Today Pope Francis in the news for extending a sacramental hand of mercy on abortion. Fr. Frank Pavone is longtime head of Priests for Life and author of the new book Abolishing Abortion: How You Can Play a Part in Ending the Greatest Evil of Our Day talks about what it means.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What does the Church actually say to women who have had abortions?
Fr. Frank Pavone: To those who have had abortions, the Church says throughout the ages what Jesus himself says: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” We who oppose abortions do not oppose those who have abortions, but rather we embrace them with forgiveness, mercy, and peace. The doors of the Church are open, and the Church wants to be the first place people turn when they realize the wrong they have done and want to get right again with God. The Church also says that this process of repentance and healing involves facing the truth of what has been done, and never minimizing it.
Yet the Church faces the full truth, which includes the fact that even the worst sin can be forgiven when we repent. Pope Saint John Paul II addressed directly those who have had abortions in paragraph 99 of his encyclical The Gospel of Life. He points out that there is a process of healing which continues after forgiveness is received, and that this can also include being a voice for other children who are in danger of being aborted.
Lopez: What’s the breaking news today from Pope Francis?
Fr. Pavone: Today Pope Francis has announced another concrete expression of the Church’s urgent invitation, to all who have had abortions, to come to reconciliation and healing in Christ and the Church. He has indicated that in the Year of Mercy, he is expanding the ability of priests to reconcile to the Church those who have had abortions. The specific canonical details of this expansion will be made clearer in the near future through other announcements from the Holy See, because there are various nuances of canon law, as well as differences between the Eastern Churches and the Latin Church, regarding what exactly a priest can do both in regard to the sin of abortion and the penalty that comes with it.
But putting those nuances aside for the moment, it is a very welcome move by the Holy Father to simplify the process by which a person who comes to a priest repenting of this sin can be assured that all is well both with God and the Church. In practice, of course, many priests already have full authorization to absolve both the sin and the penalty that comes with abortion. All those who have already confessed an abortion and been absolved should have full peace of mind and not doubt that they have been forgiven. And those who still need such forgiveness should know that the Church is more eager than ever to grant it, once they repent of that sin.
Lopez: What about the men, the doctors . . . why are women the ones in need of pardon?
The right to life just a little bit, or just once in a while. Once it’s violated in one circumstance, the entire right has been destroyed.
Fr. Pavone: The Church invites to forgiveness and healing all those who have been guilty of abortion, and that does not mean only the mothers of the aborted babies. Men can commit the sin of abortion, too, because although they cannot have the procedure on their body, they can choose abortion in their will. They may be the one who forced the abortion or paid for it. So might other relatives or friends. Abortionists, too, of course, are guilty of the sin of abortion and are usually more guilty than the mom or the dad, because unlike the parents, these abortionists are not under the kind of confusion and pressure that the mom and dad are often experiencing.
Through Priests for Life, I have the joy of ministering not only to the moms and dads, and to other family members who have lost someone to abortion, but also to the abortionists themselves. In my role as pastoral director both of Rachel’s Vineyard and the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, the world’s largest ministries for healing after abortion, I have been able to help reconcile people who have had as many as 25 abortions. Through my work with the Society of Centurions, I have ministered to abortionists who have killed tens of thousands of babies. In fact, I had a friendship with Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who helped establish the abortion industry in America and was responsible for some 75,000 abortions. He first announced that he was on the brink of conversion to the Catholic Church during a talk he gave in 1994 at a workshop I was moderating. At the end he said he hoped God could forgive him. I assured him publicly that day that God had already done so, and I reminded him of that just a few days before he died, as I was visiting him in his New York City apartment.
Lopez: How can anyone be an agent of “Abolishing Abortion”?
