Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, explains how best to communicate the pro-life message to others.
In my role as national director of Priests for Life, I have preached on abortion every day throughout the fifty states. I've gotten thousands of reactions over the last several years. These are typical:
Father I came into this church this morning being totally pro-abortion, and the homily changed my views completely.
Father I had an abortion, and sometimes it hurts to hear about it, but please keep up the preaching! I know the homilies will keep some other woman from ever going through what I have gone through from the abortion itself.
Hi! I'd like to begin this letter by thanking you for last week's homily. I was deeply moved and so was my younger brother. I'm 17 and he's 12. We did not fully understand what goes on in abortion till your homily.
How do we preach on abortion? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we awaken our people to this immense evil? How do we handle reactions of anger and disagreement? Most importantly: Where are our people on abortion?
Where America Stands
A good place to start is to examine the attitudes of the American people on abortion. Sometimes we hear that Most Americans are pro-choice. The statement is meaningless until the term pro-choice is defined. A more helpful way to understand what most people think is to ask them about the specific circumstances in which they think abortion should be legal. That is precisely what was done in a survey conducted by the Tarrance Group in December 1995. About 11 percent said they thought abortion should be prohibited in all circumstances, and about the same number said it should be legal at any time during pregnancy, and for any reason.
There were four other positions. Most of the remaining people said abortion should be legal only in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life, with a somewhat smaller number saying it should only be legal to save the mother's life. The other two positions were that it should be legal for any reason but not after the first three months of pregnancy, and that it should be legal for any reason but not after the first six months of pregnancy.
By the admission of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, rape or incest account for about 1 percent of all abortions. By the testimony of many medical experts, furthermore, abortion is never necessary to save a mother's life.
Conclusion? Most Americans oppose 99 percent of the abortions taking place, while the current policy on abortion (available through all nine months) is supported by about 11 percent of the public.
We likewise see the curious phenomenon that among the majority of Americans who would oppose most abortions, but permit some, there is a growing number of those who are willing to admit that the abortions they consider justified involve the killing of human beings. In a 1989 Los Angeles Times poll, in fact, 57 percent called abortion murder, including one-fourth of those who also said they generally favored abortion.
What is going on here? Why are there so many abortions when most people oppose them and even admit what they are?
The confused middle
First of all, people have gotten the message from the pro-life movement that abortion kills a baby. They also have gotten the message from the abortion-rights side that sometimes abortion benefits women, who should not be deprived of the benefit. Having accepted both messages, the majority of Americans belong to the conflicted middle. Where this group ultimately go is where America ultimately goes on abortion.
The other phenomenon at work is denial fueled by pain. With over four thousand abortions each day in America, there are more people each day who are directly involved in an abortion decision, and who are, therefore, not eager to get involved in an effort either to expose what it is or to stop it, at least initially.
There is an even larger number, however, whose pain over abortion is not due to direct personal involvement, but rather a dilemma that was best described by one who said, When people know enough to realize that learning a little more will involve some risk, it is amazing to see how little they want to learn. People know abortion is happening, but they also realize that if they look at it too closely, they will not be able to live at peace with themselves unless they do something to stop it. At the same time, they know that if they try to stop it, there will be a price to pay. They may lose friends or face other kinds of opposition. They don't want to make the sacrifice necessary to confront injustice. What, then, is their solution to this dilemma? Ignore the problem altogether. Denial protects them from the pain of the situation. This is why so many people become angry when the topic of abortion is raised: After successfully ignoring it, no such person wants it brought to the surface again.
Given the attitudes people have on abortion and the dominant images they have about the pro-life effort, we can begin to trace several themes necessary to our preaching on this topic.
People need to know that we are on their side. A discussion of abortion, whether in private or public, should acknowledge its painfulness, whether we describe ourselves as pro-life or not. The psychological attitude we need to convey is, You are not my enemy. We are in this painful situation together and need to help each other out of it. The individual who may react angrily to a pro-life homily is best approached as one who has been afflicted by a personal disaster. We are dealing with good people who are in pain, not with enemies.
