese of Amarillo posted a statement Sept. 16 saying both his remarks about confession and “and the use of scandalous words not becoming of a Catholic priest” are “not consistent with Catholic Church teachings. Neither the Catholic Church nor the Diocese of Amarillo condone any of these messages. Please disregard them and pray for Father Pavone.”
Before the 2016 election, Father Pavone broadcast live on Facebook an appeal to voters to support Trump over Hillary Clinton. He did so by placing on the altar what he told viewers was the body of “a baby killed by abortion in the second trimester of pregnancy.”
After sharp criticism, including from his bishop, Father Pavone apologized.
In 2014, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan cut ties with Father Pavone and Priests for Life, saying the priest refused to allow an audit of the group’s finances. At the time, Priests for Life was based in Staten Island, N.Y. It has since moved its headquarters to Titusville, Fla.
Father Pavone was ordained a priest of the New York Archdiocese in 1988 but was incardinated into the Amarillo Diocese in 2005 by Bishop John W. Yanta, then head of the diocese, who served on the board of advisers of Priests for Life. In 2011, Bishop Zurek, who succeeded Bishop Yanta, told Father Pavone he was “suspended” from ministry outside the diocese; in 2012, the Vatican Congregation for Clergy upheld Father Pavone’s appeal of the suspension, but said the priest must obtain specific permission from his bishop, Bishop Zurek, to minister outside the diocese.
An official at the Congregation for Catholic Education told Catholic News Service Jan. 11 that while pontifical universities and institutes must check with the Vatican before awarding an honorary doctorate degree, there is no such requirement for the granting of other awards.