The Blasphemers are the real Catholics
The former Catholic priest Frank Pavone is doing a MAGA media tour and claiming he's a victim of a "Deep Church" conspiracy. He's really just another MAGA grifter using religion as a political weapon.
The anti-abortion activist and former Catholic priest Frank Pavone was defrocked earlier this month by the Vatican for "blasphemous communications on social media" and "persistent disobedience" of his bishop here in the United States. Pavone is a name that may not be familiar to you, but he is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. He served on Trump’s Catholic advisory board for both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, and there’s every indication Pavone will serve in a similar if not larger role in the upcoming 2024 election. That’s why it should perhaps come as no surprise that, this past week, Pavone took to the MAGA media sphere to air his grievances, fundraise and embrace the same grievances MAGA world has spent so many years internalizing themselves. In fact, in a December 19th interview on Steve Bannon’s War Room, Pavone stated that the “Deep Church” was targeting him in much the same way the supposed “Deep State” targeted figures in the MAGA movement. He claimed this was primarily due to his unwavering anti-abortion stances and his support for Donald Trump. Listening to Pavone’s interview, he hits on the same talking points as any other seasoned right-wing media guest, and he sounds far more like a politician than a man of the cloth. Perhaps we should expect nothing less from a man who was posting the “Stop the Steal” hashtag after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, said Joe Biden was “not the president-elect” on January 6th and recently appeared with such extremist figures as Doug Mastriano prior to the 2022 midterm elections.
In his interview with Bannon, both he and Pavone claimed the decision to defrock him could cause a “schism” within the church both men have consistently and increasingly criticized in recent years. I’m not here to argue for the Catholic Church. I was raised Protestant and consider myself an agnostic these days. However, I believe it important to point out the MAGA commentary on the church, including a possible “schism” are rather transparent and cynical political acts which will be used for two primary purposes in the short-term—re-electing Donald Trump and pushing for nationwide abortion bans.
How it got to this point for the former Father.
Nicole Winfield, writing for the AP, had this to say of the Vatican’s decision to defrock Pavone:
Pavone has been in conflict with the bishop of Amarillo, Texas, for over a decade over his pro-life and partisan political activities that came to a head in 2016 when he put an aborted fetus on an altar and posted a video of it on two social media sites. The video was accompanied by a post saying that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform would allow abortion to continue and that Trump and the Republican platform wanted to protect unborn children.
Even before then, Pavone successfully appealed 2011 restrictions on his ministry that Amarillo Bishop Patrick Zurek had placed on him.
Pavone remained a firm supporter of Trump and in 2020 disputed the outcome of the election won by Joe Biden. Ahead of the election, the Amarillo diocese denounced Pavone’s use of social media for political ends, distanced the diocese from him and said his positions weren’t consistent with Catholic teaching.
Pavone relocated from Amarillo and was allowed to move to Colorado Springs, Colorado. His Twitter handle still features him wearing a “MAGA” hat with a background photo of former President Trump, who is praised by many conservatives for his Supreme Court nominees who helped overturn the constitutional right to abortion in the United States.
In a tweet Sunday, Pavone sounded defiant, comparing his fate to that of the unborn.
“So in every profession, including the priesthood, if you defend the #unborn, you will be treated like them! The only difference is that when we are ‘aborted,’ we continue to speak, loud and clear.”
In his recent interviews, Pavone has stuck to a rather partisan script, claiming the Catholic Church is in league with the Democrats, and that Pope Francis in particular takes issue with Pavone’s hardline anti-abortion stance. Pavone claims the Catholic Church is happy to ignore abortions in the United States because they support Democrats, and therefore the Pope will meet with and have discussions with Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. Putting aside the fact that it’s quite normal for the Pope, any Pope, to meet with world leaders, the issue at hand does not seem to be the fact that Pavone continues to campaign against abortion access in the United States. It’s the way he carries out those campaigns—meaning the tactics he uses—and the fact that he considers this political activism his fulltime job. For years, Pavone has refused to carry out his duties as a Catholic priest in favor of this activism, primarily through his anti-abortion groups known as Priests for Life and Rachel’s Vineyard. However, stunts such as the 2016 video of an aborted fetus on an altar in particular were roundly criticized by many Catholics not for his stated anti-abortion stances, but the way in which he broadcast those beliefs. In a statement days after that video was released by Pavone, his boss, Bishop Patrick Zurek of the Amarillo, Texas diocese said:
In a statement released Tuesday evening, Bishop Patrick Zurek of the Amarillo, Texas diocese, where Pavone is incardinated a priest, said it "deeply regrets the offense and outrage" spurred from the video, which "is against the dignity of human life and is a desecration of the altar. and that it "is not consistent with the beliefs of the Catholic Church."
