Responding to Controversy: Interview with Fr. Frank Pavone
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Recently Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, sat down with his communications director, Leslie Palma, to talk about the future of Priests for Life; what we should expect as the elections approach, and other topics.
Here's a transcript of the interview, slightly edited for clarity.
National Director of Priests for Life, Fr. Frank Pavone
Here's a transcript of the interview, slightly edited for clarity.
The name of your organization is Priests for Life. I heard you say on a recent broadcast that some people find the name Priests for Life confusing. They wonder if the organization is just for priests, or if all priests aren't already ordained for a lifetime, or whether you have to be Catholic to be involved Priests for Life? Are you thinking of changing the name of Priests for Life to something else? And if so, what names are you considering?
No, we're going to keep the name Priests for Life. It has a very good track record, a very good reputation. But as you suggest here, it doesn't explain itself fully. I had one bishop early on say to me, "Oh, Frank, it's great. I hear you have this Priests for Life. What a wonderful thing. We have to tell people and remind them that priests are in this for life and you know we're ordained and that lasts all our life until death."
And I said, "No, bishop. Of course that's true. But this is priests for pro-life." And he said, "Oh, even better. Even better."
In fact, we as Catholics take for granted we know what a priest is. But a lot of people really don't. I mean they don't - they don't know how to spell the word, we found out, quite often. And they're not quite sure what exactly it means. "Priests for Life." What is that?
And even when people understand that it's pro-life, that term covers a lot of issues. So, they will ask us, oh, well, do you deal with capital punishment? Or do you deal with helping the poor, or climate change or immigration or death penalty, or whatnot. And I explain to them, look, there's all kinds of important issues. But we're established to end abortion.
So, now an organization that has a particular name and mission can adopt an additional name. And that is something that we have done and are doing. You adapt an additional name and you do business as that name. So example, we have two DBAs as they're called - Doing Business As. One is Deacons for Life because we have an outreach to deacons. And those of you who are deacons, check us out at Deaconsforlife.org.
But then the other is for Priests for Life generally, so that people understand this is not just for priests. In fact, it's not even just for Catholics. It's for anyone who wants to end abortion, which is our mission. And so that people can understand, in fact, that in the pro-life umbrella, it is focused on the most important issue, the most urgent issue, which is abortion. The DBA that we've established now is Endabortion.US. That's our website now, but it's the same website you go to when you enter Priestsforlife.org.
But Endabortion.us is now not only a website address that gets to us, but it is a DBA. Doing business as. Another name for Priests for Life that clarifies more precisely what our mission is.
You are from New York, you were ordained in New York and you set up Priests for Life in New York. But at one point you moved to Texas. Why did you do that?
Everything's bigger in Texas. And we had a big idea. The bishop of Amarillo, Texas, Bishop John Yanta, invited me to explore whether we could start a community of Priests for Life.
Now, Priests for Life is a civil corporation, like EWTN and the Knights of Columbus. These are civil corporations, independent entities that serve the church by being inspired and shaped by Catholic principles and then trying to implement those principles in the world. So, that's what we are.
But there could also be a religious community dedicated specifically to ending abortion. New York Cardinal John O'Connor started the Sisters of Life; that was one of his great legacies. The Sisters of Life is a religious community that helps the unborn and their moms and their dads and their families. They help heal the wounds of abortion.
I thought the idea of turning Priests for Life into some type of canonical community was something we need to explore. I wanted to explore it because I knew there were priests who wanted to do the same thing, who felt the same call I felt, which was let's give ourselves completely to the unborn. There are priests who give themselves completely to education. Like the Salesian community or the Jesuits. The Franciscans work with the poor. There are many different charisms in the church.
Shouldn't there be a charism to serve the unborn? Shouldn't there be a charism to address the biggest moral tragedy of our day? The abortion tragedy that takes more human lives than anything else and deals with the most helpless human beings, the unborn children. You mean to say there's not going to be anything in the church that rises up to help them in an organized way?
So, the bishop was willing to explore that and that's why I transferred over to Texas at that time. Now, as it turned doubt, we learned that the structure that we already had and the track record we were already were living with as Priests for Life was a much better model than a community where everyone would be living in one place. We've got our priests and our pastoral team living in all different places. And because we're always moving around, we're always responding to the needs of the pro-life movement wherever we need to go.
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The model wasn't right, but we had the desire. I wanted to leave no stone unturned. And even now, I'm convinced that there is some additional entity that needs to be established in the church specifically for pro-life. Right now, a young man who wants to be a priest and just devote himself completely to the unborn, there's really not a clear place to go where he can be sure that that's going to be his work.
Do you think younger priests, those ordained in the last 10 years or so, are stronger advocates for life?
