Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I

Q: I’m trying to figure out which side is right in the case of pro-life leader Father Frank Pavone against his bishop in Texas.  Fr. Pavone publicly said he won an appeal to the Vatican against his bishop, who had suspended his pro-life work.  But from what I can see, he’s still stuck in Texas, like his bishop wanted, so I don’t know what’s going on!  What does canon law say about all this?  –Anita

A: For the past year or so, there has been a lot of understandable confusion about exactly what happened and why it happened to Fr. Pavone, the director of Priests for Life, a pro-life organization based in New York.  Some of that confusion has been caused by inaccurate statements made by the media, and some is due to poorly worded public statements made by those directly involved.  For the benefit of those readers who aren’t familiar with this unfortunate incident, let’s first recap the situation.  Then we can focus on the canonical issues in this case, and see where things legally stand between this priest and his bishop.

Fr. Frank Pavone is a New Yorker who was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New York City in 1988.  From the very beginning of his priestly ministry, he was involved in pro-life work within the archdiocese, and eventually Fr. Pavone became the head of Priests for Life, a national pro-life organization.  He accepted this position with the permission and approval of his superior, the then-Archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O’Connor.

Subsequently, Fr. Pavone became a priest of the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas.  (We’ll look at how that works canonically in a moment.)  With the permission of his new superior, Bishop John Yanta of Amarillo, Fr. Pavone founded the “Missionaries of the Gospel of Life” in that diocese in 2005.  Fr. Pavone also continued to head Priests for Life, still located in New York, with the consent of Bishop Yanta.

In September 2011, the current Bishop of Amarillo, Patrick J. Zurek, ordered Fr. Pavone to return to ministry in Amarillo.  Bishop Zurek also wrote a letter to his fellow bishops, explaining that he “decided to suspend Fr. Frank A. Pavone from public ministry outside of the Diocese of Amarillo.… For an indefinite period, I am withdrawing my permission to him to minister outside our Diocese and am calling him back to spend time in prayer and reflection.”  The bishop’s letter went on to describe “persistent questions and concerns by clergy and laity regarding the transactions of millions of dollars of donations” to Priests for Life.  Bishop Zurek indicated that Fr. Pavone

…has gradually lost his need to show appropriate obedience to his Bishop.  It seems that his fame has caused him to see priestly obedience as an inconvenience to his unique status and an obstacle to the possible international scope of his ministry…. This attitude has strained his relationship with me and has given me the impression that I cannot invoke obedience with him because he is famous.  It is my desire to help him readjust his priestly bearing through spiritual and theological renewal in order to recapture that essential priestly hallmark of respect and obedience.

In response, Fr. Pavone immediately appealed the bishop’s decision to Rome (which he canonically had the right to do).  In an official statement, he noted that

For the past several years, my Ordinary, the Most Reverend Patrick Zurek, Bishop of Amarillo, has given me permission to do the full-time pro-life work that I have done since 1993.  In 2005, I made a public promise in a Church ceremony in Amarillo, presided over by a Vatican Cardinal, that this full-time pro-life work would be a lifetime commitment…  because I am a priest of Amarillo, I will be obedient and report [to Amarillo] on the appointed date, putting the other commitments that are on my calendar on hold until I get more clarity as to what the bishop wants and for how long.  Meanwhile, I continue to retain all my priestly faculties and continue to be a priest in “good standing” with the Church.…
I also want to point out that, according to the canon law of the Catholic Church, because I have begun this process of appeal to Rome, the Bishop’s order that I return to Amarillo has been effectively suspended.  Nevertheless, because of my great respect for this Bishop and  my commitment to be fully obedient at all times, I am reporting to Amarillo this Tuesday, in hopes that I can sort this problem out with the Bishop in a mutually agreeable and amicable way.

A couple of weeks later, in October 2011, the Diocese of Amarillo stated publicly that Fr. Pavone is indeed a priest in good standing, and noted that Bishop Zurek had not alleged any financial impropriety.  Nevertheless, according to the bishop, Fr. Pavone would remain in Amarillo “indefinitely.”

In June 2012, Bishop Zurek issued an official statement, in which he noted that the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy had issued a decision in Fr. Pavone’s case.  The bishop asserted that the Vatican

…has sustained Father Frank A. Pavone’s appeal of his suspension from ministry outside the Diocese of Amarillo and his appointment from me on October 4, 2011 as Chaplain of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in Channing, Texas. Father Pavone is to continue his ministry as chaplain until further notice. As a gesture of good will, I will grant permission to him in individual cases, based upon their merits, to participate in pro-life events with the provision that he and I must be in agreement beforehand as to his role and function.

