Ahead of Tuesday’s presidential election, the Rev. Frank Pavone took an aborted fetus, laid it upon an altar Sunday and posted a live video on Facebook. Pavone, a Catholic priest who heads New York-based Priests for Life, said the fetus was entrusted to him by a pathologist for burial.
During an already heated and divisive campaign season, Pavone’s video has raised questions for some about what is appropriate antiabortion and political activism in the church. As of Monday afternoon, the video, which is 44 minutes long, had 236,000 views. In it, he holds up a poster of graphics of abortion procedures.
In Pavone’s Facebook appeal, he wrote, “we have to decide if we will allow this child killing to continue in America or not. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform says yes, let the child-killing continue (and you pay for it); Donald Trump and the Republican platform says no, the child should be protected.”
A call placed to the spokesman for the Diocese of Amarillo in Texas, which is Pavone’s diocese, was not immediately returned Monday. The receptionist, however, said her phone has been ringing off the hook.
On Tuesday, the diocese posted a statement saying that it is opening an investigation on Pavone’s actions saying they were “against the dignity of human life and is a desecration of the altar.”
“The Diocese of Amarillo deeply regrets the offense and outrage caused by the video for the faithful and the community at large,” the statement reads. “The action and presentation of Father Pavone in this video is not consistent with the beliefs of the Catholic Church.”
The diocese noted that Priests for Life is a civil institution, not a Catholic one and the organization is not under the diocese’s supervision.
In a blog post for Patheos, Scott Eric Alt argued that what Pavone did was sacrilege, a violation of Catholic Church canon law, which states that the altar is “reserved for divine worship alone, to the exclusion of any secular usage.”
“Being pro-life is about respecting the dignity of the human person,” Alt wrote. “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.”
Pavone is a high-profile antiabortion activist who has clashed with leadership within the Catholic Church. In 2014, Cardinal Timothy Dolan cut ties with the priest after Dolan suggested that Pavone had stonewalled financial reform within his organization, which is based out of Staten Island. A spokesman for Dolan, who is also chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said the archdiocese does not have a relationship with Pavone and has no comment on the video.
In a blog post for the Archdiocese of New York, Ed Mechmann wrote about the “revulsion” he felt about the video.
“A human being has been sacrificed and the altar of God has been desecrated, all for politics,” he wrote. “Everyone who respects the dignity of every human person should reject and disavow this atrocity.”
In a statement sent Tuesday to the Washington Post, Pavone said that his actions caused “no small controversy,” and his followers have made overwhelmingly positive comments.
“My followers agree that the truth about abortion has to be seen, because the word has lost all its meaning,” he wrote. “We sanitize it.”
He said his efforts were part of a 9-day effort to get voters to vote for pro-life Republicans.
“In the chapel were only me and the baby, whose funeral has already been held and who has been laid to rest,” he said. “No family were present, because they rejected the child and had him killed. His body would have been thrown in the garbage had we not accepted it.”
Trump has been a divisive candidate for antiabortion activists, who have tried to keep women at the forefront. Earlier this year, the GOP candidate suggested that women who have abortions should be punished, a position he later reversed.
If anything, Pavone’s actions are a signal that the older antiabortion groups are on their way out, said Charles Camosy, a bioethics professor at Fordham University and a board member of Democrats for Life of America. The use of graphic images has been a divisive issue in the antiabortion movement, and Camosy said Monday that nearly everyone he knows, including conservatives, have condemned Pavone’s video.
“This plays into the narrative so many people have of us, that this is a bunch of wild extremists who will put an aborted fetus on Facebook Live. Come on!” said Camosy, who noted that Priests for Life was one of the earliest organizations to support Trump. “This is the death rattle for the culture-war-focused pro-life movement.”
Pavone has had a rocky history under Catholic leadership. After Patrick Zurek was installed as bishop in Pavone’s diocese of Amarillo in 2008, Zurek wanted a full accounting of Pavone’s $10 million annual budget, which was one of the largest among antiabortion groups in the country, according to Religion News Service. In 2011, Zurek suspended his ministry, and RNS reports that Priests for Life had been badly mismanaged, running a $1.4 million deficit and failing to make certain tax filings.
Pavone’s video comes after a group of Catholics inserted fliers into parish bulletins in San Diego claiming that a vote for a Democrat is a mortal sin. San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy criticized the flier.
And on Saturday, Pope Francis condemned the political use of fear and the building of walls, describing the refugee crisis as “a problem of the world” and urging political leaders to do more.
Catholics are very divided this election season, especially along racial lines. A recent Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll found that 48 percent of Catholics were polling for Hillary Clinton while 44 percent favored Trump.
This story was updated on Tuesday to reflect a statement from the Diocese of Amarillo and new comments from Pavone in response to the controversy.