"We believe that no one who is pro-life can exploit a human body for any reason, especially the body of a fetus," Zurek said.
The bishop clarified that Priests for Life, which is based in Staten Island, N.Y., is not a Catholic, but a civil institution and thereby not under the diocese's supervision. He added that the diocese was opening an investigation of Pavone "about all these matters."
In a statement shortly after receiving the news that he had been dismissed from the priesthood, Pavone wrote on his website, “What took so long?” It seems likely the Vatican delayed this inevitability because they know it would bring about exactly what we’re seeing Pavone doing now. He’s begun his MAGA media tour. He’s fundraising off what they’re calling his “cancellation” by the “Deep Church” which supports “fake Catholics” like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.
Catholic media observers have criticized the church for its vague denunciations of Pavone, and their unwillingness to elaborate on what exactly caused this final end. However, I think it’s rather simple. Pavone stopped being a priest many years ago. In a recent interview with Seb Gorka, he stated that Priests for Life was his full-time job now, and he refused Bishop Zurek’s order for him to serve his diocese in any capacity whatsoever because his anti-abortion activity was simply too important to only be available for it part-time. Anyone who understands how the Catholic Church operates knows that priests do not get to dictate their work schedules to their Bishop. That’s not the way this works. In reality, Pavone asked the question, “What took so long?” because he’s been wishing for this day for many years. His MAGA media blitz casting himself as the victim of the “Deep Church” makes for good TV in their world, and it also means the donations are going to keep rolling in.
For the MAGA movement, religion is whatever they need it to be.
As part of his MAGA activism, Pavone has recently met with or been interviewed by a variety of figures including Donald Trump Jr., Jack Posobiec, Doug Mastriano, former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, Kari Lake, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski among many others. He’s been interviewed by Breitbart, One America News (OANN), Newsmax and Fox with Laura Ingraham. He went to CPAC earlier this year.
But what of these “blasphemous communications on social media” the Vatican criticized Pavone for making? In recent interviews, he appears simply dumbfounded and aghast at this accusation, but it doesn’t take long to find many possibilities. In fact, the 2016 video of Pavone in which he showed an aborted fetus on an altar was posted to Facebook live. That alone could have merited the claim of blasphemy. However, a cursory look at Pavone’s Twitter account finds someone whose talking points are rather in sync with the average right-wing MAGA troll. For instance, he’s spoken out against the “Russian collusion myth”. He said Joe Biden was not the president-elect on January 6th, after the Capitol Building had been breached by pro-Trump rioters. In an October interview with Tucker Carlson, he praised Kanye West’s anti-abortion stance. He has repeatedly called Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi “fake Catholics”. This is not a designation Catholic priests are authorized to make. However, Pavone is not alone in this belief, even among Catholic priests.
When Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island claimed Biden was not a Catholic prior to the 2020 election, he was similarly criticized. But as John Gehring wrote for Commonweal Magazine, "These kinds of attacks aren’t particularly new, even if delivered in the extreme tone of the Trump era. Sen. John Kerry, the last Catholic Democrat to receive his party’s presidential nomination, faced similar blowback in 2004 over his support for reproductive rights."
Gehring goes on to say:
Trump’s most vociferous Catholic cheerleaders never bring up the fact that bishops list “racist behavior” under actions that are “intrinsically evil.” Given that Trumpism is defined, in large part, by white nationalism and blatant appeals designed to intentionally stoke racial resentment, this silence is not surprising. But it is instructive.
Many of the same people who claim Biden is “Catholic in name only”—the same epithet hurled at Catholic progressives for many years—are happy to pick and choose from their own “cafeteria Catholic” menu. Conveniently ignoring or downplaying Church teachings on racism, the dignity of immigrants, and economic inequality, these Catholics indulge in the same selective theology they call out in others. And self-appointed guardians of the faith who are so quick to accuse people of being “anti-Catholic” go quiet or join the parade when a fellow Catholic in public life has his personal faith attacked. Those who have the audacity to judge Biden’s commitment to his faith, and even the state of his soul, are themselves willing to engage in a form of “anti-Catholicism” if it suits their ideological or political purpose. There is nothing authentically Catholic about that hypocrisy.
These MAGA figures claim they’re Catholic “Traditionalists,” but they’re not.
