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Interview with Fr. Frank: Prolife Strategy: Tipping the Scales For the 'Conflicted Middle'

 

Peter Sonski

National Catholic Register - North Haven, CT
9/8/1996

   
 

Father Frank Pavone, 37, was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York by Cardinal John O'Connor in 1988. He spent five years as parochial vicar of St. Charles parish on Staten Island, where he coordinated pro-life activities and produced a Catholic television series for local cable TV

In September 1993, Father Pavone became National Director of Priests for Life. Serving full-time in this position he travels the country preaching against abortion and helping fellow priests to do the same. Father Pavone recently finished taping his second pro-life series for the Eternal Word Television Network He spoke with the Register earlier this summer.

Register: Catholics often say they never hear the pro-life message from the pulpit. How is Priests for Life helping clergy speak with more openness and conviction on the subject?

Father Pavone: We do it through our newsletters and seminars. The Newsletter reaches more than 40,000 priests across the United States. The newsletters give the priests sample homilies or homily hints, showing how they can draw teaching on the dignity of life out of the readings and bring it to their people. Then there are clergy seminars in many dioceses where I address their priests. We delve into the manner, the motives, and the methods of preaching on pro-life issues. We also have a booklet entitled Fathers, Lets Face Our Fears About Abortion, because it's not a question of knowing how to do it, but of identifying the doubts and fears that we may have in bringing up the topic.

What would be a typical fear?

For example: "I'm afraid of offending women in the parish who have had abortions." But our silence does not help them. If a woman in the congregation is suffering in the wake of an abortion how does she interpret our silence? She has to interpret it either as "they don't know my pain," "they don't care," or "there's no hope"---and none of it is true. By speaking about it compassionately and yet clearly, we tell them what they need to hear: Number one, this is a terrible evil and. number two, there is healing and hope. Priests ought not be afraid.

What has Pope John Paul II's 1994 encyclical Evangelium Vitae done for the pro-life movement?

It has energized it. It is the most comprehensive and strongest statement, so far, by the magisterium. Its effect has gone far beyond the Catholic community. I have seen tremendous enthusiasm among Protestant leaders in the pro-life movement for this document. When I first read it, I said to myself, "this is a celebration" --it's a celebration from beginning to end, even though it deals with tragic issues and real pain.

The American bishops have already said that abortion is the fundamental human rights issue of our day. In taking a world-wide view in his encyclical, the Holy Father is really clarifying for the Church that, as we go into the third millennium to re-evangelize the world, the issues that touch on the dignity of human life are the most crucial. If we don't get these right, everything else will fail.

There's an active pro-life movement and an active counter movement, but then is an even larger middle ground that seems to be ambivalent.

It used to be called the mushy middle; it is now more accurately referred to as the "conflicted middle." The reliable manner of determining where people stand on these issues is to ask the question: Under what circumstances do you think abortion is acceptable and should he allowed? When you ask the question that way, you find that Americans oppose the vast majority of abortions that occur. More than half say that abortion should not be permitted except in the case of endangerment of the mother's life, rape, and incest. Those three exceptions account for about one percent of all abortions. A person who thinks that every abortion is wrong and should be prohibited except in those rare circumstances cannot be considered pro-choice. That doesn't make any sense at all.

How do people end up in the 'conflicted middle?"

The majority of people today have gotten the message from both sides. The message that abortion is wrong because it destroys a child has been communicated very well in recent years, especially with the incredible advances in medical technology. At the same time, they have gotten the message from the other side that, whether it is the killing of a baby or not, it should be legal, left to the choice of the mother. To hold those two ideas in your mind at the same time, that what is undeniably the killing of a child should also be legally permitted, makes for a conflict. We're dealing with a conflicted middle; we've got to get those people out of that stuck position.

How?

One of the ways is to point out that what destroys the baby destroys the mother. We have more evidence of that than ever before. I refer you to the entire post-abortion movement and the pain that women are expressing. There is a National Women's Coalition for Life, that was organized in 1992. Many of the groups in this coalition are post-abortion groups. We're not telling these women to come together; they're coming together themselves because they're hurting from abortion.

How has President Clinton's veto of the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act affected your work?

The controversy has energized the movement. Finally, the reality is breaking through the rhetoric and we are talking about what happens in an abortion. Since this controversy has erupted, even those who identified themselves as pro-choice oppose partial-birth abortion.

It's a win-win situation in the sense that, either the procedure is eventually banned outright, or, in the process of discussing it, people are made more aware that there is such a thing as abortion in a late stage of pregnancy. This procedure is performed from 20 weeks all the way to full term [40 weeks]. Many people have not been aware that abortion is legal throughout all nine months of pregnancy. The fact that it's getting public attention is ultimately going to serve the movement.

