Inside the Vatican

PRO-LIFE WINS OR NOBODY WINS: Interview with Father Frank Pavone, International Director of Priests for Life

John Mallon

Publication Date: August 01, 2008

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 to undergo.

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 family.

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 our clergy.

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 recommendations.

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 enough."

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 abortion.

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 person.

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 about that?

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 I'm His.

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 another.

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 ofDoe 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 accessto 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 underway.


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