Younger people in general are stronger advocates for life, including those who choose the priesthood. I'll tell you one of the reasons why: They realize that they are survivors. And this survivor syndrome is one of the things we teach and deal with at Priests for Life, especially in our healing programs, like Rachel's Vineyard and Silent No More. There's that awareness.
Secondly, many of these younger priests - and I would say even more than 10 years ago, going back even farther than that - many of them found their vocation in and through the pro-life movement. And even for me, it was the pro-life movement that nourished my vocation.
I'm not going to say younger priests are more pro-life because that's not fair to say. Because you look back in the entire history of the church, the church has always been clearly pro-life. But it's one thing to know and embrace and teach the teaching of the church on pro-life. It's a different set of skills and knowledge, however, to know how to fight a cultural battle. In an age where abortion is legal at any time in pregnancy for any reason, and there's a multi-billion-dollar industry behind it! Wow. I mean you have to have a different mindset there. You're going into battle now.
And so, what I'm saying is that the priests who are coming along, like you say, in the last 10 years, and even more, they've grown up with the battle. Many of the priests have said, oh yeah, my mom and dad, they used to bring me to the abortion clinic and we would have the rosary or we would pray or protest or go to the March for Life and whatnot.
So, having grown up with the movement, they better understand the battle. And in that sense, our job in ministering to priests has gotten easier as the years have gone on because they speak our language and they understand the contours of the pro-life movement.
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Shifting gears a little bit. In 2015, Thomas Nelson published your book Abolishing Abortion and I remember proofreading it for you before it came out. You come down pretty hard on some dioceses and bishops, although not by name. I was worried about it. I kept suggesting that you tone it down. Don't you worry about making enemies in high places?
In the years since wrote the book, do you think that bishops have become bolder in speaking out against abortion?
I hope so. Cardinal O'Connor was a really strong voice. Nobody really ever replaced him, though many do speak out strongly against abortion. Pope Francis has spoken out strongly against abortion. But Cardinal O'Connor, John Paul II, they were, I mean towering high and above anybody and everybody else.
I'm not afraid of making enemies because I don't have any ill will towards anybody. And so, it's not a desire to make someone into an enemy. It's not a prejudice against somebody. I will tell the truth though.
And in my book, one of the things I tried to do - you can sum it up in this way: Encourage. Encourage and embolden. I'm always trying to encourage and embolden the church, my brother priests, even the bishops, the dioceses, the structures of the church, to do what they need to do in the realm of elections.
My book is called Abolishing Abortion. People can get it at Abolishingabortion.com. And you will see, in that book, that I lay out a manifesto for church and state. What are the next things we have to do end abortion? And I spend a significant amount of time exploring how the church censors herself even more than the law requires, sensors herself in speaking about politics.
We have the Johnson Amendment which President Trump has told federal agencies not to enforce unfairly against churches and tax-exempt ministries because there has been a lot of confusion.
That's the very same confusion I come out against in my book, about what the requirements of the law are, and essentially to encourage pastors, priests and bishops that they will not lose a church's tax-exempt status by speaking a pro-life message at election time.
Are they going to preach something on Sunday and Monday morning the IRS is going to be knocking at the door to take away their tax-exempt status? And if they take away the tax-exempt status of the one church, because the churches are all interconnected, it's going to bring down the whole tax exempt status of the Catholic church in the United States of America from coast to coast and Alaska and Hawaii too?? Nonsense. Nonsense, is what I say in this book. Nonsense.
No church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for anything preached from the pulpit. Anything. And the fact of the matter is that no church will. I go into the reasons why in that book.
I also quote various memos that have gone out from dioceses and chanceries to the priests and to the parishes, basically telling them to shut up when it comes to elections. And in fact, they say it in such a way that it cannot possibly be observed.
What I mean is, and I quote - again, people need to get the book. AbolishingAbortion.com. - will say things like this: "Do not directly or indirectly, expressly or by implication, say anything that would reflect poorly on or reflect favorably on a candidate or a political party."
You have a major political party, i.e., the Republicans, saying that the unborn are to be protected, that they have a right to life, and you have the opposing party, the Democrats, saying publicly that abortion is a right and is unrestricted and should be paid for by the taxpayer. And then you have the church coming along saying the unborn need to be protected because they have a right to life. How can a priest articulate the teachings of the church and not shed a negative light on the Democrat party and a positive light on the Republican Party? How is that possible?
It's not logically possible to follow the advice that nothing we say should ever reflect poorly on a candidate or a party, or ever reflect favorably on a candidate or party. If I stand up and say the unborn have to be protected, and a candidate is saying that they can be destroyed, and another candidate is saying they have to be protected, my words do reflect positively, on the pro-life candidate, but whose fault is that?