Recently, two prominent individuals from the pro-abortion movement - Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, and Dr Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League have joined the pro-life ranks. What's been the effect of their conversions?

It is a very strong sign that the abortion mentality and movement are collapsing under their own weight. I know both of these people personally as well as many others who have gone through similar experiences. I call it the "dead end rule": if you go down a road ignoring the signs that say it's a dead end, sooner or later you're going to learn from personal experience that it's a dead end road. That's what's happening with abortion. These conversions won't change the legal structure that upholds abortion, but it shows how the truth can bread through even before laws are changed.

Bernard Nathanson discovered the truth in a natural way. He saw the absurd contradiction between doing everything possible to diagnose, treat and cure babies in the womb and using medical skills and technology to destroy them. He became more and more aware that he was presiding over the deaths of tens of thousands of human beings. Similarly, Norma McCorvey began to see the hypocrisy of the abortion movement. Their rhetoric speaks of respect for the dignity and rights of women. The reality is that women are mistreated in many abortion facilities around our country. She saw that first hand.

Ultimately, both Dr. Nathanson and Norma will tell you that it was the love of Christians - the unconditional love of pro-life people - that drew them to the point of faith in Christ. How did that happen? It happened because people showed them love despite the mistakes that they had made in the past. This is a lesson for everyone in the pro-life movement: The evil act is not the same as the person. There are people deeply enmeshed in error and in evil, but we can't identify, the evil and error with individuals themselves. The individual has a life which holds equal dignity to that of any unborn child.

What's your approach with abortion providers?

I've had abortionists come into my office. I have spoken to them on the phone and will continue to do so. It does not mean compromise. We are not looking for some middle ground--there is no middle ground between pro-life and pro-choice, but that doesn't mean we can't talk to the people who are promoting abortion, because they, too, are our brothers and sisters. We convey the fact that we don't hold any personal animosity for them. When we speak of the dignity of life, we are including, them. By that outreach we can begin to bring them out of error. Some of them, I'm convinced, are in this precisely because they don't see their own dignity - if they think their own life is worthless, then it's easier for them to think that the lives of these babies are worthless. But when people begin approaching them in such a way that says your life is sacred. too, maybe they will rediscover their own dignity and transfer it to the babies.

The RU486 abortion procedure is moving toward approval in the United States and has been hailed by the pro-abortion movement as a fantastic technological advance that is going to eliminate the need for surgical abortions.

The reason the abortion industry is pushing RU-486 is because they can't find doctors to perform abortions. The abortion industry is desperate, and they figure it will be easier to get a doctor to prescribe a drug than to use forceps to tear the arms and legs off of a baby. But the RU 486 drug technique is not simply a matter of taking a pill, Where it is currently in use, the woman must go to a facility to verify her pregnancy. The procedure can only be used within a small window of the pregnancy, at the very most 5-9 weeks. The facility has to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation equipment because this has had fatal effects on some women. She then takes the RU-486 drugs, which essentially starve the child - a child whose heart is already beating and whose arms and legs are already developing - interfering with the action of the progesterone which maintains the nutrient lining of the womb. Later, the woman receives a dose of prostaglandin. which induces contractions to expel the baby. It may be expelled at any time of the day or night, whether she's at home or work or in the car or at a party. whatever the case may be. Finally, she must go back to the clinic to verify that the child has, in fact, been expelled.

What is the moral responsibility of Catholics as they go to the polls?

Many people may be surprised to hear this, but Vatican II explicitly mentions in the Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World the obligation to vote. Although the Church does not set up the voting booths, its members do not cease to belong to the Church when they go into the voting booths -- and go in they must. God has put us into this world not simply to think about the next world, but to actually prepare the building blocks for the next world by bringing about a more just society here and now. We are not talking about legislating our religious beliefs into the law. The Church is not in favor of passing laws that require you to believe certain things about dogma, about the Trinity, about die Eucharist or anything like that. But there are certain things that go beyond religious doctrines and dogmas; they involve the basic good of the human person, of life itself.

We're not talking about establishing a religion-we're talking about safeguarding the very existence of civilization. There's nothing more fundamental than the basic right to life. The Declaration of Independence says that the right to life is endowed by the Creator-not by the government-and it says explicitly that government is instituted to secure those rights, not to take them away. If the government cannot protect the very basic right to life, it is failing in the very purpose for which it was established.

-Peter Sonski

   
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