Here Comes Nobody
Projecting the very bleak future of the anti-abortion movement from its very bleak past.
I'm guessing that most of you already saw the story last month that Amarillo lay resident Frank Pavone had been fully and permanently dismissed from the priesthood, with no chance for appeal. We had, of course, touched on Pavone in earlier pieces, in which I described him as "not an especially complex figure in Catholicism, and if I were writing him as a character in a screenplay, I might not even give him a name and just go with ‘Priest Who Loves Trump’.” Pavone was the longtime leader of the "Priests For Life" activist group, and used his position mostly to perform stunts with fetal remains, loudly support Donald Trump's presidential campaigns, and eventually call for the overthrow of the American government. So, to get this out of the way: it would definitely be in poor taste to celebrate this extremely odious shithead losing his job. I mean, any man losing his job right before the holidays is a tragedy, even if they possess no redeeming qualities of any kind and even if the church and priesthood are unquestionably better without them around. So you should not be doing the dance from the opening credits sequence in the first Austin Powers film. You should not be yelling "yyyeah!" like the lead singer of Everclear does in "Father Of Mine", a song whose lyrics can now take on an additional layer of ironic meaning. You should not go to a church, sit in the sanctuary, and yell "KNOCK KNOCK" repeatedly until someone finally comes out and asks "who's there" so you can respond "not Frank Pavone ever again". You should not be sharing this screenshot on Twitter with the comment "first, it's hilarious":
Now that we all have collectively not done those things, I do want to clarify some important points: this isn't a sea change in how the church controls its clergy. It is not open season on the priests you don't like. This does not portend a purge of the conservative anti-abortion faction of the American church. It's important to remember that Pavone was very bad at his job for decades. He got fired for being bad at his job, and in the Catholic church, that process just happens to take decades. While ordained in New York, he had to eventually transfer to Texas because nobody in New York could stand him. Nobody in Amarillo could really stand him either, so he moved to Florida and is still there, even though his (former) bishop had forbidden him from leaving the diocese. He claimed he was going to found a new order of priests dedicated to ending abortion, kicked it off very publicly, and then abandoned the idea. He has been raising millions of dollars for years, without being very clear on where it is all going. Cardinal Timothy Dolan was put in charge of auditing Pavone’s finances in 2014: Dolan, who famously can sit and grin and nod at a Donald Trump campaign event, spent ten minutes with Pavone, and walked out saying words to the effect of “I cannot fucking deal with this guy”. He also pointed out that the finances of Priests For Life were cataclysmic, and it’s hard to imagine that Pavone got better at using QuickBooks in the past ten years.
Look, I've never been a priest and I've never been an anti-abortion activist, so I am not an expert on how everything works. But I've been an employee, and I know three things for sure: they can always get you for lying on your resume, they can always get you for telling your boss to get bent, and they will always always always get you for making the money disappear. Even when Pavone basically got to define what his job was, he was shitty at actually doing it, and the people he worked with did not like him. That’s how you get fired. Even though he’s fired, the guy will probably still take up oxygen in the anti-abortion movement in the future, because of what an extreme outlier he is. To be clear, he’s an extreme outlier in the anti-abortion movement only in the sense that he’s faced professional consequences for the terrible things he’s said and done. The actual terrible things he’s said and done…well, in the anti-abortion movement, those don’t make him an outlier at all.
So in DC on January 20th 2022, in the runup to the March For Life, which was the last March For Life before the Supreme Court would overturn Roe, Catholic attendees at the March gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to, of course, pray for an end to abortion. The abortion rights advocacy group Catholics For Choice (CFC hereafter because I am lazy) spent the service outside projecting “PRO CHOICE CATHOLICS, YOU ARE NOT ALONE” onto the outside of the basilica. It looked like this:
Far as I can tell, there was no actual disruption to the prayer service itself, and some of the attendees didn’t even notice this was happening until the service was over and they walked outside of the church. Which, of course, means that this stunt by CFC must have been a completely unforgivable act of blasphemy that threatens to stain the entire witness of Catholics over the centuries. That was the thesis suggested by J.D. Long-Garcia when his essay ran on the website of Jesuit magazine America on January 21 2022, titled “The Catholics for Choice basilica stunt was shocking. Sacrilege often is.” And oh boy Long-Garcia did not hold back at all:
“It is appalling to see an organization that claims to be Catholic project pro-abortion messaging onto a structure that celebrates the conception of the Mother of God. What am I supposed to take from this? That St. Anne should have been given the choice to abort Mary? No doubt, most Catholics who see this will be offended, whatever their stance on abortion. Imagine something as innocuous as Coke or Pepsi projecting advertising on the shrine. It would be offensive. This is far worse. Even if we do not consider the sacrilege, this prank is childish and rude. Imagine going to the movies only to discover someone projecting messages on the lead character’s forehead. Or imagine someone projecting “Trump 2024” on the garage of the Democrat next door.”