I'm not forcing candidates into the positions they take. I'm not dictating whether he or she should be pro-life or pro-abortion. They take the position they want to take. The candidates and the parties, too. And if tomorrow, all the candidates and parties on both sides of this issue were to swap their positions, would our message change? No, it would not. Not one iota. And that is where our book comes in and that is what exactly the book says.
A few days before the 2016 election, you gained a measure of infamy for showing the body of an aborted baby in a video. Were you expecting the kind of backlash it received and did you also hear messages of support?
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I don't think I became infamous because I was showing an aborted baby, because I had done that before. And this is the strange thing about what happened in 2016. I posted a video. I was doing a series of videos in the days before the 2016 election. Monumental as that election was. And so, this was like the seventh day of an eight- or nine-day series of talks that I was giving at our Priests for Life office and broadcasting on Facebook.
I have done funerals for aborted babies many times before in my role as national director of Priests for Life. And every time, I showed the body of the baby, or the bodies. In fact, we did one such funeral and burial at EWTN, at Mother Angelica's Shrine in Hanceville, Alabama. Back in 2008 we did a massive public funeral. And we've got the video footage of that, but we had an open casket. We showed - we had a wake service first. And we showed the people these aborted babies. We have to show them.
So I wasn't doing anything different than I had done many, many times before quite publicly, and without apology. I think what got people really riled up was I did it in the context of calling out, as I do again right now, calling out the Democrat party for killing these babies.
This was an election between the man who turned out to be the most pro-life president we've ever had, and the woman who would have been the most pro-abortion president we've ever had. For many voters, that was and is today, issue number one. The bishops say that too.
"Living the Gospel of Life" which is a document I quoted during that election, and during every election, says we've got to start with a commitment not to kill the innocent. That's where we start in our moral analysis of all different issues.
The right to life is like the foundation of a house. An abortion strikes at the foundation. All the other parts of the house are going to collapse if you don't have the foundation. I was just making that point.
There is one thing I would do differently in the future. People got confused because I was standing at a table that we also use as an altar. That's where I was doing all the videos of that nine-day series. So, I was standing there. And I used the word altar, but it's a table that we sometimes use for masses. It's not at an altar and it's not a chapel. And some people, in their ignorance and in their rush to condemn me said that I brought an aborted baby into mass, and said mass with the baby on the altar.
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These people must be on drugs or they're very, very ignorant because I had my clerical suit jacket on. When's the last time you saw a priest say mass in his suit jacket? I would never...
I know something about liturgy. I was a Master of Ceremonies for St. Joseph's Seminary and for Cardinal O'Connor when he came to the seminary. I know what is and is not permitted on the altar or in the mass.
It's like we were saying before: People rush to judgment. They talk before they listen. And they don't bother to get to know you. If somebody doesn't have the courtesy of getting to know you before they criticize you, then you don't need their praise either. And if somebody doesn't have the common courtesy and the humility, for that matter, to go to you and ask about something that they saw or heard you do, before they pass judgment on it, that person has the problem. Not you.
You asked if I had gotten praise about that video. I did. Let me read a few quotes that came in. I got overwhelming praise for what I did. Here are some of the emails that came in and comments made on Facebook.
"People need to see this. Eisenhower did the same thing. Walked the Germans through the death camps so they could see the face of evil."
Another person said, "Unfortunately, this is necessary to wake people up. To most, this is abstract. When they actually see it, it opens their eyes and hopefully, their hearts."
Another person said, "I want to thank you for posting this. Many people are afraid to see this reality. This was very brave of you and you weren't afraid of any backlash either. So much respect for you. God bless."
Another: "Blunt-force truth. Abortion makes our culture no more civilized than those in the past who practiced human sacrifice."
I'm not saying this because I endorse this idea, but another person wrote. "This priest will be canonized one day as a patron of the unborn children."
These quotes are about half a page of some 136 pages of positive praise I received for posting that video.
People want leaders in the church and the government to speak the truth. And to speak it with courage. That's what leadership is about.
We're in another election season. Should we prepare to be shocked?
We should be prepared for victory. We should be prepared to rejoice. We should be prepared to see yet another way in which President Trump wins, wins, and wins again. I think we're going to have a greater victory than we had in 2016. And in that sense, it will shock the pundits. It will shock the Trump-haters. It will shock those who have this Trump derangement syndrome where nothing regarding President Trump can be considered, thought about or discussed rationally. But they end up just reacting with this bitter rage.
I'm advocating for him to win re-election. I believe he will. And I think we're going to see, in this election like we did four years ago, a lot of people scratching their heads saying how on earth did that happen? And my prayer is that everyone reading this will be part of the reason why it happened.