February 2023 Church & State Magazine - February 2023

‘MAGA Priest’ Pavone Defrocked By Church Officials At Vatican


The Vatican has defrocked a Christian Nationalist Catholic priest who has a long history of using his nonprofit organization to intervene unlawfully in partisan elections.

Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, was stripped of his priestly functions for “blasphemous communications on social media” as well as “persistent disobedience” of his bishop, news outlets reported in late December. 

In 2000, Pavone labeled Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore an “apostle for abortion” and vowed to launch a campaign targeting pro-choice candidates for defeat. Americans United warned Pavone that a nonprofit could not sponsor such a partisan endeavor because it would violate the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that prevents nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates. But he remained defiant.

Pavone has long been a controversial figure within the church. Although Priests for Life is based in Staten Island in New York City, Pavone was attached to the diocese of Amarillo, Texas. In 2011, his bishop, Patrick J. Zurek, recalled him to Amarillo after a scandal over Priests for Life’s finances. Zurek was so concerned that he sent a letter about the matter to every bishop in the country.

Defrocked: Vatican gives ‘MAGA priest’ Pavone walking papers (Seth Herald/Getty Images)

Pavone’s exile in Amarillo lasted only about a year, and soon he was back at the helm of Priests for Life. In 2016, he was among Donald Trump’s religious advisers. Shortly before the 2016 election, Pavone, during a sermon that was posted online, placed what he said was an aborted fetus on an altar and told viewers to vote for Trump.

“I am showing him to you because in this election we have to decide if we will allow this child killing to continue in America or not,” Pavone said. “Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform says yes, let the child killing continue – and you pay for it. Donald Trump and the Republican platform says no, the child should be protected.”

After a video of the incident spread online, the Amarillo diocese issued a statement saying it was investigating Pavone. It said the action was “against the dignity of human life and is a desecration of the altar.”

More recently, Pavone has joined the chorus of deniers who insist that Trump really won the 2020 election. In a Twitter post (since deleted) from that year, he blasted “supporters of this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party.” (Pavone’s Twitter page shows him wearing a clerical collar and a MAGA hat against the backdrop of a rendering of him standing with Trump.)

It’s unclear what led the Vatican to move against Pavone now after so many years of his disturbing behavior. In a statement, church officials announced that Pavone was “given ample opportunity to defend himself in the canonical proceedings.” He has no right of appeal.

Since Priests for Life is not a project of the Catholic Church, Pavone could continue to run it as a layman. He’s also insisting that he’ll never give up being a priest, but, while church law states that defrocked clergy technically retain the title of priest, Pavone has been “dismissed from the clerical state,” meaning he can no longer perform the functions of one.

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