Many pro-Trump Catholics are quick to call themselves “Traditionalists” who simply want to restore the Church to its old ways. One of their biggest complaints stems from the Second Vatican Council’s (1962-65) decision to stop mandating all Catholic mass be carried out in spoken Latin. The church believed this practice was alienating potential followers, and they believed this would help them modernize and make the church’s teaching more accessible to the masses. The decision to move away from Latin mass has caused ongoing debate within the church, and since I am not a Catholic, I won’t weigh in on that particular debate. However, I do find a piece written by Dave Armstrong in Patheos a decade ago quite instructive. He stated that he considers himself closely aligned with the “traditionalists” and personally has no objection to those who wish to participate in the Tridentine Mass (or the "Traditional Latin Mass"). In fact, he said that he was in favor of Pope Benedict's 2007 decree to make the Tridentine Mass more accessible and personally had attended these services since 1991 at "the only parish in metro Detroit that offered it". However, he says that, "those who insist on (among other things) continually bashing the Pauline ‘New’ Mass (whether they regard it as valid or not), as somehow less than fully Catholic, or doctrinally watered-down: along with insults towards those who prefer it, as second-class Catholics” are not traditionalists. They are “radical Catholic reactionaries” instead.
Some of the loudest MAGA Catholics like Bannon, Posobiec and popular YouTuber Taylor Marshall (another member of Trump’s Catholic advisory board, alongside Frank Pavone) and their allies have consistently spoken out in favor of the Latin mass while leading a movement against the Pope Francis that borders on heresy. Many Catholics believe it is acceptable to criticize the Pope, within reason, and there are plenty of examples why the Church deserves their fair share of criticism—child sex abuse cases and subsequent cover-ups of child sex abuse within the church being chief among them. However, when Posobiec tells his audience that “Francis is completely wrong” with his comments last year about George Floyd, and so there’s “nothing binding about [what he said] whatsoever for Catholics,” this is, at best, borderline heresy.
When Posobiec subsequently tweeted criticism of Francis's support of the BLM protests and advanced the theory of "Infiltration" within the Church, he's referencing Taylor Marshall's book, Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church From Within. There’s a quote from that book which bears all the hallmarks of weaponized Trumpian rhetoric—conspiracy peddling while avoiding definitive statements and thus any chance of losing a libel case. Marshall writes, “many faithful have concluded that Pope Benedict remains pope and that Pope Francis is an Antipope without the charism and protection of the papacy.” Many people are saying Pope Francis is the Antipope, you see, but of course, Marshall’s book isn’t saying so itself.
For a party and a movement that's been overtaken and consumed by conspiracy theories and grievances, the implication of an antipope "infiltration" is simply another extension of their political activism disguised as religion. Of course their version of "Catholicism" pits Francis's so-called "Deep Church" on the side of Democrats, the CCP and the "globalists". They've also allowed Christian nationalists and QAnon followers to find footing and common cause with their agenda. The MAGA movement will be deployed to re-elect Trump once more. It may or may not succeed, but it doesn't need him to carry on. They will go on finding enemies and finding supposed plots in every corner of the world in the name of a "tradition" that doesn't exist and never did. They’re making up a new thing and pulling people in by calling it a tradition. As Religion Dispatches wrote two months ago:
This coming weekend, September 30th through October 2nd, the Catholic Identity Conference is meeting in a hotel outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Connected to groups like Church Militant, The Remnant and other rad-trad Catholic groups, the conference has been a venue for Steve Bannon, QAnon-linked Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó, and others to rail against Pope Francis, “globalists” (i.e. “Jews”), and “the New World Order.”
The original title for this year’s event, “The Crusade Has Been Called: The Kingship of Christ vs the New World Order,” has since been changed to “Traditionis Custodes & The Great Reset: Where do we go from here?” The new title—linking the ban on the traditional Latin mass to the “Great Reset” conspiracy theory—is accompanied by a banner image of four Knights Templar kneeling behind a priest.
Among the first day’s sessions is one titled “The Crusade has been called, the Kingship of Christ and Proper Worship of the King”; while the second day features a laundry list of sessions bemoaning the Pope’s betrayal of “the Traditional Catholic Cause,” including “All Hands on Deck: Francis’s War on God and History.”
This kind of event is, unfortunately, not limited to a handful of American marketing gimmicks, some online shenanigans, and a fringe Islamophobic US military officer-to-holy warrior pipeline. This holy war fetishism extends across national, and—perhaps more importantly—denominational boundaries. The rhetoric, clothing, weaponry and other paraphernalia of holy war has been adopted by the Christian far-right.
The culture war is a religious war is a political weapon. The figures in this movement speak of “Tradition” because it harks back to a supposed greater age, a time before their dystopian fantasies about the present day, but it’s important to remember this nostalgic golden age never existed. They’re not trying to return to something old. They’re distorting the past to create something new. It’s not a new trick, but it’s an updated one for a terminally online movement that’s desperate for power at any cost.
Coming up on the War Room: How can an Antipope who colludes with fake Catholics like Joe Biden defrock a traditionalist defender of the unborn such as Father Frank Pavone? Stay tuned, true believers...
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