August 9, 2021
With deep respect, and with equally deep urgency, and pursuant to the provisions of Canon 212 §3, I write this letter to all of you to express the convictions of large numbers of the faithful with whom I interact across the country as I carry out my ministry in settings of prayer gatherings within the pro-life movement, healing after abortion, educational seminars, and political advocacy.
You are certainly as well aware as I am of the sacrifices made by so many Catholics to live their faith. They examine their consciences and repent of sin each day, they go to Confession, they prepare diligently for the reception of Holy Communion, they strive to avoid the occasions of sin – sometimes at great cost to their personal and professional lives – and they yearn to bring others to experience the joy of the relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church that they have found.
It is precisely because of the sacrifices that they make to live the faith that they find it so offensive that some Catholics in very visible and influential positions in America – such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi – have no qualms about professing their “Catholic” identity while holding views that contradict it, and pursuing vigorously and publicly programs of action that implement those contrary views.
At the same time, they look for leadership from you, as those in our nation primarily responsible for the protection and proclamation of the faith. Often, however, they are led to conclude that such leadership is absent, or at best, weak and tentative.
For my part, I have utilized the communications tools of my national ministry to pass along to clergy and laity alike the many strong statements that have come both from individual bishops and from the bishops’ conference, not the least of which is Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, about which our ministry prepared a study guide years ago. We will continue to echo the clear teachings of you, our shepherds in Christ.
But the problem persists, as does the need for strong and confident leadership. At times, it has been clear to me that some bishops no longer have the confidence that they can make a difference, that the Word of God which they proclaim can change society, or that the people they serve are ready to rise to the challenge of living the faith in our world.
For instance, some years ago after a victorious vote among the residents in a particular state to uphold the sanctity of marriage, I was in conversation with several bishops and the topic came up. If I did not know that the Catholic position had prevailed in that vote, I would not have been able to tell from that conversation that it did. The prevalent view was, “The more we tell people what to do in these situations, the less they will follow our message.”
But we had won!
In the present debate about how to deal with Catholic pro-abortion politicians, it is this lack of confidence that needs to be addressed first. No canonical, theological, or public relations deliberations or decisions are going to be able to make up for a lack of confidence.
Your Eminences and Excellencies, the faithful are indeed with you if you lead them; they will listen if you speak; they will respond heroically if you lead heroically.
Two of our brother priests give a fine example of the kind of response the Church can make in the face of a political party that is opposed to fundamental principles of human rights.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast day is approaching soon, is known, of course, for the sacrifice of his life for another prisoner. What is less known, and less preached, however, is that he published pamphlets from his monastery against the Nazi party because of their positions against human dignity and religious freedom.
Moreover, in 2005 the Church beatified Cardinal Clemens von Galen, who became known for his sermons against that same Nazi party and their positions against human life and the freedom of the Church. In his homily at the beatification, Cardinal Martins said,
“In [his homilies, Cardinal von Galen] targeted the obligatory closure of convents and the arrest of Religious. He spoke vigorously against the deportation and destruction of those human lives that the regime deemed unworthy to be lived, that is, the mentally disabled. The Bishop's fiery words dealt fatal blows to the Nazi's systematic extermination policy.
“His clear arguments infuriated the Nazi leaders who were at a loss as to what to do next, because they did not have the nerve to arrest or kill him due to Bishop von Galen's extraordinary authority.
“It was neither innate courage nor excessive temerity. Only a deep sense of responsibility and a clear vision of what was right and what was wrong could have induced Bishop Clemens August to speak these words. They invite us to reflect on the brilliance of his witness to faith; in times that may seem less threatening but are just as problematic with regard to human life, they invite us to imitate his example.”
The actions of people like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi in our country today are not about fellow Catholics who are dealing with the “weaknesses” that we all have in walking the way of Christ. They are, instead, about leaders deliberately, creatively, and energetically implementing the agenda of a political party that has embraced, strongly and explicitly, positions that violate the most fundamental rights of human life and freedom. They are not stumbling along the path of discipleship with the rest of us; they are running in the opposite direction.
They are expanding abortion funding and working to eliminate even the most modest and most widely-supported restrictions and limitations on abortion, without any mandate from their own base. This is not weakness; it is pro-abortion fanaticism.
In my national pro-life work I have spent decades in dialog not only with politicians who support legal abortion, but with the advocates of abortion and with abortionists themselves. Dialog has tremendous value. But it cannot stand on its own. Joe Biden has been in national political office for almost half a century. Many have dialogued with him. But his actions to advance taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand have become worse, not better.
