Inside the Vatican
PRO-LIFE WINS OR NOBODY WINS
Interview with Father Frank Pavone, International Director of Priests for
By John Mallon
JOHN MALLON: Fr. Pavone, this year we commemorate the 25th anniversary of
Roe v. Wade and the 30th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
It took only five years for some of Pope Paul VI's dire predictions to come
true. Now we live in the results of ignored prophecy. From your perspective,
where do we stand now?
FATHER FRANK PAVONE: The encyclical Humanae Vitae, as you just
mentioned, contains predictions of what would happen to the human family if
contraception were accepted and practiced. And, as you point out, those
predictions of Pope Paul have come true. They continue to come true more and
more each day, and in that sense, the encyclical becomes stronger, as the days
and the years go on.
When someone tells us something is wrong, we sometimes cannot be convinced
until we go down the road a little bit and begin to reap the negative effects.
In the case of contraception and Humanae Vitae, we've learned something
about the Church, namely, that the Church's teachings are, in fact, from God -
not from simple human analysis, not from figuring out things with our own
limited intelligence. There is a place for that limited intelligence, but the
fact of the matter is that Pope Paul VI had two recommendations, the majority
and the minority, and he went with the minority to say "Yes, we are affirming
the constant teaching of the Church."
It's an ecclesiological lesson because in certain sectors of the Church there
was a backlash of dissent, but at the same time, the teaching has been
preserved, and the teaching has been strengthened more than ever by our present
Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. There has been no Pope who has taught more
extensively on the truths that are contained in Humanae Vitae than the
current Pope. And he has done so at a time when the world and the Church need
that teaching the most.
In thinking about Humanae Vitae, I often think of it this way: we're
at a time now when our society is not obsessed with sex. It's afraid of it. The
Church's teachings in Humanae Vitae are not there because the
Church thinks that sexuality is dirty, or evil, or bad. The Church's teachings
flow from the assertion that sexuality is holy. It is so sacred that it can only
be approached under those conditions which acknowledge its sanctity, that is,
within the context of marriage and open to life. Society is afraid of the full
reality and truth of sexuality. The full reality as Pope Paul teaches in the
document: that it's got to be totally human. It's got to be free and faithful.
It's a reality that is so interconnected with responsibility, openness to
life, readiness to give oneself away, that if we don't want to deal with all of
that, we run away from the real sexuality, and take refuge in a false and
superficial sexuality that becomes a commodity. It becomes meaningless, and
involves no real commitment between the two individuals. We are at the stage now
where we've had a long enough track record with this kind of thing to see that
the false or superficial view of sexuality doesn't improve society and it
doesn't bring happiness.
And I'm more encouraged each day as I see young people discovering this in
great numbers and leading movements of renewal and chastity among their peers,
and embracing the teachings of the Church once again.
MALLON: Nevertheless, we still see, on governmental levels, an attempt to
enforce anti-life policies, with sterilizations being forced on poor people
in the third world, and calls for what are euphemistically called "family
planning" measures in these countries. Meanwhile, there is, especially the
young people, a realization that this path has brought about a great
darkness. How do you see a resolution? Do you think the truth will just come
out in our lifetime.?
FR. PAVONE: We have a problem here, as you say, of terribly misguided
governmental policies, both in the United States and elsewhere, circles of the
United Nations, that are just enmeshed in error.
It has to be fought on a number of levels. It has to be fought directly on
the scene, by pro-life organizations which get involved in lobbying their
governments and getting involved in United Nations conferences, which make some
of these statements which favor the development of contraceptive and abortive
policies. That's a very tedious level of work. One has to have a tremendous
amount of patience. As you know, when we speak to our colleagues who have been
to some of these world conferences, we see the incredible battle that they had
There are also other levels where this has to be addressed. The whole effort
of the Church to proclaim the truth about these things has to be carried out
within the local churches throughout the world. The effort must include efforts
of massive prayer, because we're dealing with forces here that are powerful and
rooted in such distortions of truth, that it requires a great deal of grace for
people, whether they're in government or not, to overcome these errors.
How it will ultimately be resolved, we do not know, but the fact that we do
have the tools to resolve it is clear. The tools are the truth of the message
itself, the systems of communication that we have, and our steadfastness - the
people of God need to have a great steadfastness here, of continuing to teach,
and to bear witness, and to live the Culture of Life. The more we live it the
more people will see that it is worth living, and that it is indeed the better
way for the human family.