I'm not saying the projector stunt was a work of genius, but I definitely am not buying any of Long-Garcia’s comparisons. I don’t buy that the message “you are not alone” should be characterized as “pro-abortion”. The idea that CFC was suggesting that Saint Anne should have been able to abort Mary calls to mind the words of contemporary Catholic theologian John Mulaney: “That wasn't what I was telling you, but alright, let's talk about this entirely new topic.” Comparing CFC to Coke or Pepsi doesn’t seem to fit because Coke or Pepsi doing something like this would have clear commercial objectives and (likely) wouldn’t be done in opposition to a pollitical rally. Comparing the March For Life to “The Movies” and the basilica to “the lead character” is stupid. Projecting “Trump 2024” on the garage of the Democrat next door sounds like something Trump supporters already do and does not strike me as particularly outrageous coming from a political constituency that tried to overthrow the government very recently. Long-Garcia continues:
“I know that not all Catholics who are pro-choice are willing to commit sacrilege to get their message across. But what happened last night isn’t helping. The stunt gives a terrible image of pro-choice Catholics. On their website, Catholics for Choice claims to “honor what is best in the Catholic tradition.” Well, this isn’t it. If we are all Catholics, whatever our political leanings, can we at least agree that churches are sacred places? Using a church as a mere backdrop on which to project messages violates a fundamental trust we must maintain in one another.”
Using a church as a mere backdrop on which to project messages truly could be offensive, and perhaps a blow to the credibility of the political movement choosing to use that backdrop for their own cynical ends. To throw out an example of the Catholic church being used as a political backdrop, let’s say, hypothetically, that the Catholic church had offered up a basilica to Catholics attending a political rally in which the 2020 keynote speaker was Donald Trump, and that the rally had a specific political objective which was supported by a political party that had in recent years taken a turn to explicit white nationalism and anti-democratic authoritarianism. I would consider that pretty bad for the church. Then let’s hypothetically consider that this had been happening for decades. Let’s hypothetically consider that in the first presidential election after Roe, the church gave the keynote speaking slot at their Eucharistic Congress to the Republican presidential candidate (who was not Catholic) so he could give a campaign speech in front of the body of Christ. Let’s hypothetically consider that the university run by our bishops invited Abby Johnson to speak there after she was part of a mob that tried to murder the vice president, in the name of being “pro-life”. Let’s hypothetically consider that rich right-wing assholes put together fancy conferences for our bishops in Napa so that they can make sure the bishops are sticking to a reliable right-wing asshole political agenda. With all of that hypothetically happening, yes, it's truly hard to imagine something more appalling than projecting words onto the side of a building that the people inside the building can't see. Making a pun on the word “projecting” at this point is more blunt and stupid than even Long-Garcia deserves.
Look, it’s pretty clear that I don’t think Long-Garcia made any good or interesting points in his piece from last year. But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I want to talk about a different essay that ran four days after this one, in a Jesuit-run magazine called America, which eagle-eyed readers will notice is the same fucking magazine that we were just talking about. In addition to Long-Garcia’s essay on how outrageous CFC was acting when they desecrated the noble actions of those who wanted to attend the 2022 March For Life, America also published the musings of Kevin Clarke, stroking his chin and asking “Does the March For Life Have A White Supremacy Problem?” Again, these pieces ran four days apart. They are literally adjacent to each other if you look through the chronological listing of stories tagged as “Pro-Life” on America’s website. Imagine the casual reader of the Jesuit review of faith and culture, just staring at both of these stories and yelling “OH NOOOOO WHO AM I SUPPOSED TO BE MAD AT”.
Clarke’s piece is a collection of interviews and anecdotes from activists who were at the 2022 March and thought it was kind of weird that there were Nazis marching alongside them, in some cases screaming at the March-ers of color that they were going to kill them all eventually.
“Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa did not understand what was happening at first when a young man in khaki pants and a camo jacket approached a meetup she was joining during the annual March for Life on Jan. 21. Helmeted, his identity obscured by the face-covering balaclava—de rigueur among U.S. extremists of all stripes—the young man launched a one-sided confrontation with the group. “F*** you guys,” he told members of Pro-Black Pro-Life and Democrats for Life contingents gathered for the event. “In 10 years, when the civil war breaks out, you guys are done.””
This was a member of white supremacist group Patriot Front, who had brought a crop of members to attend the March For Life and carry their blood and soil banners alongside the other activists. The piece also noted that Patriot Front and similar nationalist groups had - huh, that’s weird - been turning up to anti-abortion rallies across the country for years, and this was actually their third year at the March For Life in DC. The conclusion of the piece, running adjacent to the piece that declared the projector stunt a grotesque desecration of everything we had believed in that hurt the entire church, was that somebody should maybe look into that white supremacy thing, or maybe tell the Nazis next year that they aren’t invited:
“Ms. Holloway [of the organization Pro-Black Pro-Life] said that having “receipts” in the form of pre-emptive statements from the organizers of the march and participating groups demonstrating that those “overlapping views” are not welcome at the March for Life will be essential in discouraging future incursions from white supremacist groups. “That would be a bold statement,” she said, and would allow march organizers to play offense, not defense next year as images of the event are inevitably circulated.”
The change in tone between the two essays that were presumably vetted by the same group of editors is obviously striking. Using a projector is sacrilege that foully mocks the March For Life people who are definitely all good and don’t have any bad apples. The presence - the prominent presence! - of people advocating for the extermination of entire races is, by comparison, a real noodle-scratcher. As Clarke even noted, Patriot Front has been showing up to these events for years; so has America First, a different white nationalist and Catholic group (it’s run by the same guy who keeps hanging out with Kanye West now). Last May, RNS interviewed a terrorism and extremism expert at Middlebury College who had much stronger words than America magazine did about what was going on here:
“America First and the Groyper movement, alongside more fringe groups like Patriot Front, pose a significant concern for escalating tensions and conflict surrounding the abortion rights debates. America First is deeply enmeshed with an overlapping, increasingly violent network of extremist milieus, including Christian Nationalism, incel communities, white nationalist networks, and even some links out to accelerationist networks. There is past indication that accelerationist and neofascist groups like Patriot Front are willing to use anti-abortion activism to try and create alliances across movements, as well."
As another academic in the same piece put it, “For white nationalists specifically, opposition to abortion is a centerpiece in their worldview built on preserving and protecting the majority power of a white ruling class.” The anti-abortion movement has been, for years, a key ideological pillar and major theater for extremist movements in the country to spread their messages, make connections, and build their movement. The only correct answer to “does the March For Life have a white supremacist problem?” is “what fucking year do you think this is?” But Clarke and America have no venom to spit at this phenomenon, no overwrought comparisons about the nature of sacrilege and vandalism and undercutting the message, just some placid “huh, that’s kind of weird” musings and a proposal for the March For Life to put out a strongly worded letter in advance of the next March explaining that they don’t want white supremacists there (as of January 6th, two weeks out from the 2023 March, there have been no press releases or blog posts from the March For Life organization to this effect).
Even if we were to be charitable and accept Clarke’s thesis that the anti-abortion movement and March For Life might have a “problem”, and if we accept that the “problem” is a fairly new development and a small, contained piece of the movement that requires some one-off solutions to address, doing so would perhaps require one of the oldest Catholic media outlets in the country to acknowledge that it might be a bigger problem, and a bigger threat to Catholic witness than projecting words onto the outside of the basilica. And outlets like them should also, perhaps, be realistic about how long this has been going on.