People need to know that to be pro-life is to be pro-woman. The difference between pro-life and pro-choice is not that pro-lifers love the baby and pro-choicers love the woman. Rather, the pro-choice message says that you can separate the two, and the pro-life message says you cannot. Pro-lifers are criticized for being fetus-lovers who are insensitive to women. But one cannot, and pro-lifers do not, love the child without loving the mother. Abortion defenders claim they are loving women, even as they admittedly kill their children. But one cannot love the woman without loving the child. Neither can one harm the child without harming the mother.
The message must be clear that to be pro-life means to be pro-woman, and so the pro-life movement asks society, Why cant we love them both? Many who think abortion is wrong will not actively oppose it, because they think they have to choose between the rights of the baby and those of the mother, or that they have to consider the baby more important than the mother. But the authentic pro-life message is a message of equality. This insight helps resolve the conflict within the conflicted middle, who see the evil of abortion but think it benefits women.
People need to know that to oppose abortion is not to oppose those who have them. An aspect of the pro-woman theme of our pro-life preaching is the healing and forgiveness the Church offers to those who have been involved in abortion. In most of my homilies, I mention the real case of a woman who had twenty-two abortions and proclaim that even for her the doors of the Church are open.
The Church has the perfect spiritual and psychological balance necessary for those who have been involved in abortion. The last thing such a person needs to hear is, What you did is no big deal. The nature of post abortion grief is precisely the realization of what a big deal it is. There is a reason for the grief in her heart, and what her heart is telling her is true: Her child was killed. A great disservice was done both to her and her child when someone convinced her that the abortion would be no big deal. Accepting that line was a major act of denial. Healing now begins in calling the evil what it is. The clear preaching of the Church helps her to do this.
The other line no one needs to hear is, You are rejected; there is no hope, there is no hope. As she realizes what evil has occurred, she will be tempted to say this to herself. The Church, however, contradicts such despair with her clear message of forgiveness. The Church invites all who have been involved in abortion, whether the mother, father, grandparents, or even the abortion provider, to accept the forgiveness and healing of Christ.
Those in the pain of abortion are not helped by silence. Some refrain from preaching about abortion out of a sincere motive not to hurt those who have had one. A person grieving over abortion, however, can infer from our silence that we do not know her pain, or that we do not care, or that there is no hope. None of this is true. By our clear and compassionate instruction we can break through the silence that led her to this disastrous choice in the first place.
People need to know that abortion is their business. Many lament abortion but do not try to stop it. Many are pro-life in the sense that they would never have or encourage an abortion. But neither would many try to stop someone else from having one.
Our challenge here is to help people cross the line between wishing that abortion would go away and willing it so. A woman in the large parish I served in New York City said to me one Sunday, About all this preaching on abortion, Father...were not the ones who need to hear it. It's all the people out there, they need to hear it! Well then, I told her, Go tell them! We do not simply preach about abortion because our people do not know about it, but rather because they do. This fact makes them the most likely group to do something about it. When we say Go in peace, we are giving a commission, as the Lord gave his apostles, to take the grace and truth they have received at Mass into the world which needs it so much.
De-isolate the issue
To stir up the mission of our people to fight abortion, we need to de-isolate the issue. People understand that we have to intervene to help the poor, the AIDS victim, the drug addict, the victim of crime and war. Even if we do not know their names, or have never seen the faces of these victims, we know it is our business to help them. But for too many, when it comes to abortion all the rules change, and suddenly it is none of my business. We need to examine this attitude. We do not hear people say, I would never abuse my child, but if another person wants to do so, thats her choice. The reason people do not say that is that they realize that some choices have victims. When somebodys choice destroys or threatens somebody else's life, thats everyones business. It is, after all, the business of love that intervenes to save our brothers and sisters in need.
People need to know that there is something they can do to stop abortion. All of the above is not yet enough. Many oppose abortion but do not think anything can be done about it. If we awaken people to the evil, but do not guide their response, they, will perhaps act irresponsibly. The problem is not that nothing can be done, but that not enough people are taking the legal, peaceful, and effective actions necessary to end abortion.