Some governments, I'm afraid, are going to have to learn by sad experience.
This is unfortunate; if we don't learn by accepting the message, we're forced to
learn by accepting the consequences of not following the message.
MALLON: Yes, we seem to be really confronted at a crossroads by the words
of God in Deuteronomy, "I put before you life and death. Choose life."
FR. PAVONE: It is a crossroads, it is a fundamental decision that each person
must make, that governments are responsible to make, and that determines whether
or not civilization itself will survive.
The question of "Choose life" is not just one among many issues. it is the
foundation of civilization itself. Without it, there is nothing. It is not a
question of pro-life wins or pro-choice wins. It is a question of either
pro-life wins, or nobody wins. Nobody will win if the choice is death. Nobody
will win if the human family continues on a course of self-destruction, by all
sorts of means of contraception, sterilization, abortion and infanticide. The
Church is there in the midst of all this, offering hope. And this, perhaps, sums
up what can turn this problem around.
There was a meeting in November of 1997 at the UN of experts in demography
concerned about the unprecedented level of falling fertility rates throughout
the world. But in the course of analyzing all of this, a very interesting point
was made. One of the reasons for lower fertility is a lack of hope. People look
at the future, and they look at their own circumstances, and they despair. They
say, "Why should we bring children into this world? Why should we increase our
families when we don't even know whether or how we will survive, or what the
world will be like?" When there is despair, one is not led to give life or to
have the generosity to give life.
The Church stands in the midst of all this, not with political power, not
with great financial wealth, but with something that's more important than any
of those things: The power of hope. Because when people have hope, rooted in
God, they will choose life.
And when we are in the midst of this culture of death, living a life of hope,
we will help others choose life, too. And that ultimately is the core of how
this culture of death will be turned around.
MALLON: For those not familiar with Priests for Life, could you describe
your mission for us?
FR. PAVONE: Priests for Life responds to a need that just about every
pro-life person and group feels, namely the need for the clergy to be very
well-informed and active in the pro-life effort. We therefore have as our
mission to encourage the clergy - and this includes bishops, priests, and
deacons - to proclaim the Gospel of Life, to preach the message effectively, to
counsel women, for example, who may be tempted to abort, and to organize
activities in parishes. We seek to connect priests with one another around the
world, so that they can share their experiences in the pro-life effort.
For example, let's say a priest in one part of the USA has had a lot of
experience in organizing people for crisis pregnancy counseling and another
priest somewhere else would like to start doing that in his parish. Through our
office at Priests for Life, we can get these priests in touch with one another.
We also have the goal of helping priests to identify and overcome whatever
fears, hesitations or obstacles they might have about dealing with the problem
of abortion. And finally, building bridges between lay pro-life organizations
and the clergy and to help them work more effectively with each other is also
one of our major goals.
MALLON: A year ago, you were called to Rome to continue your work at the
Vatican. What are your duties, and how do they differ from what you did in
the United States?
FR. PAVONE: When Priests for Life was first established, Cardinal Alfonso
Lopez Trujillo, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, was
involved immediately as a member of the board of advisors. So, he has followed
the work of Priests for Life over the years, and very appropriately so, because
as your readers may know, the Pontifical Council for the Family was established
by Pope John Paul II to coordinate and encourage the pastoral work of the Church
in regard to two major themes: the defense of human life, and the rights of the
Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, therefore, watched the growth of Priests for Life
over these years, and at the same time, was himself planning and coordinating
efforts worldwide to train priests on bioethical questions. It's one of the
major projects of the Council, to sponsor seminars for seminarians, priests, and
bishops. Therefore, toward the end of 1996, he contacted Cardinal O'Connor, who
is my bishop, and asked him to give me permission to work in the Vatican.
Cardinal O'Connor said okay, I was contacted, and I was told that by coming to
Rome, I would have the opportunity not only to give guidance to pro-life
movements in all different countries, but also to expand the work of Priests for
Life to those different countries. Therefore, my work is very much in continuity
with what I've been doing already.
The difference is that now it is a work of the Vatican. It is international.
We had international expansion in the years before I went to Rome, but now in
Rome, of course, you meet bishops, pro-life leaders and others, coming here from
every part of the world. So, it's very easy to initiate an international
expansion from our office. And then to be able to assist, for example, in the
drafting of documents, which the Council initiates in order to help the Church
on life and family apostolates. That is another new part of my job.