Fr. Pavone: In my new book, Abolishing Abortion, I point out that the first step in doing so is personal repentance. In our own hearts, we acknowledge our own responsibility for the bloodshed in our land, and we cast out the inner fears and doubts that are actually a more powerful obstacle to pro-life progress than is Planned Parenthood or the Obama Administration. Beyond that, being an agent of abolishing abortion means being an agent of exposing abortion. Evils such as abortion flourish precisely because they are hidden, and we expose them by describing the procedure, showing pictures of what abortion does, sharing the testimonies of the damage it does to parents and the family, and exposing the corruption within the abortion industry. Abolishing abortion also means being politically active, and understanding what both logic and Church teaching show us, namely, that the right to life is the most foundational issue, at the heart and core of any other issue that matters.
Lopez: Why would you want to abolish abortion? Surely there are some circumstances where it may be found necessary?
Fr. Pavone: People often think that, although abortion is morally wrong, there are circumstances in which it may be necessary. As a result, they may favor initiatives to reduce the numbers of abortion, but may not be willing to abolish it. Yet because abortion directly takes an innocent life, it can never be justified, because even a single abortion violates the very principle by which everyone’s life is protected. Put another way, one cannot violate the right to life just a little bit, or just once in a while. Once it’s violated in one circumstance, the entire right has been destroyed.
Lopez: What is this upcoming jubilee of mercy Pope Francis made news about this morning all about?
Fr. Pavone: Jesus himself is the mercy of God, and the pope wants us to focus on him in this special Jubilee year soon to start. Yet that focus does not just mean receiving his mercy; it means imitating his mercy, or more accurately, becoming active vessels of his mercy to others.
This has particular significance to us at Priests for Life and in the pro-life movement generally.
If we are to live out mercy, the pope explains in The Face of Mercy that we are to “look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes modern society itself creates. How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out. . . . Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help!”
As he had pointed out in Evangelii Gaudium, the most defenseless of all are unborn children. Certainly they live in “fringes modern society itself creates” by its false and destructive declaration that they are not persons, that they do not deserve the protection of the law.
Planned Parenthood is exactly the opposite of parenthood and the opposite of mercy.
Living mercy means seeing their misery and speaking up for them. Death is a result of sin. Mercy not only forgives our sin, it rescues us from death. The Holy Year, the pope writes, is “to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society . . . to restore dignity to all those from whom it has been robbed” (n. 16). This includes practicing mercy for the children in the womb, speaking up for them, and rescuing them from death!
Lopez: How can it help in the midst of what we are learning about Planned Parenthood?
Fr. Pavone: Planned Parenthood is exactly the opposite of parenthood and the opposite of mercy. Their actions, which represent the mentality of the entire abortion industry, reveal a deadened conscience and an inability to respond with reverence toward the human person and the human body. That is the precise opposite of the attitude that Pope Francis wants to instill in us through the Year of Mercy, and the opposite of what he preached in a homily on July 3, 2013, when he said
We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to our body — the body — the soul too, but — I stress — the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because he is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he’s in jail because he is in the hospital. . . . Those are the wounds of Jesus today. . . . We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed.
Lopez: What are you expecting from Pope Francis during his visit from the U.S. this month?
Fr. Pavone: All of us at Priests for Life are looking forward, first of all, to the event that the World Meeting of Families has asked us to lead on Wednesday evening, Sept. 23 — a Pro-life International Symposium at the Convention Center in Philadelphia. Building on the theme, Love is our Mission: The Family Fully Alive, we will reflect on the fact that for the family to be fully alive, we must protect all its children and we must heal the wounds of abortion, the greatest destroyer of family life.
There are three particular moments when the pope’s words will be especially important for the cause of life. First is his address to the United Nations, which is finalizing its goals for the next 15 years, and which in those goals once again has introduced phrases like “reproductive rights” which, in context, also means abortion. I expect he will clarify, as have his predecessors, that no authentic development can take place unless the right to life is secure. Second, in his address to Congress, I expect he will touch on their responsibility to protect life, particularly since they will be not only dealing with Planned Parenthood, but with the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. And third, of course, at the World Meeting of Families, one cannot speak about the family without speaking about the right to life.
Lopez: What are you most grateful for?
Fr. Pavone: Personally, I am most grateful for the opportunity to devote all my time and energy to the most crucial human rights struggle of our time, and for the joy and encouragement that come to me from the countless people who are likewise involved in that great cause of life!