On the eve of the 2016 election in the United States, at the end of a long and exhausting presidential campaign which has been hugely divisive and demoralizing to the country as a whole, and for Catholic citizens in particular, a social media post by a perennially controversial priest has caused a particular uproar. On Monday Fr. Frank Pavone, head of the group Priests For Life, posted a video “homily” in which the dead body of an aborted child was dramatically arranged in the foreground on what appeared to be an altar.
Following the posting of Fr. Pavone’s video, there have been immediate calls in the Catholic blogosphere for Church authorities to “suspend his faculties” in response to what is being termed both “sacrilege and scandal.” The same day a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York — where Priests For Life is headquartered — issued a condemnation of the video in extremely strong words.
I have not watched the video, which appears to run about forty-five minutes. But Fr. Pavone also posted a screen shot from the video on his Facebook page with a very pointed caption in reference to the two major party presidential candidates and their respective stances on the right to life of the unborn. Since I have neither the time nor the curiosity to take in the video in its entirety, I will (rightly or wrongly) be basing my assessment on the posted screen shot and accompanying text.
The fundamental question is whether Fr. Pavone here committed a specific crime, or delict, in violation of canon law. For it is only in response to a specific and proven delictual act that the competent authority can impose a penalty (such as suspension of faculties). Looking at this scenario from a strictly canon law perspective (which is all this author is qualified to do), given what is evident from this remove, there are two possibilities that Fr. Pavone’s act constituted a delict, or crime: either 1) it was a violation of the canon 287 ban on the involvement of a priest in partisan politics, or 2) it constituted the desecration of an altar in contravention of canon 1239.
The first of these claims is, I believe, fairly simple to dismiss. Canon 287, §2 of the current Code of Canon Law reads: “[Clerics] are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.” This is a quite specific limitation, and rather different in scope from the sweeping generality that “priests should not be involved in politics,” which seems to be how this is usually (mis)interpreted in common discourse. Even the statement from the Archdiocese of New York acknowledges this: “Yesterday, Fr. Frank Pavone, the leader of Priests for Life, went live on Facebook to endorse Donald Trump for President. That’s his right as a U.S. citizen, and one can agree or disagree with that as a matter of course” (emphasis mine).
Yet it seems to be this very use of a dead baby as a prop in what is blatantly a partisan political act that has most captured the attention, and outrage, of so many. This has rather a lot to do with the particularly perfervid tone of this years presidential campaign, and I dare say with outrage over who Fr. Pavone is endorsing with this act. So, while Fr. Pavone’s clear endorsing of one specific candidate by name over another may be unfortunate (especially given the particular candidates we are given this year), it is hardly criminal.
It must also I think be said that he is not wrong in his stated point: Secretary Clinton does clearly favor and support the legality and availability of the murder of children in their mother’s womb, and the full support of the ongoing availability of abortion is a tenet of Democratic Party platform. Likewise, it is also true that the Republican Party has long maintained at least nominal advocacy for the right to life for the unborn and some opposition to legal abortion on demand in this country, a position that Mr. Trump has at least been paying lip service to during the course of this campaign.
The display of the body of an aborted child on an altar, whatever the motivation, is a very different story, canonically speaking. While Fr. Pavone’s partisan politics may be what got headlines at the Washington Post and other secular media outlets, it is his decision to make this display on what appears to be an altar that has been set up and decorated for the sacrifice of the Mass that must seize the attention of Catholics, of canonists, and ultimately of the competent ecclesiastical authorities.
It must be remembered that in canon law, an altar is a sacred place in its own right, with its own blessing or dedication, its own sacred character distinct from the sacred building within which it stands. And it is sacred for a very specific use:
“The altar, on which the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs, is also the Lord’s table which the people are invited to share when they come to Mass. It is also the centre from which thanksgiving is offered to God through the celebration of the Eucharist” (GIRM n. 259). It is for these reasons that every altar, whether fixed or movable, “is to be reserved for divine worship alone, to the exclusion of any secular usage’ (canon 1239 §1), i.e., any use, however lawful or worthy in itself, other than that of worship” (in The Canon Law: Letter and Spirit, page 696, emphasis mine).
Canon 1211 delineates three criteria which would constitute a violation (or desecration) of a sacred place: 1) an injurious action is committed within a sacred place; 2) this action gives scandal to the faithful; and 3) the local ordinary judges that the action is “serious and contrary to the holiness of the place.” When these criteria coincide, then the scenario is such that no further worship may be held in that place “until the harm is repaired by means of the penitential rite which is prescribed in the liturgical books.” Canon 1376 prescribes that, when a sacred object (including, by extension, a sacred place) is profaned, the person who has done the profanation is to be punished with “a just penalty” — meaning the precise penalty is left to the discretion of the ecclesiastical authority who is judging the case.
I must note that I am being very careful throughout to say that it appears to be an altar in the video. Without further context, I cannot say that it is not simply a table which Fr. Pavone has decorated as an altar: in other words, a dressed set, not a sacred place. If that should turn out to be the case, then of course no delict of profanation would have been committed. But if it was an actual altar in the video, than the misuse of that altar must be investigated by the competent ecclesiastical authorities, and such an investigation could result in some just penalty being imposed on Fr. Pavone, according to the gravity of the specific circumstances.
Fr. Pavone is obviously a crusader: an individual so devoted to and focused on a cause for so long that only that cause is clearly in focus for him. Other goods and laws that do not directly pertain to the furtherance of his crusade simply do not, I think, enter into his frame of view. It is (perhaps) arguable whether Fr. Pavone’s stunt is utterly out of all bounds, or if it was a legitimate use of shock tactics for a worthy cause. But in light of the facts available to me at the time of this writing, it seems that Fr. Pavone’s actions in publicly displaying the murdered remains of an innocent child on what appears to be an altar was highly improper. The (apparent) use of a sacred place for a shocking political display, however nobly motivated, would be a violation of the sacred character of that altar, and should be investigated, by the competent ecclesiastical authorities, to determine if a delict occurred here.
Addendum: As I was finishing this post, the Diocese of Amarillo (where Fr. Pavone is incardinated) issued a terse statement on the issue. It describes Fr. Pavone’s actions in the video as being “against the dignity of human life and is a desecration of the altar.” The statement concludes with: “The Diocese of Amarillo is opening an investigation about all these matters.”