MALLON: In many dioceses in the US, Catholics are frustrated with their
priests, and even their bishops, for not taking a stronger pro-life stance,
especially from the pulpit. And included in this is a frustration over a
lack of teaching and preaching about artificial contraception and Natural
Family Planning. Does Priests for Life address this?
FR. PAVONE: Very much so, and in a very positive way. We help the priest to
identify his own fears or hesitations about addressing pro-life matters. But an
additional angle that your question brings out is that lay persons also need to
be encouraged and trained on how best to approach their priest. For example,
together with the brochure we have called, "Fathers, Let's Face Our Fears About
Abortion," which addresses the fears that priests may have, we also have a
brochure for lay persons, entitled, "How to Help My Priest Become More Actively
Pro-Life." I give some suggestions there about the way that we should approach
First of all, we need to have realistic expectations. What exactly is it that
we expect our priests to do, and are those expectations fair and realistic, and
do they take into account the various obligations that the priest has, and the
various pressures on him from many directions? Aside from that, the attitude
that we take with the priest is very, very important. We ourselves may be, at
times, frustrated that he doesn't do more. But when we approach him, we need to
do so not with the attitude, "Father, you're not doing your job," but rather,
"Father, you are our spiritual leader and we respect and value that leadership.
Therefore we want to express to you our concerns about what has been called by
the United States' bishops "the fundamental human rights issue of our day,"
namely abortion. We want to express to you our concerns about this, and we need
your leadership in this area, too." And then go on to some very specific
We can't just say to our priests, "Well, we don't think you're pro-life
enough," or "We don't think you're involved enough." That's not specific.
Rather, it should be, "Father, here are some specific ideas we have for our
parish. Why don't we have a sign at the back of the church with the numbers of
some local crisis pregnancy centers? Could we have something in the bulletin
every Sunday? Could we have a prayer of the faithful at every Mass about
abortion? Could we distribute pro-life literature through our school or through
our parish mailings?" Come up with some very sensible, workable projects to
propose to one's priest. This is always much more productive and much more
positive than simply complaining to the priest saying, "You're not pro-life
MALLON: Do you get much resistance from the clergy? I heard you speak in
one diocese to a full house last year, but you could count the number of
priests present on one hand. What's going on?
FR. PAVONE: We actually have gotten a very good response from clergy. We've
met with clergy in every one of the 50 states. But there are a couple of
elements at work. One is the sheer impossibility, at times, for priests to
manage their schedules to get to different events. We priests are pulled in so
many different directions that, in practice, the events to which we actually go
are those that are either very, very attractive because of their subject matter,
or things that we are deeply convinced that we need to hear about for the good
of our own ministry, or things that we just have to attend. So, I'm not very
worried at all about instances where we might not see too many priests. But at
the same time, I am very concerned to promote opportunities where we can speak
to all the priests of the diocese.
We don't come in with a pre-fabricated program that we want to impose on the
diocese. Rather, we come in with the attitude that we want the end result to be
priests working in even more effective harmony with their bishop to carry out
their programs. We seek to restore the sense that abortion is the number one
moral issue of our day, and, I believe, of all time.
MALLON: Why do you think that is so?
FR. PAVONE: What we are ordained to proclaim, ultimately, is the love of God
that has been revealed in Christ Jesus. This is the Gospel - God gave Himself to
us in Christ. Every priest knows this, that this is his ministry. He's
proclaiming the wonderful, real, historical event of our salvation.
At the heart of that, of course, is the command: love one another.
You can sum up the ministry of the priest by saying that he is to be a center
and source of unity within his parish, building up the Body of Christ, helping
people to realize their ability to love one another. Abortion, and addressing
abortion, is not a matter of getting involved in a particular political agenda,
it is not simply a matter of addressing one issue among many. It's a fundamental
problem of "love one another."
Because we're talking about an entire segment of the human family whom we are
obliged to love, but against whom the abortion mentality is hard at work, not
only saying we don't have to love them, but denying they are even there in the
first place. Abortion in this sense is the very reversal of love. Love says,
first of all, I recognize you as a person.
When our Lord says, "Love your neighbor as yourself," I think most people
think He's saying, "Love your neighbor to the same degree that you love
yourself." But actually, the deeper meaning of that verse is, "Love your
neighbor as a person like yourself." In other words, recognize first of all that
the other is your neighbor. Recognize that the other is a person equal to you.
