Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What of priestly obedience?

First the Fr. Corapi debacle, now Fr. Pavone. Two different priests with different apostolates and different sorts of "falls", yet both undoubtedly tarnished and caught up in scandals that have irreparably sullied their reputations. Yet whatever side one takes on these current events, they are most certainly made worse by what, in my opinion, is a shocking lack of obedience on the part of the priests involved. 

I am not here interested in narrating the details of the Fr. Corapi case or the Fr. Pavone case; I presume my readership to be well enough acquainted with them. At any rate, I use these cases not to make any specific claims about either but to illustrate a general principle - namely, that there seems to be a particular Americanized concept of obedience in play here that sees obedience as justly refused if we subjectively believe our "rights" are being trampled on. Fr. Corapi, in denying legitimate requests from his superiors and bishop and choosing to leave the priesthood rather than submit, and Fr. Pavone, in appealing his case to Rome over the head of his ordinary, seem to be operating on a concept of obedience that is more concerned with asserting their personal rights rather than seeking holiness.

There is a great little book by Fr. Leo Pyzalski, C.S.S.R., called The Holy Will of God, published by TAN books. In this excellent little booklet, Fr. Pyzalski talks about various aspects of submitting to God's will in our life and points out that priests and religious are called to a different kind of obedience than average lay persons. It is an heroic obedience that demands a resignation of our claims to our "rights." Fr. Pyzalski states:

"Those trusted with leadership and administration of religious communities are vested with Divine authority, since they are appointed representatives of God. Hence, the attitude of subjects is expected to be one of sincere and humble deference and childlike docility towards all legitimate Superiors. This is something quite different from modern democracy.

People who join a religious order [or the priesthood] are perfectly aware of the way of life they choose for themselves...they renounce in advance all claims to democratic participation in the administration and spiritual guidance of the whole religious body. They consciously sacrifice their personal liberty, their own will, to please God and to render Him more glory" (Pyzalski, The Holy Will of God, pg. 6-7)

Fr. Pyzalski goes on to say that this obedience is much easier professed with the mouth than acted upon, for as soon as a trial or obstacle crops up, there is a temptation to withhold obedience:

"Particularly, in our day of ultra-democratic tendencies is this likely to happen and, indeed, does happen frequently. Self-will takes the place of humble and cheerful obedience. As long as Superiors adjust their directions to the likes and dislikes of their subjects, they are praised and cherished and obeyed promptly. Whenever the contrary occurs, they will be blamed, at least very often, of imprudence, ruthlessness or lack of charity. Allegedly, Superiors "forget" that all members of the community have the same rights since they are bound by the same religious profession" (ibid, 7-8).

Fr. Pyzalski's next comments are especially pertinent to the Fr. Pavone case, which as Ed Peters seems to have proven clearly, is a case of a priest gradually assuming the attitude that his social work, however important it might be, is more important than his priestly ministry and the glory of God. Fr. Pavone has called Pro-Life work "the core of my life", to which Dr. Peters rightly responds, "Something is seriously askew here. Nothing, not even the most visible (and arguably the most effective) pro-life work in the world, is at the “core” of any priest’s life; nothing is there, besides the High Priest Jesus Christ. That is no pious platitude. For any priest, religious or diocesan, to assert before the world that anything is at the core of his life besides the Son of God is very disturbing. "

Fr. Pyzalski says the same thing, reminding us that any social work a priest does must be subordinated to his identity as an ordained (or a religious), and that this identity is ultimately governed by the will of one's legitimate Superiors. He goes on:

"The first and most essential task of every religious community [or priest] is the imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Social, educational, or similar work is not the supreme is only a means to further God's glory...To perform any social work whatsoever without regarding God's glory and the teaching of Jesus Christ [on obedience], the Supreme Master of mankind, would be incompatible with religious obligations and the religious character in general.

After losing the spirit of Christ, which is one of filial docility towards God and His representatives, a religious order is but a poor makeshift of what it ought to be. It cannot expect Divine blessings on its activities, nor real happiness in its members" (ibid., 8-9).

In short, the traditional Catholic teaching on obedience is that obedience is due to all lawful superiors at all times, and that virtue and holiness of character is developed and proven especially when the obedience is due unjustly, or demanded with a heavy hand, or when one suffers some humiliation because of it. To refuse obedience, or even to simply use litigation to get around obedience by asserting one's "rights" and appealing over the head of one's superior, might not be sinful, but it is a demonstration of a very poorly formed idea of obedience...of a life that is more centered on what one wants to do rather than on what should be done in obedience. It reveals a problem with willfulness.

