Why an Ohio priest who denied Pope Francis went 'viral'

A Pillar Explainer

Video of a priest’s testimony at the Ohio statehouse Tuesday has gone viral on social media, after the priest told a state legislature committee that he doesn’t recognize Pope Francis as the valid pope, while testifying in favor of a bill that would prohibit vaccine mandates.

In one video clip circulating on social media, the priest said that he doesn’t recognize Francis because “you have to be a Catholic to be the pope.”

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In another clip, the priest said of Francis that “there are many clergy, bishops around the world who have simply have looked at the obvious, that his teachings on many things contradict Catholic teaching, and it’s a simple basic principle of Catholic theology — you can’t be the head of the Church if you don’t profess the Catholic faith.”

The priest’s remarks have attracted attention, and have been covered in some press reports with little mention of his ecclesiastical status. In some accounts, he has been identified as a parish pastor.

That has prompted some confusion. Is he really a priest? Did he really deny the papacy of Francis? Why? 

Here’s what you need to know:

The priest

The priest, Fr. Gabriel Lavery, is a member of a group called the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI) — a group not in the communion of the Church.

The CMRI denies the validity of the Second Vatican Council and the validity of recent papacies — teaching that all the popes since Pope St. Paul VI have illegitimately claimed the papacy, and that there is presently no valid pope.

Lavery, who was ordained a priest in 2003, has taught in high schools and seminaries connected to the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, and now leads two Ohio “chapels” —  not formally parishes, as they are outside the communion of the Catholic Church, but communities which worship according to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and espouse a theology which parallels that of the CMRI.

Lavery has testified before the Ohio legislature in the past on issues related to the pandemic.

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What he said

Lavery testified Aug. 24 in support of Ohio’s “Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act,” which would prohibit employers, hospitals, and others from requiring or asking about the vaccination status of employees and others, and prohibit businesses from setting differing social distancing requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. 

He said he was not testifying to say that “vaccines make you magnetic, or 5G interface — that drives me crazy too.” Rejecting those ideas, the priest said he believes the science is not settled on vaccines, and that it is immoral to “usurp the rights of the individual for the sake of the society.”

After his prepared testimony, Lavery was asked about a perceived incongruity between his position and that of Pope Francis, who has encouraged Catholics to be vaccinated. 

The priest said the question raised “deeper religious questions, as Francis on many occasions has contradicted Catholics teachings, I certainly don’t recognize him as pope, you have to be Catholic to be pope.”

Lavery also said that a Pope Francis quote read by an Ohio legislator did not support the notion of vaccine mandates.

Asked follow-up questions, Lavery explained his sedavacantist position, while stating that “it doesn’t, I think, have a bearing” on the topic of the hearing. 

In response to a follow-up question, he added that he believes Pope Francis’ perception that vaccines are a moral obligation could be in conflict with the moral reasoning of Pope Pius XII on vaccines. 

“I do actually believe there’s some conflict there,” the priest said, explaining his theological position.

On whether the benefit of vaccines outweighs the risk, Lavery said, “there’s lots of room for discussion there, but instead there’s been too much of a one-sided view that me getting the vaccine is the only way to protect my neighbor, and if the vaccine is as effective as they claim, then I think that’s a stretch.”

Asked if the pope had mandated vaccines for Catholics, the priest said that “Francis didn’t mandate it to my knowledge…he seems to have said it is an obligation in charity.” 

Asked whether the pope had taught ex cathedra about vaccines, Lavery discussed the way in which Pope Pius XII, whose pontificate he recognizes as legitimate, had taught about vaccines. 

Asked specifically whether Pope Francis had taught ex cathedra about vaccines, he said “of course, I wouldn’t consider anything from Francis ex cathedra if I don’t consider him pope...for me it’s a non-issue. It would be about as much authority as if President Biden said it to me.”

He was then asked about a Miraculous Medal he wore.

The Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen

The priest’s community, the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, was founded in 1967 by U.S. Catholics who soon came to believe that the Pope Paul VI was not legitimately the pope. Some of the group were ordained by bishops outside the communion of the Church, first in 1971, and then in 1985, when several men in the community were illicitly ordained priests, and in 1991, when one was illicitly consecrated a bishop.

The group has had a complicated history, including the 1984 ouster of its founder, Francis Schuckhardt, who was accused of serial sexual abuse and financial misconduct.

It is not clear how many lay people worship in chapels operated by the CMRI. In 2007, 15 nuns of a cloistered CMRI community left their monastery to return to full communion with the Church. They founded a new religious community, the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church

On its website, the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire includes a strong denunciation of the CMRI:

CMRI is not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and the sacraments they claim to offer have no validity in the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics are not permitted to receive the sacraments from CMRI ministers under any circumstances, nor should they participate in any activity provided by this group.

The members of CMRI are what are called “sedevacantists,” meaning that they believe that the current pope is not truly the pope and that the See of St. Peter is vacant. They believe that there has not been a pope in the Catholic Church since the death of Saint John XXIII, and therefore do not recognize any subsequent pope, including Pope Francis, as head of the Church.

The CMRI, and a local chapel affiliated with the group, “are not Catholic, and do not have the right to call themselves Catholic,” the diocese said directly.

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Is Lavery actually a priest?

Because of the Church’s theology of apostolic succession, and murky records of episcopal ordination among suspect bishops outside the communion of the Church, some traditionalist groups have questioned the validity of priestly ordination within the CMRI.

The Church has not ruled definitively on that question, and traditionalist groups outside the Church’s communion have differing views on whose ordinations are valid, and whose are not.

But the ordination of CMRI clerics, like Lavery, is usually regarded as valid but illicit. Some of the sacraments celebrated by members of the community, because they lack faculties and jurisdiction, are not regarded to be validly offered.

Will the bill pass?

 The Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act is not expected to pass the Ohio state legislature, and is not presently scheduled for a floor vote. Ohio Republican lawmakers are split over the bill, while hundreds of its proponents have demonstrated outside the Statehouse in support of it.

Editor’s note: The initial publication of this report mistakenly omitted the word “crazy” from a quote from Fr. Lavery regarding alleged consequences of the coronavirus vaccine. The omission could have implied the priest was endorsing, rather than rejecting, those alleged consequences. The error, which The Pillar regrets, has been corrected.