Abortion, of course, contradicts this, because it doesn't recognize the neighbor
as a person, first of all.
Secondly, love says, "I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person."
Abortion says, "I sacrifice the other person for the good of myself." It turns
love upside down, inside out. The reason for it's priority, the reason for it's
urgency, is not only that it attacks the center and the core of the moral law
and of the demands of the Gospel, but also because there is nothing in history,
there is nothing in the world right now, that claims more human lives than
There's no disease, crime, or natural disaster, not even all the wars we've
ever fought, that has taken more lives than abortion does. Nor is there any
group of people more defenseless than the children in the womb.
When we look at the Gospel we see Christ had a particular love for the poor,
the weak, the marginalized in society. He always broke down the false barriers.
He broke down the barriers of gender, for example when He spoke to the Samaritan
woman. The Apostles were astonished that He spoke to a woman in public. He broke
down barriers of age, when He said, "Let the little children come to me," while
the Apostles were trying to drive them away. He broke down boundaries of moral
status when He ate with the tax collectors and the sinners. He broke down all
sorts of boundaries because He always saw the person. He always loved the
Abortion is the biggest modern-day, artificial boundary between people, who,
in reality, are equal, but this particular group of people, unborn babies, are
the most defenseless. They can't speak, they can't write, they can't protest,
they can't vote, and they can't even pray.
We're talking about people who need our help more than others, and the Lord
and the Church have what we call the Preferential Option for the Poor.
Now the poor refers not only to those who don't have enough material goods,
it refers to those who have no help. Those who rely only on God. In this case,
the Preferential Option for the Poor, in our day, applies above all to this vast
segment of humanity, the children in the womb. These are some of the insights
that we try to convey to try to show that this is an issue of top priority.
MALLON: When I heard you speak, you expressed a beautiful insight, using
the Lord's words of the Last Supper, "This is My Body." Could you tell us
FR. PAVONE: It's a fascinating thing. The same words that the Lord uses to
teach us the meaning of love, which, as I mentioned, is that I sacrifice myself
for the good of the other person, are also used by those who promote abortion,
which is to sacrifice the other person for the good of myself. Those words, used
in both cases, are, "This is my body."
Some people say, "This is my body, so I will cling to it, I will control it.
It's mine. And even if that is a baby inside of me, because that baby's in my
body I have the right to destroy it if I want."
The Lord says, "This is My Body, but I don't cling to it, so that you die. I
give it away, so that you live. I lay my body down, as a matter of fact, I
invite you to become part of my Body. "
It's amazing, the contrast here. We have the same words, coming from opposite
ends of the universe, clashing in the middle, in a struggle which is much more
than politics. This is a struggle that expresses a monumental conflict between
good and evil, and it is expressed in those four simple words.
MALLON: Yes, it also reminds me of St. Paul's words in Corinthians (1 Cor.
6:19b-20), where he said, "Your bodies are not your own. You have been
bought with a price."
FR. PAVONE: That's right. When he says, "Your bodies are not your own," he's
expressing a truth, a very fundamental truth. We do not belong to ourselves. And
as you know, the pro-abortion movement bases many of its claims on the idea,
"This is my life." Well, can a Christian really say that? This is my life, yes,
in a sense, in the sense that the one who made me entrusted me with my life. But
This is where the abortion controversy is about much more that abortion. It's
not just a statement about the unborn child. It's a statement about all of us.
Because if the child in the womb is disposable, so are we, because we are of the
same humanity. And the question ultimately comes down, not to the question of,
"Is this a human life," or "When does life begin?" It comes down to the
question, "To whom do I belong?"
If I just belong to my parents, if the baby just belongs to the mother, if
the baby is her property, well, then she can dispose of her property she
pleases. Interestingly, along these lines, I think our readers will be
fascinated to know that, in the partial-birth abortion controversy, when one of
the doctors who publicly admitted he performed this procedure - Dr. James
McMahon of southern California, who has since died - was interviewed, he said,
"You know, I really feel bad sometimes when I abort these children, because I
think, gee, it would have been better if they were adopted. And frankly it is a
child to me." But then he went on to say, "However, another question arises in
my mind, which to me is more important, and that is, who owns the child?" And
then he said, "It's got to be the mother."
So, you see with abortion we're talking about the old question, can human
beings ever own other human beings?