Meanwhile, the website of Priests for Life currently states that “while Fr. Frank is in Amarillo temporarily at the request of his bishop, he is not giving talks around the country and not appearing on EWTN (again, temporarily).”

No wonder Anita is confused!  If Fr. Pavone won his appeal against the bishop, why is he still in Amarillo and not in New York working with Priests for Life?  And why does the bishop say he’s in Amarillo “indefinitely,” while Priests for Life emphasizes that he’s there “temporarily”?  Canonically, what is going on here?

Before answering that question, it’s worth noting that the full texts of many of the documents pertaining to this case have not been made public—which is as it should be.  Still, with careful reading of the official statements that have been made over the past year in this sad case, the canonical situation seems fairly clear.  Let’s have a look.

First of all, a key legal issue here involves a canonical term that has rarely appeared in the media reports surrounding this story: clerical incardination.  Canon 265 explains that every cleric must be incardinated in a diocese—or, in the case of clergy who are also religious, in a religious institute.  (We looked at some of the differences between diocesan priests and religious priests in “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty.”)  It adds that acephalous, or “wandering” clergy are absolutely not allowed.  In a nutshell, this means that when a man is ordained, he must be ordained for a specific place or a specific institute.  If he’s being ordained a Dominican priest, for example, he is incardinated into the Dominicans.  If he’s being ordained for diocesan ministry, he must be incardinated into a particular diocese.  All Catholic clergy are attached—incardinated—somewhere!  They all have a superior, and their superior not only can tell them what to do, but he is also responsible for their welfare.

So where is Fr. Pavone incardinated?  Well, it appears that when he was ordained, Father was incardinated in the Archdiocese of New York.  At a later date, however, he clearly became incardinated in the Diocese of Amarillo, where he is still incardinated today.  Canon law provides for this possibility: a cleric who is already incardinated in Diocese (or Religious Institute) X, can be excardinated from that Diocese, and incardinated instead in Diocese (or Religious Institute) Y.  In other words, a priest can lawfully transfer from one to another.

It’s an action that is totally legal, and there is no stigma attached to it whatsoever.  A priest may find, for example, that he originally felt called to work in diocesan ministry, but he now feels much better suited for life as a Benedictine monk.  In such a case, although he was originally incardinated into his diocese, he would seek to change his incardination to the Benedictines.  Or let’s say that a priest has been working for years in Diocese X (where he was incardinated), but ends up fleeing his country due to war or other persecution.  He might eventually find a new diocese abroad where he can settle permanently and minister in freedom and peace, and so he can request incardination in this new diocese.

The code provides for this process, which as a rule is quite straightforward.  The priest who wishes to transfer from one diocese to another obtains two letters (c. 267.1):

(1) A letter of excardination from his current bishop.  This letter will state that the bishop has no objection to his priest’s transfer to another diocese.
(2) A letter of incardination from the bishop of the diocese to which the priest wishes to transfer.

The law explicitly states that the cleric’s excardination from his original diocese does not take effect until he has obtained the letter of incardination from the new diocese (c. 268.2).  This ensures that technically, the priest is never caught in a sort of “limbo,” in which he would be excardinated from one place without being instantaneously incardinated into another.  Under canon law, a cleric cannot be acephalous—i.e., lacking a superior—for even one instant!

(The procedure is a little bit different if the priest is moving to a religious institute; this requires his formal admission into the institute as a member (c. 268.2).  But the concept remains exactly the same.)

Incardination, in short, is the foundation of the relationship between a bishop and his priests.  And when it comes to a priest’s ministry, it is the bishop who decides what that will be.  The bishop assigns the clergy of his diocese to particular roles, and priests must undertake those assignments out of obedience (c. 274.2).  A priest does not make his own decision about where and how he will exercise his priestly ministry.

This does not imply, however, that bishops routinely command their priests to take on work in the diocese which they don’t like!  As canon 384 notes, the bishop is to have a special concern for his priests, to whom he is to listen as his helpers and counselors.  After all, they are supposed to be working together, for the spiritual good of the people of the diocese.

