ROME – Pope Francis’ determination to be less vocal than his predecessors about abortion has puzzled and distressed many Catholic pro-lifers, especially in the United States, where both the Church’s hierarchy and its rank-and-file tend to be loudest about the cause of defending the unborn.
Yet according to one of the most ardent and outspoken of those American activists, Francis’ discretion may actually be a blessing in disguise.
The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, acknowledges there’s “still a level of discomfort” among some in the anti-abortion movement with Francis. Yet by calling the Church to go out where suffering people are found, such as hospitals, prisons and slums, Pavone says the pontiff is giving the movement a new lease on life.
“Pro-lifers need to go were the unborn children are, where the moms and dads are,” he said, following the lead of the pope.
Among other things, Pavone said, they need to go to “abortion facilities to express solidarity not only with the children, but also those [women] who, out of despair and not as a free choice, end up deciding to terminate a pregnancy.”
Moreover, Pavone believes that Francis may inspire a new tone, premised more on mercy than judgment.
“We need to be able to say ‘Come to us’, rather than, ‘That’s wrong, don’t do it’,” he said.
In that spirit, Pavone said the pro-life movement can beef up efforts to offer financial help, lodging, job possibilities, willing adoptive parents, and anything else a woman considering termination of a pregnancy might need.
Considered one of the most visible and determined pro-life priests in the world, Pavone runs not only Priests for Life but also “Rachel’s Vineyard,” a retreat program for women who have had abortions, as well as “Silent No More,” a joint Catholic/Anglican anti-abortion awareness campaign.
Pavone said that despite being less outspoken, Francis has found ways to signal his support for the pro-life cause. He pointed to the pontiff’s brief stop at a symbolic cemetery for aborted children during his recent trip to South Korea, saying that although the pope’s prayer was silent his gesture was “very loud.”
Pavone’s comments will likely be read with interest in pro-life circles, where for some the jury is still out on Francis.
The pope’s reticence to wade into what Americans call the “culture wars” is well documented. In his first press conference on the way back to Rome from Brazil in July 2013, he said he didn’t need to talk about abortion and gay marriage because “the teaching of the Church is already well known.”
Likewise, at the closing Mass of a pro-live event in the Vatican on June 2014, Francis surprised many when he delivered a homily without any reference to abortion, euthanasia, or any other hot-button moral issue.
Yet as Pavone sees it, the pope’s talk at that event actually illustrates another way in which Francis is offering pro-lifers a new approach.
He quoted the pontiff’s words: “God is life. If we’re saying yes to God, we’re saying yes to life, and any attitude contrary to life is idolatry.
According to Pavone, it was an example of pro-life advocacy by putting the accent on the positive.
“Compare someone who says, abortion is wrong and the Church is against it, to someone who says, ‘Any attempt against life is idolatry’,” Pavone said. “Which puts the defense of life on a firmer basis?”
Thinking ahead, Pavone hopes that if Pope Francis visits the U.S. next September to participate in a Vatican-organized World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, he’ll make a one-minute stop at one of the city’s many abortion facilities.
“Nothing elaborate, just a silent prayer as an expression of solidarity, embracing the babies and also the parents who, out of despair, go to these facilities,” he said.
Though Pavone is widely admired among anti-abortion crusaders, he’s occasionally run afoul of his superiors in the Church.
In 2011, tensions arose between Pavone and his local bishop, Patrick Zurek of the Diocese of Amarillo in Texas. Pavone filed an appeal of an effort by Zurke to rein in his political activity with the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, which affirmed in 2012 both that Pavone is a priest in good standing and that Zurek has the authority to decide on his assignments
Doubts have also been raised about financial management at Priests for Life. From 2004 to 2008, the organization raised an estimated $40 million, yet reported finishing 2010 with a deficit of $1.4 million.
A 2010 statement from the Amarillo diocese, however, said that while there were questions about auditing procedures, Pavone was not charged with “any malfeasance or … any wrongdoing with financial matters.”