There is much more that could be said. Bottom line: obedience is due in all circumstances unless it is an unjust command (by unjust, I mean one that commands what is sinful). Other than that, even if a priest believes he is in the right, even if "his" ministry is on the line, even if millions of dollars are wrapped up in it, the priest owes complete and total obedience to his superiors.

The sad tales of Fr. Corapi and Fr. Pavone should also furnish us with ample evidence to suggest that priests should probably not become "celebrities" who are independently wealthy. It just...doesn't work out very well.

Click here to purchase Fr.. Pyzalski's book The Holy Will of God!


Just another mad Catholic said...

I thoroughly agree, I'm also concerned about the idea of Diocesan Priests spending long periods of time doing work that is NOT directly linked to their Priesthood (as Ed Peters Noted), now if Priests for Life WAS a Religous congregatons of Priests, Brothers, Sisters etc (Like the Sisters of the Gospel of life here in the UK or Sisters of Life) then I wouldn't be so worried.

To be fair to Father Pavone though I agree with those who say that he is probebly a Type-A personality who has problems sitting around... not that excuses his ill advised press releases but one can at least sympathise with him, even if one should be advising him to pray for God's will and giving his Bishop total obedience.

Baron Korf said...

I think much of the blame in both cases falls on the bishops and superiors involved here. You can't expect someone to go from practical autonomy for years and then suddenly be obedient in adversity. It is what my wife calls inconsistent parenting.

Any virtue that goes unexercised for long periods of time will be weak and the opposing vice will have had time to fester.

Boniface said...


That is a very good point, and I would agree - except that these specific priests were known for their orthodoxy, which should have included the constant practice of obedience. It would be more of the bishops fault if they were suddenly trying to compel obedience from a heretic or dissenting priest after years of not doing so - then, who would be surprised if the dissenting priest didn't obey? But the fact that this crew was touted as orthodox makes the disobedience much more surprising.

Baron Korf said...

As orthodox as that pair is, they were both left to be their own boss. While they were not being disobedient, what were they being obedient to?

Anonymous said...

I feel as though it is very sad that Fr. Corapi and Fr. Pavone are mostly in need of prayers.

Personally, I think that the Catholic Media has made a little bit too big of a deal about this... If Father Frank's superior has asked him to return to his duties, then Father Frank needs to listen to him.. and he has, last I heard. The main thing is that Father Frank has obeyed his superior and has not renounced Catholicism.

As for Father Corapi, it is truly sad that he has abandoned people who looked up to him so much on matters of faith and morals... God gave him a wonderful gift of speaking, and a wonderful story that has brought many people to the Catholic Faith... but there is also the point that some people will leave the Catholic church to follow Father Corapi and his "Black Sheep Dog" business (whatever the heck that meant). And the truth of the matter is, we need to follow the Pope, not Father Corapi or Father Pavone or Justin Beiber or whoever else has a claim to our attention.

.... on a random note, I love your writing style. It totally breaks down issues that are kinda boring and makes them interesting to read.

Anonymous said...

I think it is inopportune to judge Fr. Pavone at this point. It is easy to spout all sorts of talk about "obedience" and how virtuous it is be "obedient" even when the Bishop is unjust or misinformed, etc. Diocesan obedience is never blind and is very different from the obedience required of a religious. That distinction must always be understood. A priest has rights and if his rights are violated by his bishop, canon law provides outlets where he can present his case. He has a right to his good name. And he has a right to protect his reputation.

You might wish to consider Bishop Sheen. He abandoned his diocese because he was not cut out to be a diocesan bishop. Rome allowed this. But what if Rome had said no? Besides, he preferred New York. His entire ministry was devoted to preaching on and off TV and not much else. Certainly, being a bishop encompasses more that simply preaching. In addition, he became very wealthy from his writings. Fr. Pavone has dedicated his life to the pro-life cause and he is very effective in his ministry. Keep in mind, virtually all of the priests in the public spot light have now been silenced--Corapi, Euteneuer, and now Pavone. Two of these priest were associated with the pro-life movement. Now there are virtually no priestly voices left on the scene. Doesn't this strike you as odd? Does it occur to anyone how the devil might be active in all this? It is not unusual for priests to dedicate their life to a particular ministry. It is rather common. In fact, some priests are simply not suited for pastoral ministry in the parish or perhaps teaching, etc.

It should also be obvious that both the diocese and Fr. Pavone reached an agreement that was suitable to both parties when Fr. Pavone was initially incardinated into the Amarillo diocese. I suspect Fr. Pavone had no intention of actually ministering in the backwater of Amarillo when he was incardinated into that diocese, I am quite sure his bishop understood this. And both of them were okay with that otherwise the bishop would not have accepted him into the diocese. He was from New York! His work was national and international in scope. The arrangement was mutually beneficial for both parties. After all, the diocese was not supporting Fr. Pavone but would bask in the light generated by Fr. Pavone's good work. Apparently, the bishop now wishes to change that arrangement and Fr. Pavone is looking for another diocese which makes sense to me. However, the bishop accuses him of insufficient financial accountability. Why is he concerned about this now? He has seen the books for years.

