Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Fighting sin with sacrilege? Dumb.

Fr, Frank Pavone. (Image source: lifenews.com.)
When you’re the good guys fighting a horrific evil, you can do no wrong … not even sacrilege. That is the best way we can sum up Priests for Life’s Fr. Frank Pavone’s defense of placing an aborted child on an altar and making a video of it for social media distribution.

The Activist’s Mistake

In an email to Matt C. Abbott, Fr. Pavone said,

The issue is not how I’m treating a baby. (I’ve been providing funerals and burials for these children for decades, with full legal and canonical counsel, and those concerned about these things would do well to talk to me rather than the media.) [Am I the only one who finds this statement incredibly pompous?]
The issue is how the abortionists, supported by the Democrats, are treating these babies. What’s sacrilegious is abortion, and voting for those who support it. [Tu quoque much?] It’s time we get our heads screwed on straight about who the bad guys are. [Ah, yes, the classic explanation offered by every half-a$$ed radical who ever perpetrated some outrage against the sensibilities of others: “Don’t look at me! I didn’t do anything wrong! Look at them! They’re the bad guys doing bad things!”]

You’d think someone who is older and more experienced than I would have figured out by now that upsetting and offending people is a counterproductive strategy. But Fr. Pavone is either stuck in the 1960s or is too busy communing with his superior knowledge and experience to realize he’s making the same mistake leftist activists make by burning the flag or dissing the National Anthem. Wherever his head is, Fr. Pavone needs to extract it and take a good look at what’s really going on.

Fighting Sin with Sin

I’m going to give you a writing assignment. Unfortunately, I can’t give you Dolores Umbridge’s pen (to get the lesson well in), so just use a regular Bic or the brand of your choice and write one hundred times: ONE MUST NOT DO EVIL THAT GOOD MAY COME OF IT. THE END DOES NOT JUSTIFY THE MEANS. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1789; Romans 3:8) Don’t word-process it — that’s cheating.

Real sacrilege — “the irreverent treatment of sacred things,” as defined by The Catholic Encyclopedia — is a sin against the First Commandment: “God’s first commandment condemns the main sins of irreligion: tempting God, in words or deeds, sacrilege, and simony. ... Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God” (CCC § 2118, 2120; italics in print version). As much an atrocity as abortion is, it’s not literally a sacrilege. Even if it were, we’re not permitted to fight sin with sin; that’s a losing strategy by definition.

Father Pavone has spent many years in the fight against the Great Western Atrocity. For that, we can offer him some gratitude and respect. That long struggle, however, did not purchase for Fr. Pavone the right to misuse the altar or dead human bodies as props for a political campaign. Fr. Pavone is neither infallible nor inerrant. As Mary Pezzulo put it:

It is wrong to use dead people as political props. Most people know that. ... That’s why there’s so much controversy surrounding news videos of murdered Daesh victims. That’s one of the reasons why pro-life leaders like Abby Johnson have been telling people for years that it’s wrong to show photos of aborted babies at abortion clinic protests — that, and that it’s ineffective.

The Sin of Sacrilege

“Oh, well,” you might say sarcastically, rolling your eyes for effect, “I suppose 65 million aborted babies isn’t as bad as one little video.” Puh-leez, stop with the stupid already. There’s no provision in Catholic moral theology which makes a sin acceptable if it’s x% less evil than some arbitrary benchmark sin. Sacrilege is grave matter, which means — if you remember my last couple of posts on sin — committing sacrilege with full knowledge and deliberate consent is a mortal sin (CCC § 1857). You’ll also remember that “[feigned] ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin” (CCC § 1859). And it’s difficult to believe a Catholic priest could be invincibly ignorant of the sinful character of his act (ibid.).

Just trying to put the two evils in perspective, you say? But that’s still missing the point: sin does not stop being sinful even in the presence of a greater evil. Sacrilege is no ordinary mortal sin; it’s a sin directly against God and against the Church. For a layman to commit sacrilege is bad enough; when a consecrated priest profanes the altar and a dead body—!

My father, God be good to him, once told me, “Ten ‘attaboys’ can be wiped out by just one ‘aw s**t’.” When you screw up, you need to take ownership of your mess. The good you’ve done in the past doesn’t take that fact away; that’s why even the Pope goes to confession regularly. Fr. Pavone doesn’t get a free pass simply because he’s been fighting abortion for so many years.

The Great Trap

“For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:9). Yet zealousness becomes fanaticism when you become blinded and deafened by obsession to everything but the focus of your attention.

The great trap of social activism is that The Cause can become a false god, a golden calf which displaces the Cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment. Chesterton writes of anti-Christians, “Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church” (Orthodoxy, p. 146). In a similar manner, those whose Catholic faith prompts them to join The Cause can end up sacrificing that same faith for the sake of The Cause. But Baal cannot defeat Moloch; only God can.

Jesus’ Great Commission was not to “take control of all nations, forcing them to obey my commandments.” Rather, it’s to “make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Change hearts and minds, and you change the culture; change the culture, and the laws will eventually change to reflect it. In changing the culture, we may diminish certain evils; however, evil will not disappear from the face of the earth until Christ returns to make all things new. As desirable as it is to eliminate the Great Western Atrocity, it is not our first job as Christians; our first job is to live and spread the gospel message. What happens after that is in God’s hands.


Father Frank Pavone’s video stunt is prima faciae evidence that the “official” pro-life movement leadership has lost touch with the reality of the American polity. Our culture has degraded beyond the point where a couple of fortuitous SCOTUS picks can “restore” our nation according to some idealized Christian past, or some fuzzy, self-referential conception of “what the Founding Fathers intended”.[*] The leadership’s playbook is out of date; the rules and the playing field have changed. It’s time for them to either recognize the situation for what it is or step aside for others who do.

As for Fr. Pavone himself, as Scott Eric Alt put it, “[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.” Amarillo Bp. Patrick J. Zurek, Fr. Pavone’s ordinary, has issued a statement condemning the video as “against the dignity of human life and … a desecration of the altar,” and promising to investigate the matter further. He also points out that Priests for Life is not a Catholic institution — as Fr. Pavone’s actions have made abundantly clear.

Fr. Pavone should do himself and the rest of the pro-life movement justice by apologizing and retiring from PFL. Sacrilege is inexcusable … even in defense of life.

[*] It’s even debatable whether the Founding Fathers’ classical liberalism is compatible with the Christian understanding of the human person and society. But that’s an argument for another time.