ROME – Pop quiz: In the Pope Francis era, which of the following behaviors by a Catholic priest is most likely to result in disciplinary action imposed by his local bishop, who’s a Francis appointee?
- Openly advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community, including support for same-sex marriage in defiance of official church teaching.
- Openly supporting physician assisted suicide and a “right to die” law, also in opposition to Catholic teaching.
- Publicly calling for a halt to the cherished Catholic tradition of erecting nativity sets for Christmas, on the grounds that it’s hypocritical to memorialize the birth of one child to a refugee family but to mistreat other refugees every day.
- Creating small-scale but successful for-profit operations, such as a restaurant and a bar, to generate income for charitable efforts that don’t have to rely on funding from the institutional church or individual donations.
To the extent that Father Luca Favarin of Padua is any indication, the correct answer turns out to be “D.”
In the Catholic imagination, the northern Italian city of Padua is most associated with St. Anthony, the famed 13th century Franciscan known for his devotion to the poor and the sick. Today, however, it’s Favarin once again putting Padua on the Catholic map, this time for much more controversial reasons.
After a stormy recent meeting with his bishop, Claudio Cipolla, Favarin took to Facebook to announce that he’s been suspended a divinis at his own request. (Suspension a divinis means a prohibition on performing any priestly act, such as celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, and so on.)
In many ways, the 51-year-old Favarin comes straight out of a central casting office in Hollywood as a “rebel priest,” with long wavy hair and typically sporting a rainbow-colored scarf to symbolize his support for gay rights. Tellingly, a local pub he operates is called “Rebel verses.”
Favarin doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees, insisting that they shouldn’t just be docile and grateful, but have the right to be protagonists in their own future. In 2017 he published a book with the provocative title, Circus Animals: The Obedient Migrants We’d Like to Have.
Yet according to Favarin, the bone of contention with the diocese isn’t his work with migrants and refugees or his stances on hot-button moral issues. Instead, it’s the fact that he’s the owner and operator of a handful of successful businesses, including a popular restaurant called Strada Facendo (“Along the Way”) which the web site Trip Advisor currently ranks as number four out of 818 eateries in Padua.
In a statement, the Diocese of Padua cited concerns over the financial transparency of these operations, which are estimated to generate roughly $1.7 million in annual revenue, as well as canon 286 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that “clerics are prohibited from conducting business or trade personally or through others, for their own advantage or that of others, except with the permission of legitimate ecclesiastical authority.”
Favarin insists the money is used to fund relief efforts for migrants, refugees, alcohol and drug addicts, former prostitutes, abuse victims, ex-convicts and other needy persons. Not only do they benefit from housing and educational programs, Favarin argued, but they can also be employed in his businesses and eventually become self-supporting.
In interviews with Italian media, the 51-year-old Favarin has fired back, insisting that the church “can’t just wait on alms from the people.”
“Our activity has to be solid, which is the only way to sustain it,” he said. “What am I supposed to pay the workers with? Hail Marys? What do I give the kids to eat?”
“Yeah, it’s a business activity,” he said. “It may not be the sacristy, but I believe it’s the courtyard of the church.”
Favarin was also quoted as saying that if another priest were to take drugs or visit prostitutes, he’d likely be treated with more leniency than has been shown to him, and that “I can’t take it anymore.”
Asked if he’s considered an appeal to Pope Francis, Favarin appeared to demur.
“They tell me I should go talk to the pope, but I’ll never do it,” Favarin said. “I’m a pacifist. I don’t wage war, not even with the bishop who wants to kick me out.”