Moreover, it is not fair when people accuse you as bishops of attacking these political figures. You are not the ones picking a fight; rather, they are. Joe Biden claims that the matter of how bishops address the Catholic identity and practice of political leaders like himself is “a private matter.” Yet it was Joe Biden and his Campaign that capitalized on his Catholicism, by ads and speeches. And when questioned recently about why the Democrats in the House are blocking a vote on a bill regarding taxpayer funding of abortion, Speaker Pelosi was the one who brought up her Catholicism. It was not the reporter asking the question, and it wasn’t the bishops.
Some want the American public to think the bishops are reaching with a heavy hand into the Oval Office or into the halls of Congress to shape public policy in the image and likeness of Catholicism. But on the contrary, it is the pro-abortion public officials trying to shape the idea of what it means to be Catholic into their own image. And that is where you have every right and duty to respond.
And in doing so, we are able to clarify exactly why we oppose abortion.
For some reason, the public commentary by some bishops, aided by unhelpful outlets like America Magazine and the National Catholic Reporter, have approached this issue as if it is only a matter of “serious disagreements,” and that in resolving them we need to be sure not to “exclude” these Catholic leaders from the welcome we extend to all sinners to be part of the Church.
But addressing the pro-abortion stance of these political leaders is not simply a matter of disagreement. It is a matter of protecting victims of violence. The people who are being excluded here are the children in the womb. The goal here is not to secure an agreement but to protect the vulnerable. We do not approach the problem of violent crime by talking about the “serious disagreements” we have with those who carry out criminal acts. We don’t fight terrorism by addressing the “serious disagreements” about which we have to dialog with the terrorists.
As you well know, Catholic teaching on abortion is not about abstract concepts but about treating the unborn as persons to be welcomed and protected.
That is why, as I always point out, we are not simply concerned about Biden, Pelosi and others contradicting their Catholic faith; we are concerned about every pro-abortion public official contradicting the very meaning of public service, which requires that we serve the public rather than kill them.
Kolbe and von Galen were not writing and preaching about viewpoints but about victims; they were not simply concerned about beliefs but about bloodshed. So it is with us. Some misguided politicians criticize the Church for focusing on issues of “sexual morality” like abortion. They might better understand their own duties if they realize that abortion falls more in the category of social justice than sexual morality. We’re talking about the most unjust form of discrimination (cf. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae #20), leading to the killing of tens of millions.
I look forward to the document which the bishops’ conference is preparing on the Eucharist. It will be helpful, and I look forward to sharing with you in another communication the materials my team and I have developed about how the Eucharist illumines and strengthens our pro-life commitment. (You may be familiar with our reflection on how the same words we say at Mass to bring life are hijacked by the abortion industry to justify death: This is my body.)
But the demands of the present moment require that the Church go beyond the articulation of doctrine. At any point in time it can be said that every political party takes certain positions with which we “disagree.” As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church explains in sections 565-574, our proclamation of the Gospel challenges every party. But at this moment we are not facing merely disagreement over policies. We are facing a political party that has explicitly abandoned principles which are at the core of our identity as a Church and threaten its freedom as well as the foundations of civilization. For reasons I articulated at greater length in my open letter to you last year, the situation in America requires that as we “pass moral judgment even in matters related to politics” (Vatican II, GS 76), we explicitly point out what the Democrat Party and its leaders are doing and call them to change.
This is not a political activity. After all, if tomorrow the Democrat and Republican parties swapped positions on abortion, we would have exactly the same message for the Republican Party and its leaders. Our message does not change, because it is not based on political platforms, but on the Word of God.
Indeed, the clear and explicit call to the Democrat Party and its leaders to abandon their current path is precisely a religious and pastoral activity. This is not about the Church being too political, but about our politics being too pagan. This is not about the Church being a political party; it is about the Church being the Church in the midst of the world, including the world of politics.
And in that regard, you would be the first to acknowledge that “the Church” is not synonymous with “the hierarchy.” We who are priests, and all the laity we serve, have our own role to carry out, and we are not interested in putting all the burden on you.
Yet you have a unique leadership role which is meant to encourage and strengthen the rest of us in carrying out ours. This is an appeal, therefore, to do exactly that by clearly calling upon the Democrat Party, and specifically on its leaders by name, to once again embrace the fundamental principles of the right to life and the freedom of the Church, and in the context of the latter, to stop misrepresenting what it means to be Catholic.
That is what is needed in the current climate of the Church in America today, where, unfortunately, public warnings and canonical punishments seem to come more quickly to priests who speak out vigorously on these matters than on the political figures against whom they speak.
But I thank you for your leadership, and again, on behalf of so many of the faithful, assure you of my respect, loyalty and prayers.
Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life