Who is responsible for these controversial Twitter priests?

News: Priesthood

After recent controversies involving apparently independent Catholic priests engaged on social media, experts have said Church law expects priests to be transparently and demonstrably subject to ecclesiastical authorities — and for good reason.

“Every Catholic has to belong somewhere, and that is doubly true for Catholic priests,” Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, OP, told The Pillar this week. Pietrzyk, who has a doctorate in canon law, is chair of the pastoral studies department at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California.

“The Church’s law has wanted for centuries and centuries to avoid the phenomenon of wandering priests — priests who have no supervision, nobody to watch over them,” Pietrzyk told The Pillar.

“The theology of the priesthood has never been that priests are just independent sacramental ministers. Rather, priests are constantly understood, and this is emphasized in the Second Vatican Council, as cooperators with the bishops, so that you can not even conceive of priestly ministry disconnected from ecclesiastical authority.”

In fact, Pietrzyk added, “the oldest translation of the word bishop is ‘overseer.’ And every priest needs an overseer; a bishop, or someone entrusted with authority, to oversee him.”

The priest said the phenomenon in which priests are free to teach online without supervision or accountability speaks to a broader concern about social media use and the Church.

“It is a huge problem that the U.S. bishops have essentially ceded their roles as the primary teachers of the Church to certain figures on social media, including those who teach and preach contrary to the faith. And the fact that they allow those figures to have an outsize influence, and therefore basically cede their roles as the proper teachers of the faith, I think is one of the greatest scandals and greatest difficulties in the Church today.”

Some of the most popular — and controversial — priests on social media have regular supervision from bishops or religious superiors, and identify their institutional affiliation clearly. But in other cases it can be hard to know to which dioceses or religious orders some social media priests belong.

And that can make it difficult when Catholics have concerns about their online presence.

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Pietrzyk spoke to The Pillar after the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, announced last month that popular priest Fr. John Zuhlsdorf would leave the diocese.

Zuhlsdorf, a well-known blogger and social media personality, has been at the center of controversy over his livestreamed exorcism rites, which were reportedly directed at allegations of voter fraud in the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

When the rites gained attention, Madison’s Bishop Donald Hying clarified that the priest had permission to conduct “the rite of the sacramental of exorcism” only “for the intention of alleviation from the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic,” and not “in relation to partisan political activity.”

Shortly thereafter, the priest and the diocese announced a “mutual decision” for the priest to leave the diocese.

Zuhlsdorf is incardinated — formally “enrolled” — in the Italian Diocese of Velletri-Segni, but had been resident in Madison for years. There was reportedly an agreement between the two dioceses concerning supervision of Zuhlsdorf’s ministry. 

But when the Madison diocese announced last month the priest was leaving, a spokesman described the priest as a “freelancer,” which seemed to convey that the diocese no longer considered itself responsible for Zuhlsdorf.

The priest’s move raises a question for some Catholics: Who will be responsible for Zuhlsdorf when he moves to a new diocese?

The Pillar contacted Zuhlsdorf for clarity regarding his situation, but the priest has not responded to requests for comment.

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Without commenting on the particular circumstances of Zuhlsdorf, Pietrzyk said it can become a problem when a priest is incardinated in one diocese, but living in another — if neither bishop understands himself to be responsible for oversight.

“There is nothing inherently unusual about a priest ministering outside of his diocese, with the approval of his own bishop, and the bishop of the diocese in which he is exercising ministering,” Pietrzyk said. 

“But when you have a disconnect, then it becomes a problem. Because then they become authorities unto themselves. And then it becomes a real question about who is exercising oversight over this priest. Is it the bishop of his own diocese, or the bishop of the place where he is living?”

“The duty is on the bishop in which priests are incardinated. They have the authority and the responsibility to oversee their priests. And if they have priests who are not resident in their diocese, they have a real obligation, both legal and moral, to check up on that priest. To see that he is doing well.” 

“The bishop isn’t just a kind of legal overseer. He should look into the spiritual welfare of his priests. He really has that obligation.”

