In Oregon, pro-life clergy must speak their position in a way that secular ears can hear, says the leader of a national coalition of priests who oppose abortion and doctor-assisted suicide.
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, made stops in Portland and Salem Monday and Tuesday, telling clergy and laity to put religion aside for a moment and appeal to logic first when putting forth the pro-life case.
The Pacific Northwest is cited as the region with the loosest religious affiliations in the nation. It is also the first jurisdiction in the world where voters approved of physician-assisted suicide.
"If I am standing up in front of a group of unchurched people, I'm not going to use the Bible, I'm going to use these books," says the dark-haired Father Pavone, fingering two medical texts. One describes how to perform an abortion, calling the procedure "dismemberment." The other book, a massive blue tome suggests thousands of treatments for "unborn patients."
The language, says the priest, shows that even the medical establishment cannot help but refer to the unborn as humans.
"Before we talk religion and talk God, let's talk about what abortion is," says Father Pavone. "Let's be honest. We're not here to impose religious beliefs. We just try to tell folks that you can't destroy what is demonstrably human."
Priests for Life, while taking a secular path in Oregon, also has access to the vast ,structure of the U.S. church. Some 2,500 clergy belong to the group, and a regular newsletter goes to 40,000 addresses. In addition to giving information at Catholic parishes and schools, the organization produces a series on EWTN television.
As the church has done in the case of abortion, it ought to reach out to people involved in assisted suicide, says Father Pavone. He envisions crisis centers for people who may be pressured to kill themselves.
"Our job is to remind them that their dignity is with them as persons," he says.
Father Pavone predicts that the pro-life movement may face more confrontation with the government. If the Supreme Court rules that there is some right to assisted suicide, the furor will be as high-pitched as current opposition to abortion, he says.
Nevertheless, the priest is optimistic that the lives of the unborn and the vulnerable will be protected. Even before legal protections are put in place, the number of abortions and assisted suicides will drop if there is solid church ministry to women in crisis pregnancy and potential victims of euthanasia. "If the courts see fewer and fewer people doing this, it may be easier to ban it," he says.
Priests are ready and willing to work and preach on the pro-life cause, says Father Pavone. To get moving, they just need input and the benefit of shared wisdom.
Father Pavone has been active in the pro-life movement since 1976. He was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of New York by John Cardinal O'Connor in 1988.
He served for five years as a parish priest at St. Charles Church in Staten Island. During this time he also taught theology part time, including in the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program at St. Joseph Seminary.
In September 1993, with the permission of Cardinal O'Connor, he became National Director of Priests for Life and now serves full time in this position, traveling through the country preaching and teaching against abortion and helping other priests to do the same. He conducts seminars on pro-life strategy for the clergy as well as for other pro-life organizations.
Mother Teresa asked him to address the clergy of India on life issues. He was also asked to speak to the pro-life caucus of the United States House of Representatives in 1996.