That’s why a bishop will, more often than not, talk to a priest about an impending reassignment to a new position in the diocese, and ask the priest whether he has any objections.  Or the bishop might even ask a priest where he would like to go next, after his current assignment.  A priest, in turn, will often give the bishop honest feedback: maybe, for example, he’d prefer next time to serve a smaller parish.  Maybe he’d really like to go back to school for an advanced degree, possibly to teach in the diocesan seminary or work in the chancery.  Sometimes the bishop will get a response like, “I don’t care where you send me, so long as I don’t have to work with Father X—he and I can’t stand each other,” or “Please don’t send me to St. Mary’s parish, because the people there are too liberal for me and we would probably clash!” or “I’d prefer to serve in a parish where making sick-calls doesn’t involve driving long distances, since my eyesight is failing and I’m having trouble driving, especially at night.”  A good bishop will try as best he can to take these sorts of reasonable preferences into account when he makes clergy assignments—he naturally doesn’t want his priests to be miserable!  Still, sometimes assigning a priest to a position that he really doesn’t want is unavoidable, and when that happens, the priest has to quell his disappointment and go where he is sent.  For diocesan priests, this is simply a fact of life.

Occasionally, a diocesan priest has an assignment that is actually located outside of the territory of his diocese (c. 271).  A common example of this is the priest-professor, whose academic expertise is needed at a seminary or other school located in another diocese.  In such cases, an agreement is worked out between the school, the priest himself, and the priest’s bishop, who must grant permission for the priest to teach outside the diocese.  Note that the bishop does not have to grant permission, simply because a school insists that the priest’s help is needed there!  The final decision in such a situation always belongs to the bishop in whose diocese the priest is incardinated.

So now we can see who Fr. Pavone’s superior is—it’s the Bishop of Amarillo, Texas, because that’s the diocese where Father is now incardinated.  It’s quite clear from public statements that the former Bishop of Amarillo accepted Fr. Pavone into the diocese, and then allowed him to minister outside of its territory, as the head of Priests for Life in New York (and his successor, Bishop Zurek, continued to allow this until deciding to recall Fr. Pavone in 2011).  That’s the only reason why Fr. Pavone has been able to continue working with Priests for Life since his incardination into Amarillo.

In his official statement (already mentioned above), made after his recall to Amarillo, Fr. Pavone indicates as much:  “For the past several years, my Ordinary, the Most Reverend Patrick Zurek, Bishop of Amarillo, has given me permission to do the full-time pro-life work that I have done since 1993.”  But his very next sentence has caused understandable confusion:  “In 2005, I made a public promise in a Church ceremony in Amarillo, presided over by a Vatican Cardinal, that this full-time pro-life work would be a lifetime commitment.”  What are Catholics to make of this?

With this statement, Fr. Pavone seems to be suggesting that an unnamed official from the Vatican (i.e., higher up than the Diocese of Amarillo) with the title of cardinal (i.e., higher-ranking than Bishop Zurek) publicly accepted Fr. Pavone’s promise to undertake pro-life work—and the implication appears to be that this public promise “trumps” any other assignment that the Bishop of Amarillo might want to give him.  If that truly was Father’s intention in making such a statement, it’s quite a surprising suggestion, because it’s completely incorrect.  A diocesan bishop is the head of his diocese, and it is he who makes the decisions about where the priests of his diocese are to minister (cf. c. 369).  A Vatican official, even one holding the rank of cardinal, cannot enter a diocese and unilaterally overrule the diocesan bishop on such matters!

This is not merely a question of law; it is a matter of Catholic ecclesiology.  Each bishop governs his diocese—referred to in the code as a “particular church”—as its head.  To suggest that another member of the hierarchy can block a bishop’s decision in a routine matter such as a clerical assignment turns that ecclesiology upside down.  It is true, in a specific case where the Pope feels that a bishop is mismanaging affairs in his diocese, the Pope can send in another cleric to take charge (see “Bishops, Coadjutors, and Auxiliaries” for more on this topic).  That only occurs, however, if the Holy Father has concluded that there is a problem with some aspect(s) of the bishop’s management—and there is absolutely no evidence here that the “Vatican Cardinal” to whom Fr. Pavone refers was present in Amarillo for this reason.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Catholic cleric today who isn’t fully aware of this general structure of hierarchy and authority in the Church.  This fact makes Fr. Pavone’s statement all the more unfortunate.  Bishop Zurek assigned Fr. Pavone to minister with Priests for Life, and he can reassign him to wherever he believes fit.

That doesn’t mean, however, that everything the bishop has said and done in this sad case has been canonically correct.  Fr. Pavone had good reason to object vociferously to Bishop Zurek’s choice of words when he “suspended” Father from working with Priests for Life.  It’s a separate canonical issue and we’ll look at it (and other aspects of this case as well) in a future column.

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