“It concerns me that there are these priests out there [without supervision], and these bishops seem to want to wash their hands of them, and I think that’s irresponsible on the part of those bishops,” Pietrzyk added.

Fr. Nicholas Gregoris, a priest who has gained attention in recent months because of his social media activity, lives in New Jersey, and is incardinated in the Diocese of Maasin, in the Philippines.

On Twitter, the priest has posted tweets claiming that Pope Francis is “the worst Pope ever,” and “hates Catholicism,” and accusing the pope of “phoniness.”

The priest has also referred on Twitter to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “bitch” who “belong[s] in hell.”

The statements have prompted considerable controversy on social media.

The Diocese of Maasin has not responded to questions about Gregoris. The priest is identified as a member of the Priestly Society of Saint John Henry Newman, which previously engaged in ministry in the Archdiocese of Omaha

The head of the group is Fr. Peter Stravinskas, a priest of the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, who resides in New Jersey with Gregoris.

Stravinskas described the group as a private association of the faithful, but conceded to The Pillar that the group is not recognized in an official way in canon law. 

The priest told The Pillar that he supports Gregoris’ characterization of Pope Francis as “the worst pope ever,” saying “that’s nothing different from what bishops and cardinals have said. So why is it a problem for him to say it?”

“If there’s anything concrete that’s heretical or schismatic, that’s a different story,” Stravinskas said. 

“I mean, for 27 years we had people saying how horrible John Paul was. Now the only difference is that in this pontificate you get beheaded for saying that. The rules are not the same.”

Stravinskas said that he believes frustration with the papacy of Pope Francis is why some priests “that were very centrist, intelligent, orthodox priests have been pushed very, very far to the right.”

Asked about Gregoris’ statement that Pope Francis “hates Catholicism,” Stravinskas said of the pope that “certainly his actions suggest that.”

Stravinskas himself has retirement status in the Diocese of Boise, from which he is granted priestly faculties. It is not clear whether Gregoris has faculties for sacramental ministry from his diocese in the Philippines.

Stravinskas and Gregoris live in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, where they say the Priestly Society of Saint John Henry Newman is headquartered. They are the only residential members of the group, although their website claims additional affiliate members.

Trenton’s Bishop David O’Connell told The Pillar that the group was present in the diocese before his 2010 arrival, and that he is not especially familiar with the day-to-day activities of the priests.

“I don’t have any real relationship with them...when I came here this organization was already in existence.” 

The bishop added that the group’s priests are subject to their own bishops, have not been given faculties from the Trenton diocese, and do not minister in parishes in the diocese.

O’Connell said he would consider himself responsible for looking into things if either of the priests were accused of delicts - canonical crimes - but he is not otherwise charged with supervising them, or with monitoring their social media use.

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Pietrzyk told The Pillar it can be difficult for a bishop when a priest was present but not incardinated in his diocese even before the bishop was installed, especially because his authority over the priest is limited.

But Pietrzyk said if a priest living in his diocese has become cause for scandal or concern, it can be the duty of diocesan bishop to look into whether the priest is “ministering faithfully.” 

If a priest is not ministering faithfully, Pietrzyk added, the local diocesan bishop “needs to coordinate with the bishop of his incardination to make sure oversight is happening.”

“The real danger is where both bishops just wash their hands of the whole thing, and nobody is overseeing some priest,” Pietrzyk said.

“The bishop where he is resident says, ‘Well he’s not my problem,’ and the bishop where he’s incardinated says ‘He’s not my problem, he doesn’t live here.’ That can’t happen.”

With regard to activity on social media or other public forms of teaching, “if some priest is living in a diocese, his local bishop has a right to regulate a public good of the diocese.” 

But Catholics concerned about a priest’s social media activity “should always be able to turn to the bishop who has the ultimate responsibility for that priest, his bishop of incardination,” Pietrzyk said.

It can, of course, become a challenging situation if a priest’s incardination status is not known. 

Fr. Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life, a national pro-life apostolate.