Our nation has answered that question already by saying no, but here we're
back to the same mistake. Our parents are not the ones who own us. Nor does the
state own us, as if it can decide by some sort of legislative or judicial
decree, that some people do not have the right to be protected.
Who owns us? Only God. Because we belong to God, we cannot give or take the
right to life, either from someone else, or from ourselves. And because we
belong to God, we belong to each other, and this is a truth that the Holy Father
mentions in The Gospel of Life. We are entrusted to one another.
This means that when the woman going into an abortion facility today makes
that choice, whose child is it that's being aborted? It is not just her child,
or her problem. That child is ours. That child has been entrusted to
us. We all have responsibility for that child. This is where
we help priests to assist their people. To overcome this idea that, yes,
abortion kills a baby, but it's none of my business, why should I have to
interfere with other person's choices? The reason we have to interfere is
because those children are also our children. We are all entrusted to one
MALLON: Yes, it occurred to me once that if you are a Catholic, all
children are your children.
FR. PAVONE: They really are, and one has to understand this in the right way,
from the perspective of faith, that this is what the Lord came to do. "When I am
lifted up from the Earth," He said, "I will draw all people to myself."
The Second Vatican Council teaches that the Church is the sign and cause of
the unity of the human family. This is also the teaching on the Eucharist. All
the dynamics of salvation, in other words, tend toward unifying the human
family, and towards the ultimate unity, as St. Paul describes, when, after
having conquered every enemy, Christ will present the kingdom to the Father.
So, there's a whole dynamic of unity going on here. Abortion is running in
the opposite direction. Abortion destroys the unity of the human family, because
it attacks that unity at its very deepest point, namely the unity between a
mother and her own child. And if we can't preserve unity there, if we can't have
peace in the womb, how can we have peace on the streets, or between nations? The
word "womb," by the way, in the Old Testament Hebrew, is the same root word as
the word for "mercy." It's the place of mercy. Abortion turns it into the place
of bloodshed. This is so, so wrong. We need to catch the deep horror of what it
is that's going on here. The Holy Father mentions this in Evangelium Vitae --
The Gospel of Life - by saying that this is an act that is all the more
seriously wrong, because of the fact that it takes place in the sanctuary of
life, which is the family.
MALLON: Yet, you have said there is much reason for hope, that pro-lifers
are winning many quiet, unsung victories. You mentioned a young man, for
example, who constantly came to the abortion mill to oppose the pro-lifers.
But, the pro-lifers were kind to him, always inviting him out for pizza, to
go with them. He finally went with them, and was won over, and had a change
of heart. What other good news can you tell us?
FR. PAVONE: I have had so many opportunities to meet people who have left the
abortion industry. Many of them have become good friends. We have the example,
of course, of the plaintiffs themselves, Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe, of Roe v.
Wade) and Sandra Cano (Mary Doe of Doe v. Bolton), of the two
decisions of the American Supreme Court in 1973, which legalized abortion during
all nine months of pregnancy, who have both become pro-life advocates. But,
these women represent just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of people
who have left and are leaving the abortion industry.
I'll tell you what the biggest challenge to the pro-abortion forces is today.
The biggest worry they have is not the legality of abortion, but access
to abortion. It's legal all right, but they're facing the problem that fewer and
fewer doctors want to do it. The pool of abortion providers is becoming smaller,
older, and grayer, and those going into the medical profession are less and less
willing to use their professional skills to destroy human life. This is a
positive sign. We also have had a number of opinion polls in America over the
past year that show a significant shift in the way that people are thinking
about abortion. That shift is in the direction of the pro-life position.
The youth of the world, who are really a generation of survivors - the ones
who were declared to be non-persons when they were in the womb - now understand
the issue, and are speaking out with such a strong voice for life. There can
only be great hope for the future when we see this great band of witnesses.
I'm convinced that in our lifetime, we will see a dramatic change not only in
the United States, but in the world. A dramatic change whereby nations and
peoples alike reject the mistake that it is somehow okay to allow our unborn
children to be destroyed. We will reject that mistake like we rejected slavery,
like we rejected segregation.
We will reject this mistake as well, and I think that process is well
Father Pavone maybe reached c/o Priests for Life PO Box 141172, Staten
Island, NY, 10314 USA, 718-980-4400 (Voice) 718-980-6515 (Fax),
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website:
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