AMARILLO, Texas — The Roman Catholic Church plans to establish its first religious society devoted exclusively to fighting euthanasia and abortion, church leaders said this week.
The male-only Missionaries of the Gospel of Life — founded by Father Frank A. Pavone, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights — will be housed in a vacant Catholic high school and dormitory on the grounds of the Diocese of Amarillo.
The order will have a decidedly political bent, and will be active rather than contemplative, Pavone said.
Its priests will be trained to conduct voter-registration drives, use the media to get out their antiabortion message and lobby lawmakers to restrict abortion rights.
They also will learn to lead demonstrations outside offices where abortions and family-planning services are provided.
"There is a difference between knowing the teachings and knowing how to effectively advance a movement," Pavone said.
In recent months, Pavone has been focused on marshaling religious conservatives around Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed March 18.
Pavone also is director of an association of antiabortion priests called Priests for Life.
In a prepared statement outlining his plan, Pavone called abortion the "fundamental human-rights issue of our day."
"The church finds herself battling a plague as spiritually fatal as any she has ever fought before — the plague of the culture of death," Pavone wrote.
The society will begin accepting priests and seminarians this summer, Pavone said, with training to start in the fall. Activists and other members of the lay community probably will be trained there as well.
The priest said he had received "a couple of hundred e-mails and calls" from young men interested in joining the society; a document sent to church leaders that outlined Pavone's plan suggested the number of priests could be "40 or 400."
The Catholic Church already has similar organizations. In 1991, the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York established a women's religious community called Sisters of Life, dedicated to "protecting and advancing a sense of the sacredness of human life."
But, Pavone said, this is the first time the church has established an apostolic society for priests who will concentrate exclusively on abortion and euthanasia.
The society will be funded through private donations, Amarillo Bishop John W. Yanta said, and is being established with the knowledge and blessing of the Vatican.
In a statement from Rome, Cardinal Renato Martino, the head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the new order "may be just what the world of today needs."
The society's priests will be given the general mission of "preaching and teaching the pro-life message effectively," Pavone said.
They also will "bring healing and forgiveness" to those who have had abortions and will provide what they describe as counseling services to women who are "tempted to abort their child," he said.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, churches risk losing their tax-exempt status if they endorse or oppose political candidates.
But they can adopt political positions and, to a limited degree, lobby to influence legislation.
Antiabortion organizations applauded establishment of the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life. Cheryl Sullenger, outreach coordinator for Operation Rescue, said that although some of the group's supporters were Catholic, it sometimes had a difficult time coordinating activities with the church.
"To have an extra avenue into the Catholic church would be very beneficial to our work," she said.
But in a prepared statement, Planned Parenthood of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle expressed concerns that the society could attract extremists who might resort to violence to further the antiabortion cause.
Planned Parenthood said it feared that people trained by the society would use hardball tactics against healthcare providers, such as organizing clinic blockades.
Healthcare professionals and women's right advocates often criticize such tactics as acts of intimidation intended to shame women who already are facing difficult decisions
If there is increased activity of that sort, Planned Parenthood said, money likely will be diverted from healthcare to security. And if women are afraid to go to area clinics, the number of unintended pregnancies could rise, the group's statement said.
Yanta, the bishop of Amarillo, scoffed at the notion that the society might invite violence, but said it would not shy away from aggressive strategies.
"We are living in a very secular culture," Yanta said. "There are many institutions that think they are the center of the world. Jesus Christ should be the center. We are going to act like Jesus. Jesus wasn't afraid of controversy."
Although the order's mission would be to fight for an end to abortion, other facets of the "culture of death" — such as euthanasia and the death penalty, both of which are opposed by the church — also would be addressed, Yanta said.
The establishment of such a specialized religious society surprised some church observers, who noted that the church was struggling to address a shortage of priests.
"It's certainly not going to help," said Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch.
The Cleveland organization advocates loosening church laws — including eliminating celibacy requirements for priests — to draw more people into the priesthood and attract a wider group of followers.
Schenk said she would support the establishment of the society, provided that its priests addressed the full spectrum of church life.
Yanta said some priests would eventually be sent out to perform more general parish duties, although they would maintain a special focus on abortion.
Pavone said he believed the society would draw more people to the priesthood because abortion was such a passionate cause to so many people.