Cancel Culture In The Church – Part 1

Fr. Frank Pavone

September 15, 2021

Fr. Jerry Novotny, 0MI

I have always said to pro-life activists that if you defend the unborn, you will be treated like them. Just like their very being and legitimacy is denied, so will yours be. Just as they are excluded and mistreated, so will you be.

We all expect that the pro-abortion groups, like Planned Parenthood, will target, harass and try to intimidate us. And they do try.

But when such treatment comes from bishops and other Church authorities – which it increasingly does -- it’s particularly deplorable. Instead of supporting and encouraging the pro-life work of the Church, some of these men try to obstruct and hinder it, and abuse their authority to try to intimidate priests and laity who make ending abortion the top priority of our lives.

And make no mistake… if they oppose priests like me, it’s because they’re opposing you and the commitment you have to this cause.

Cancel culture is alive and well in the Catholic Church. I’ve experienced it firsthand. And the more we are aware of it, the better we will be able to defend ourselves and others from it.

Now I am not one to complain or publicly criticize others. Nor do I want to distract you, my friends, from the key thing we have to be thinking about and discussing, which is the task of ending abortion. Nor do I want you to miss the fact that we get a lot of encouraging support for our work, including from Church leaders.

But to the extent that the actions of certain bishops get in the way of that very mission, I will speak. And to help our friends who have questions about how we are being treated by these bishops, and also to refute our enemies who love to make up their own stories about all this, I will speak about certain things in the coming months so that you have the full story and so that you can help defend me and other priests like me.

I was ordained by pro-life hero Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. Ever since he died over 20 years ago, I have had to fight (against bishops!) to defend the pro-life work he gave me permission to do, and to continue devoting all my time and energy to fighting abortion.

I’m actually in good company, because he told me that even he, as a Cardinal, had to fight against pushback he received from other bishops for making the abortion issue such a visible priority. In other words, it’s not simply a problem of “Fr. Frank Pavone” or “Priests for Life” – It has become a systemic problem in the institutional Church.

This was true in some fashion from the beginning of the modern pro-abortion movement in America, as evidenced by Dr. Bernard Nathanson himself, a key architect of the abortion industry. Dr. Nathanson, after becoming pro-life, revealed how he and his colleagues deliberately made the Catholic Church a target of their propaganda campaigns, and took a calculated risk that the clergy would be asleep on this issue. As he later explained (and you can read it in his books), he and his colleagues did find the clergy asleep. I heard Dr. Nathanson say more than once to the Catholic clergy, “We would have never gotten away with what we did if you had been united, purposeful, and strong.”

This is why he became a strong supporter of Priests for Life, because he knew the key strategic importance of galvanizing the clergy in the fight against abortion.

Now I have always been a firm believer in (and defender of) the hierarchical structure of the Church and the role of the bishops as successors of the apostles. My writings and recorded sermons over these decades of my priesthood prove that. But no priest, bishop or Pope owns the deposit of faith; rather, we serve it. “My message is not my own,” Jesus himself said (Jn. 7:16), and he declared of the Holy Spirit, “He will not speak on his own” (Jn. 16:13). Much less do we. We are commissioned to preach a message that is not of our making, that we cannot change, and which the faithful have a right to hear “in all its rigor and vigor” (John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, n. 30).

But just as in constitutional law, all the rules seem to change when it comes to abortion, so it is in the Church. We can defend the poor and sick, the immigrant and the death row inmate, as vigorously as we want (and indeed we should), but the defense of the child in the womb, the weakest and most defenseless of all, is met with constant warnings not to focus too exclusively or strongly on it. Bishops have told me, “Fr. Frank, you’re too aggressive on abortion.” My response is that when abortion stops being so aggressive on the little babies it kills, then we can talk.

The Catholic Church indeed has consistently held the correct position on abortion, and that fact has attracted countless pro-life advocates to join the Church, or at least to highly respect her from afar. I have received into the Catholic Church many who have entered precisely from that motivation.

But at the same time we hear this consistent feedback:

“I hardly hear any preaching about abortion.”

“I can’t get my pastor to mention abortion in the prayers of the faithful.”

“My pastor won’t let us have a pro-life group.”

“My pastor says this issue is too political.”

For three decades, we at Priests for Life have probed the reasons why this happens, and we’ve come to the sad conclusion that among various causes, one of the most prevalent is this:

Priests and other Church leaders are not strong against abortion because their bishops tell them not to be.

Sure, the teaching of the Church is very clear and consistent. And there are many examples of strong pro-life leadership. Moreover, we have echoed far and wide the excellent pro-life documents that the Catholic bishops have issued, such as Living the Gospel of Life, which you can learn about at our special website

But the fact is that many Church leaders are governing out of fear, and many are Democrat loyalists and do not want to offend their friends in the Party of Death. So they tell us to shut up.

And this problem is compounded by the fact that many bishops have isolated themselves from the rest of the Church, as Russell Shaw, former Communications Director for the bishop’s conference, describes in his book Nothing to Hide. Instead of taking the time to listen, encounter, and learn about the life-saving work of the pro-life movement, many of them just try to hamper it from afar. The bishops who criticize Priests for Life, for example, couldn’t describe the work we do if their lives depended on it. On the other hand, those in the hierarchy who are our supporters – and we have many of them – have taken the time to talk to us, visit us, and understand where we are coming from.

All in the Church would be wise to heed these words of Pope Francis:

“The invitation to “come and see”, which was part of those first moving encounters of Jesus with the disciples, is also the method for all authentic human communication. In order to tell the truth of life that becomes history, it is necessary to move beyond the complacent attitude that we “already know” certain things. Instead, we need to go and see them for ourselves, to spend time with people, to listen to their stories and to confront reality, which always in some way surprises us” (Jan. 23, 2021, Message for the 2021 World Communications Day).

The pro-life movement has wonderful leaders and activists, and wonderful stories to tell. We don’t get tired of this work, because saving lives and extending God’s mercy to the wounded is so fulfilling and energizing.

Would that our shepherds in Christ could all catch that energy and enthusiasm.

In my subsequent parts to this series I’ll help you to understand more deeply – and through many examples – the cancel culture in the Church in regard to the pro-life movement and what we need to do about it. Meanwhile, let’s pray that Church leaders open their eyes and ears and decide to stand with us as a movement, rather than against us.


Fr. Frank Pavone

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