The basic homily I have delivered in a different church each week incorporates, in conjunction with the readings, three major points in the following order:
There are alternatives to abortion. Those who procure abortions do not do so out of freedom of choice, but because they feel they have no freedom and so no choice. The Church and the pro-life movement are providing better choices than abortion. A wide range of help is available for anyone who needs it. It is amazing to see how many people know that the Church opposes abortion, but are unaware of the Church's willingness to provide alternatives. This knowledge makes them feel good about being a Catholic and about helping the pro-life movement. By mentioning such alternatives first, a major objection is tackled before it arises: What are you who oppose abortion going to do to help the woman who needs it?
Healing and forgiveness are available. Many people have approached me in response to this part of the homily, grateful to know that they, or a friend or relative, are not cast out of the Church because of their involvement with abortion. Discussing forgiveness before addressing the evils of abortion helps people to hear the rest of the message.
Don't be fooled by slogans. This phrase puts the preacher on the side of the people. Dont be fooled. The presumption is that the listener has goodwill, but might be fooled by others trying to muddy the issue with slogans. Two of the slogans I face are Safe and Legal, pointing out that legal does not mean safe, and Pro-choice, pointing out what exactly is being chosen.
The practical follow-up to the homily is a handout that provides alternatives. It is a Priests for Life brochure entitled You Can Save Someone's Life Today! It contains fifty-five practical things people can do to help stop abortions, including toll-free numbers (like 1-800-848-LOVE) that can be dialed from anywhere in the nation and a live person at the other end twenty-four hours a day will provide counseling and any other type of assistance both for those considering abortion and those who have had them. This handout is placed at all the exits of the church, and everyone is asked to take it home, read it, keep it, and use it.
Gathering the children
Children are particularly ready to hear the pro-life message, which can be presented to them simply in terms of fairness. At Masses with a large number of children, I call up one of the smallest to answer three questions. Johnny, look at all those people out there. Are they bigger than you? Yes, comes the reply. Are they older than you? Yes. Are they stronger than you? Yes, he answers again. Johnny, are they more special than you? NO! he exclaims with even more conviction. I receive the same answers every time.
I thank the child, send him back to his seat, and say, The children always get it right; sometimes we adults get it wrong. All people are equal, no matter how young, small, or weak.
As for the elderly, the comment is sometimes made that abortion is not their concern. Im too old for that. My response is to ask gently, Too old for what? You may be too old to have a child, but you are never too old to save one, never too old to love one.
Love the angry
A few will react angrily, no matter how abortion is presented, for reasons described above. In all my preaching on abortion, however, I can still count on one hand the number of those who came to me angry because of a pro-life homily. The best way to approach them is to ask them questions to draw out of them the cause of their anger in order to help them think about it. I invite them to sit down in an out-of-the-way place to talk calmly. Some will do that, others will leave.
It is much harder to criticize or to be angry with someone who wants to listen to you than someone who either lectures or responds with anger as well. Let them know that you are listening, that you know their pain, and that the message of our respect for life says that their life is precious, too, no matter what they disagree with.
The call to preach about abortion is not added onto the priesthood, but flows from its very heart. Christ gives himself away on the cross and in the Eucharist, and there we find the meaning of love: sacrifice for the good of the other person. This is the perfect reversal of abortion, which sacrifices the other person for the good of one's self. The same words, in fact, that the Lord and his priests use to proclaim love are used by the defenders of abortion: This is my body. Some say they control their bodies, and so others must die; Christ gives his body away, so others might live: This is my body, given up for you. In the power of these words, the culture of death will be transformed into the culture of life.
Pavone, Rev. Frank A. Talking Abortion. Crisis 15, no. 5 (May 1997): 14-17.
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute, a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
Reverend Frank A. Pavone serves in full-time pro-life ministry as National Director of Priests for Life. He received his M.Div. and M.A. in theology from St. Josephs Seminary, Yonkers, and was ordained in New York in 1988. Fr. Pavone has taught Scripture and Dogma in the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program and the Institute for Religious Studies in New York.Copyright © 1997 Crisis
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