One of the first prominent “anti-abortion” activists in the Roe era, really coming into his own with his group Operation Rescue in the mid-1980s, is Randall Terry, about whom I wrote at length a long time ago. Terry becomes a very prominent figure - he gets written up in Rolling Stone of all places - who can always get a media microphone to talk about the movement to end abortion, and becomes an important part of the overall religious right coalition. He is praised openly by Catholic bishops in the 1980s, some of whom take arrests with him, he runs for Congressional and state legislative seats (unsuccessfully) on wildly extremist platforms, he eventually gets fawning write-ups in EWTN-owned publications once he converts to Catholicism, and he eventually connects with key Catholic members of the Republican party. Obviously, he starts the whole tradition of direct action to stop abortion and makes sure to root it in compassion and understanding. Just kidding, he cashed all the checks into his personal account, used donations to buy himself a giant house, got kicked out of his old activism group and was sued so he would stop using their name in his personal branding, was publicly calling for the execution of women seeking abortions as early as 1989, kept bragging that he had adopted a black son, later disowned that black son for being gay (and maybe for being black, just playing the probabilities here), and temporarily abandoned activism in 2003 to make an ill-fated run at becoming a country music singer. Terry’s still in the game, by the way; last year, anti-abortion activist and self-described “Catholic anarchist” Lauren Handy was arrested for keeping 5 fetuses in her fridge for an as-yet unknown reason (it’s hard to believe the reason is “a good one”), and Terry was at her press conference where she tried to explain everything (Terry is center in the photo below, looking like shit):
So this is where the Catholic anti-abortion movement starts. This is what the Catholic bishops were saying “good job, more people should do this” to, back in the eighties. Over the next several decades, it gets worse. In this era, you also have devout Catholic Alan Keyes, a frequent partner of Terry’s but also at one point the UN Ambassador who writes the 1984 Mexico City Policy - probably the most important federal-level policy on abortion since Roe - which is an attempt to reduce the number of abortions globally that, as confirmed by multiple peer-reviewed studies in the 2010s, only drove up the number of global abortions, as well as malnutrition and maternal mortality; to this day, the bishops continue to openly support the policy anyways even though more people die when it’s implemented than when it’s rescinded. Keyes, a man who actually was heavily involved in the Obama-birther movement four years before Trump was, and who actually tried to sue 2008 electors to prevent them from voting for Obama on the grounds that he was not a citizen, currently sells bleach out of the back of his truck and tells people to drink it to ward off COVID.
Also in this era, you have archconservative Catholic billionaire Tom Monaghan, former CEO of Domino’s Pizza, who did his part to prevent unwanted pregnancies by providing schools with potential BOGO pizza offers if students would take a virginity pledge and lobbying heavily for abortion restrictions in his home state of Michigan. He also founded a Catholic university and heavily planned city in Florida - Catholic bishops joined him on the original board when he put the plan together - which he was so excited about that he was literally calculating the potential population boom in new Catholics based on how often his faithful non-condom-using residents could be expected to have sex. Monaghan has managed to piss off every resident and every professor while running this city and university as accusations of malfeasance and abusive culture fly back and forth, and Monaghan has since taken his money out and basically abandoned everything to sink into the limestone.
Again, this is where the movement starts in Catholicism. Anti-abortion political activism did not start with a large group of people who all had their hearts in the right place, and then took a turn when the wrong people came in and infected the movement. The anti-abortion movement has always been about power and dominance and men being assholes, mainly so they can leverage people’s faith lives to rustle up some money and attention. And that has obviously borne fruit today: the only prominent person in the anti-abortion movement who brands herself as truly pro-woman, pro-child, and pro-life is this one, and she happens to be, well, maybe don’t read too far down into her post:
Yeah, so now the movement is led by people like Abby Johnson, who sold her story to an insane right-wing Christian filmmaking grindhouse, probably made up that story anyways, cashed out by launching an anti-abortion fashion line (?), also is weirdly braggy about adopting a black son even though she says openly racist things about him, and then was in a mob that tried to murder the vice president, but thankfully has since been pushed out of prominent positions in the Catholic church. Just kidding, she gave a speech about opposing abortion at Catholic University of America - you know, the one the bishops run - after she was at the Capitol riot.
But Abby Johnson doesn’t really style herself as an intellectual luminary of the Catholic “pro-life” movement1. First Things magazine editor Rusty Reno does, though, and he wants to be very clear that “pro-life” only means restricting abortion rights and nothing else, there is no holistic “whole life” position, there is no part of life worth caring about or defending after birth; he explicitly argued this in his early 2020 series of essays and tweets about how any pandemic safety measures were ludicrous government overreach, an extended rant that became so unhinged that he eventually had to print an apology in his own magazine after lambasting World War II veterans (who are, as a reminder, in their nineties) for wearing masks at an event, like eight weeks into the pandemic. Timothy Gordon also argued for an extremely narrow definition of “pro-life” below - death is great, death is fine, we actually "LOVE" death, all that matters is opposing abortion - with the kind of intellectual rigor I would expect from the man who got told “you’re too stupid to be on my YouTube show” by Taylor Marshall.