One should notice how often a bishop demands unquestioning obedience from his priests but feels perfectly free to ignore the directives of the Holy See. For instance, why isn't Ex Corde Ecclesia implemented universally in the US? I know in my diocese, the bishop has ignored that directive completely. But I digress.

The issue appears to revolve around money. But Fr. Pavone was not paid by his organization and he had his books audited regularly and sent the reports to his bishop. It does not seem possible there would be irregularities.

At any rate, I have rambled on about this. I think it is unfortunate how quickly such priests are criticized for perceived deficiencies such as Fr. Pavone.

He deserves our prayers. He does not deserve to be condemned by drive-by opinion. He is doing what the bishop asked of him and I applaud him for doing so.

Boniface said...


Great points, but I have two thoughts-

1) Yes, I think the devil may be in this, but I think he just as well may be active through the corruption of the characters of the priests involved as through the use of the bishops, etc. This is just what happens when priests end up becoming celebrities.

2) I don't think Bishop Sheen is the best example of priestly obedience.

3)Regarding the point about priests having different rights than religious, I grant that they do have different rights and expectations canonically, but nowhere, neither in the Fathers nor the mystical writers, have I seen a practical distinction be drawn between prebyteral obedience and religious obedience - nowhere in, say, de Montfort or A Kempis or any of the writers can I find something that says, "For religious, obedience is absolute, but for diocesan priests, there is some leeway." Such passages and distinctions may exist, but I have never seen them.

4) I do not charge Fr. Pavone with disobedience but with an obedience that was imperfect and not the best example. Why did he initially refuse to open the books to the Bishop? And why did he appeal over the Bishop to Rome? It is actions like this that, while they might not be disobedient or sinful, are not the most perfect model of obedience, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I would like to respond to your four points. Regarding the first point: While this may be true in general, it doesn't appear to have merit in regards to Fr. Pavone.

Point 2: Precisely. That is why I used Bishop Sheen as an example while at the same time casting no aspersions upon Bishop Sheen's great service to the Church and in regards to what appears to be an exemplary life. His ministry was not that of a bishop but rather a writer and TV preacher. You may also recall Bishop Sheen appealed to Rome to settle the spat he was having with Cardinal Spellman. He did not accept Spellman's decision. You will note Spellman was a cardinal while Sheen was merely a titular bishop (a bishop without an actual See of his own).

Point 3: I did not argue diocesan priests have different rights than religious but that the concept of obedience is different for each. Whether or not you have found this distinction among mystical writers or the Church Fathers is beside the point. For instance, religious obedience involves all aspects of their professional religious and personal lives. This is not so for the diocesan priest. No bishop can tell his priests what type of car they must drive or how much they can spend on clothing or where they can go on vacation, or how much money they are allowed for personal use, etc. A diocesan priest's obedience is centered upon an obedience that revolves around serving the local church to which he is attached. In a sense, his obedience is professional in terms of how best to use his gifts and the needs of the particular church. More often than not in many dioceses, priest assignments are heavily negotiated events.

Point 4: From what I have read, Fr. Pavone never hid the books from his bishop. His books were audited by an outside company routinely and the information was made available. He had every right to appeal to Rome if he believed his rights were violated. Apparently, his canon lawyer thought he had a case as well.

One must be careful to venture opinions regarding what one considers perfect or imperfect obedience. In such thinking there is the implicit assumption it is wrong or lacking in humility or whatever to defend oneself against unjust or unfounded attacks. Yes, one can always point to various saints who have not defended themselves against such attacks but that does not mean their example is normative for everyone! Humility and justice are not mutually exclusive; the two should not be juxtaposed.

I do not know all the details of this case. My only information comes from what I have read in the media. So my comments must be taken what that in mind.

Boniface said...

Fair enough. What do you think of Ed Peter's article on the situation?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the link. I don't put much stock in his commentary. It strikes me as rather judgmental and perhaps self-serving. But again, that is simply my opinion and I do not pretend to be informed directly concerning Fr. Pavone's troubles. I might add that I suspect the author of that article has no direct knowledge of Fr. Pavone's troubles either.

My point is this: it is easy to sit on the sidelines and second guess Fr. Pavone and what is happening with his bishop. Pot shots are really not helpful which is what I think the author of the link has provided regarding Fr. Pavone.