fr. pavone, being prolife is not about performance art

fr. pavone, being prolife is not about performance art November 7, 2016



At the heart of a prolife ethos is reverence towards life – all life.

To be prolife is, therefore, always to keep our conversations about political and cultural movements within this framework. And it’s a framework that encompasses not only unborn humans, but all human life; it encompasses all living beings, so that to be awakened to a pro-life spirituality is to stand and marvel at even a tiny caterpillar trying to cross the road. Being prolife is not something one gets to do only in certain niches, or something one gets to tell others to do. The prolife advocate does not ask “when do I get to kill?” or “which creatures have no rights?” – but, rather “what can I do so that killing need never happen?” and “how can I understand, better, the dignity of this living thing?”

Exposing the naked corpse of an unborn baby on an altar, as Fr. Frank Pavone did, is not reverential. As fellow Patheos blogger and New Prolife Movement  cofounder Matthew Tyson writes:

Fr. Pavone didn’t just cross a line, he completely erased it. Abortion is terrible, but you don’t fight it by desecrating a child’s body on the altar for political purposes. That’s not pro-life. It’s not bold, it’s not courageous, and it certainly isn’t necessary. It’s sacrilegious. Plain and simple. And it has to stop.

Mark Shea echoes what many of us have been saying for a while:

This election has demonstrated that the prolife movement’s leadership is in very serious trouble. It has lost its spiritual moorings from the Tradition and is becoming the thing that it hates. The dignity of the unborn is now being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.


Now, one might respond to this: abortion is a horror, and sometimes people are so blinded to horror, or so insulated from it, that a moral awakening can happen only through a sort of via negativa – an encounter with images of desecration that stir up our outrage, stir up our sense of justice and sorrow at tragedy. Isn’t that what Flannery O’Connor did, in her stories? A very popular O’Connor quotation, for those of us who dabble on the edges of horror, or prod at the sleeping monster, in our writing, seems to legitimize this: “The only way to the truth is through blasphemy.” The effect of certain dark works of art – A Song of Ice and Fire, Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of torment, Metallica songs – is to showcase violence in such a way as to awaken us to its evil, to rouse our slumbering charity from its slothful infatuation with mass-marketed violence polished up and made pretty for the big screen. I vividly remember discussing, in philosophy class, the story of the conversion of the saintly Zosima, when he is awakened to the humanity of his servant immediately after striking him in rage: the violation illuminates that which ought not have been violated..

Did Fr. Pavone’s sacrilegious display of a tormented human body constitute such pious blasphemy?

I would argue that no, it did not – not at all. First of all, these are all works of art I am talking about – representations. The human body itself must never be subjected to the indignities visited on it in works of art by the masters of profound and moral horror.

Mary Pezzulo contextualizes this:

Let me ask a hypothetical question. What if a priest tried to preach against rape, by parading a naked rape survivor into the church, still bleeding from her injury, and having her sit on the altar for a photo?

Okay, what if a priest was preaching against nuclear war, so he found the corpse of a person who died from radiation poisoning and slung them naked onto the altar, lit the candles, then put on a HasMat suit and posed behind them for a photo?

What if a priest wanted to preach against the death penalty, so they took the naked and still-dirty corpse of a hanging victim, the face all black and bloated, stuck it on the altar with the limbs all helter skelter and the rictus of a face staring at the congregation, stood behind him and took a selfie?

One role of art is to present us with horror in such a way as to give us space from it, a way of processing it, addressing it in the public space. Slapping a naked, injured corpse down on an altar may be sensationalist performance art, but it is not art. It is a serious violation of human dignity.

Secondly, even if there is journalistic purpose in displaying some photos of dead bodies – making we in the comfortable west more aware of the true vileness of war, for instance – exposing aborted humans is not like exposing those killed in warfare. Not because one or the other is more or less a victim. I’m not making that claim in any way, because I believe all human life must be protected.

No, in this case, these images serve to harm the other victims in the picture: women. Women who have suffered repeated miscarriages, who have had to bury their own premature or stillborn children, find these images triggering.

And what about women who have had abortions? These pictures may indeed make them feel bad, and if that’s the goal of your pro-life activism, congratulations, you succeeded. You can go home and pat yourself on the back now.

But we at the New Prolife Movement aren’t interested in ladeling all our culture’s shared guilt onto the shoulders of women who were driven to abortion because society rejected them,  scorned them as losers or moochers, demanded that they produce, not babies, but only labor for the capitalist machine, rejected their inconvenient pregnancy and their unwanted child.  We believe that pro-life needs to be more than just performance art. We applaud all those groups and organizations out there working to make real change and provide real solutions for women and families: this is what is needed.

This sacrilege, this exposing of a violated human body, is really a perfect metaphor for everything wrong with those opponents of abortion who have hitched their wagon to Trump’s anti-life star: it takes the life out of context, makes a spectacle of pain, shames women, provokes hysteria – so reverence for life and love of the unborn ends up being replaced with hatred for pro-choicers, and the aesthetics of the snuff film. Where we should see the sacrament the body of Christ alive and hidden, we find this anti-sacrament, this victim defiled and exposed.

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