Fr. Frank Pavone, head of the controversial pro-life group Priest for Life, came under fire Monday for a video of him standing behind an altar with an aborted baby in an effort to support Donald Trump.
Ed Mechmann, director of public policy for the Archdiocese of New York, said the use of an aborted baby “as a prop” is “absolutely appalling, and deserves to be repudiated by all of us who consider ourselves to be pro-life in the fullest meaning of that word.”
On Nov. 7, Fr. Pavone posted a video on Facebook supporting Donald Trump for president. The video includes a naked, dead baby lying on an altar, as Fr. Pavone stands behind the altar, talking about abortion.
“A human being has been sacrificed and the altar of God has been desecrated, all for politics,” Mechmann said in a blog post on the Archdiocese of New York website. “Everyone who respects the dignity of every human person should reject and disavow this atrocity.”
“A priest of the Catholic Church publicly displayed on a sacred altar a dead baby who was the victim of a terrible crime as part of a propaganda video in favor of a political candidate,” he said. “It is hard for me to express in calm, measured terms, the revulsion I feel about this.”
While there has long been debate within the pro-life movement about whether to show images of aborted babies in order to reveal the graphic reality of abortion, that discussion is “beside the point,” Mechmann said.
“The real question is, what about that baby as a human being? That baby is an individual human person, someone’s son or daughter, made in the image and likeness of God, unique and unrepeatable, and deserving of our love and mercy,” he said. “To use her body in this way is to treat that poor lost girl or boy as an object to be used – which is the antithesis of love – and not as a brother or sister to be mourned.”
Fr. Thomas Petri, vice president and academic dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., echoed Mechmann.
“The issue here is the dignity of the child that was used, and violating the dignity of his or her body on an altar of God – which is supposed to be used for divine worship. It really is a profane violation,” he told CNA.
“The Catholic Church is very strict that human bodies are to be treated reverently after a person dies.”
The video also drew fire in the Catholic blogosphere. In a Nov. 7 blog post, Mary Pezzulo, a blogger on Patheos, noted that the baby’s body had not even been cleaned or dressed before being placed on the altar.
“It is wrong to use dead people as political props. Most people know that,” she said, pointing to the teaching of the Catechism that “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity.”
“Human bodies are not objects for us to exploit. As we do to them, we do to Christ,” Pezzulo said.
Blogger Mark Shea also rejected the treatment of the baby.
“(T)he Church does indeed insist on the right to life of the unborn baby,” he said in a post on Patheos. However, he continued, “That does not mean that in the name of fighting abortion, you get to use the unborn’s naked body as a prop for attacking your culture war enemies on the eve of an election. It does not make the unborn’s body a thing for you to manipulate as political imagery.”
Scott Eric Alt, a third Patheos blogger, called for Fr. Pavone to have his faculty to celebrate Mass suspended. He pointed to Canon law, which stipulates: “An altar, whether fixed or movable, is to be reserved for divine worship alone, to the exclusion of any secular usage.”
“The altar is intended for a sacramental purpose, as the place where the priest celebrates Mass,” Alt said.
“There is no other way to put it than that this is a sacrilege and a scandal. The human person is not a prop for a political stunt. This is an offense to the purpose for which priests are ordained to use the altar.”
Furthermore, Alt charged, “what Fr. Pavone did is the opposite of pro-life.”
“Being pro-life is about respecting the dignity of the human person. It is the antithesis of respect for the dignity of the human person to use a dead child as a political prop to lobby for your presidential candidate the day before an election. This does no honor to the dead.”
Although Priests for Life claims to be in good standing with the Vatican, Fr. Pavone has previously sparked controversy over his contentious relationship with Bishop Patrick J. Zurek of Amarillo – whose jurisdiction he is under – given charges that he had disobeyed the bishop and had failed to allow the Priests for Life to undergo auditing.
Fr. Pavone also had a severe run-in with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York – where Priests for Life is headquartered – in 2014. That November, Cardinal Dolan wrote in a letter to fellow bishops that he wanted “nothing further to do” with Fr. Pavone given the priests refusal to cooperate in “several necessary reforms” of the organization after requests made by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.
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