Pavone has made headlines in recent years because of his avowedly partisan activism, which included a 2016 video in which he placed the body of a dead baby on a table resembling an altar while urging Catholics to vote for Donald Trump. 

Since 2016, Pavone has posted tweets, Facebook statuses, videos, and other social media postings urging support for the Republican party, calling into question the validity of the 2020 presidential election, and disparaging personally Democratic lawmakers. 

Last month, the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, a graduate university in Rome, announced it would not give a previously announced award to Pavone, largely because of his political and ecclesiastical pronouncements.

Pavone is incardinated in the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, which in Sept. 2020 released a statement disavowing tweets from the priest, in which Pavone called  then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden a “[expletive] loser” and said the Democratic party was “God-hating” and “America-hating” and that Biden’s supporters “can’t say a [expletive] thing in support of their loser candidate without using the word Trump.”

But the Amarillo diocese has generally not responded to questions about Pavone’s status as a priest.

In recent years Pavone has said publicly that he is transferring to another, undisclosed, diocese, and is subject to the authority of the bishop of that diocese. In fact, Pavone said in 2020 that he had stepped down from his official roles with the Trump campaign because his new bishop had directed him to, but he declined at that time to name the bishop.

In April 2020, Pavone’s canon lawyer released a statement which claimed that Pavone is a “priest in good standing,” and would be transferring to a new diocese.

The canon lawyer said that “details about Fr. Pavone’s diocese of incardination will be released at the appropriate time and by the appropriate Church officials. However it is important that the above statements regarding Fr. Pavone’s good standing as a Catholic priest, are communicated now and as clearly and forcefully as possible.”

Pavone told The Pillar in January that he thinks Catholics are using questions about his status to “stir up” controversy, disparage him, and distract from the work his organization does.

The priest pointed to Priests for Life’s support of Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion healing retreats, its publishing division, television production work, and its livestream of daily Masses, which had become necessary “because the China virus led to many restrictions on Church attendance,” a 2020 activity report said. 

Pavone said he believes some Catholics “want to know my canonical status precisely because they support my work,” while others, “truly enemies within and outside the Church, are essentially taking a Pharisaical approach of just trying to find ammunition to harm my reputation.”

Pavone has repeatedly declined to name the diocese which he claims he will soon join.

The priest told The Pillar that “we are still hammering out the details, with the helpful collaboration of the Congregation for Clergy, to finalize the details. But the process (characteristically slow) is moving forward, and it’s up to them and the receiving bishop to indicate when we can make any public announcements.”

In 2016, Pavone sought a transfer to the Diocese of Colorado Springs. The Pillar asked the Diocese of Colorado Springs in January whether Pavone was again planning to incardinate in the diocese.

A spokesperson for the diocese told The Pillar: “I have not received any information from Bishop Michael Sheridan related to Father Pavone, either by way of a clergy appointment or announcement of incardination.”

The apostolic nuncio to the United States, the pope’s representative to the country, did not respond to questions from The Pillar about Pavone’s incardination.

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Pietrzyk said such ambiguity can represent a problem, because Catholics should be able to express concerns about a priest’s ministry to the appropriate Church authorities— and that requires knowing who those authorities are.

Of course, knowing who a priest is overseen by is no guarantee that concerns will be addressed when they’re raised, a subject that also concerned Pietrzyk.

Still, the priest said, Catholics “should always be able to turn to the bishop who has the ultimate responsibility for that priest.”

“Anyone who ministers in the name of the Church must be associated with apostolic ministry,” the priest said. A priest should be easily identified “with the hierarchy of the Church — the bishops. And especially with the particular bishop charged with ensuring his well being and holiness, and that of the faithful.”

Pietrzyk told The Pillar he hopes the issue of functionally autonomous priests will be addressed by the U.S. bishops, and by the appropriate Vatican congregations. 

“The Second Vatican Council emphasized that bishops have a kind of paternal role with regard to their priests, and they need to be a kind of father to those priests. That includes overseeing their ministries, and their lives.”

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