Maybe all of these Catholics, plus the many more I haven’t gotten to and the giant multimillion dollar media network that helps them get their message out, are just the exceptions to a largely peaceful and prayerful movement. But maybe - just maybe - it is possible that - again, I don’t want to speculate here, but just maybe - members of the anti-abortion movement have to reckon with a problem far worse than "gee, a bunch of really awful people have ended up as members and leaders of our movement consistently with almost no exceptions over the past half-century, through what we assume is sheer coincidence".
Let's say you bought into all of it. You believed what Frank Pavone was saying (all the time), and what Abby Johnson was saying (in her 2011 book and 2019 movie Unplanned), and what Randall Terry was saying (in his 2008 book A Humble Plea), and what the media network around them was saying. You believed that every abortion was a deliberate murder, only done for unwanted pregnancies, in a world where every pregnancy and every birth goes perfectly, and that this murder was consciously committed by an adult who was just too selfish to want to give birth or raise a child, and enabled by providers and politicians whose motivation was a combination of "genocide" and "profit", and that this had been happening, for fifty years, on a scale that could rival the original Holocaust. As a side note, you shouldn't believe this, because it's not true, and we've talked about that before, but let's say you bought into it fully. Hell, let’s even said you read and believe something like LifeSiteNews, who was sharing QAnon theories with Catholic readers before the delusion went more mainstream, and now you also believe that the Democratic party is explicitly involved, with intent to both commit genocide and find a stream of kids to traffic and vivisect.
So what's the right response to that reality that you just bought into? What are you going to do as a person of faith who cannot abide this atrocity? It's a literal world-historical genocide, and you're just going to pray or donate money somewhere? Isn't the only proportionate response to go to war? Is desecrating a fetal corpse on the altar of a church really all that outlandish if you're stopping the second Holocaust? What about storing fetal remains in your fridge? I mean, come on, millions are dying here and it's your fridge. What about electing a game show host who brags about sexually assaulting women as president? Well, he’s saying he's going to finally get the job done. What about bringing a gun to the Capitol and trying to overthrow the government? Well, wouldn't you have hoped someone would have done the same thing in 1940s Germany? And if you go march for the rights of the unborn and the person marching next to you is a Nazi, well, isn't it worth kind of letting that happen if you’re both working to stop the true atrocity? And all of those people telling you that outlawing abortion will restrict access to necessary health care and end with people getting sick and dying who don't have to, well yeah! That's worth it! It's a numbers game!
The reason that the anti-abortion movement has found itself entangled with violence and nationalism is because violence and nationalism is the logical endpoint of buying what the movement's leaders are selling, and what the movement's leaders have been selling for decades. Many Catholics have bought what the movement's leaders have been selling, and the institutional church certainly has. There are, of course, Catholics who try to articulate a “whole life” or “seamless garment” approach, an approach which decries abortion but tries to take a more holistic approach to addressing issues across all stages of life, which tries to better understand the material issues that lead to unwanted pregnancies. These people may mean well, but they certainly do not exist as a political constituency with any sort of scale or power, and they certainly do not have any meaningful influence in the Catholic church’s hierarchy. The bishops do not take their calls, and the bishops do not spend the church’s resources on their priorities. The bishops are content to keep celebrating the Mexico City Policy, which does not work. The bishops are content to spend millions to lobby for further restrictions on health care post-Roe, which does not work. The electoral candidates that the movement and the bishops have helped into office have started needless wars and tortured prisoners and executed poor people and crushed protestors and poisoned the air and downplayed a pandemic, and the movement continues to be openly fine with that, and all of this is so obvious that it feels trite to bring up, but: the entire anti-abortion movement would have prevented more abortions and saved more lives overall over the past fifty years if all of them had stayed home. There's your goddamn numbers game.
What this all adds up to is that the March For Life does not have a white supremacist problem; rather, the white supremacist movement has to remember to hold a weekend open every January for a fun meetup. The “whole-lifers” can't kick the white nationalists out of the movement because the movement belongs to the white nationalists, who set the priorities, control the message, and would do the kicking out in the first place. Whole-lifers can try and bring their love to the March For Life again this year, but the Nazis will still bring their bullets.
The future of the anti-abortion movement, including the Catholic anti-abortion movement, is authoritarianism and violent white supremacy. I know that because it is also the present of the Catholic anti-abortion movement, and has been the entire past of the Catholic anti-abortion movement. Saving lives and preventing suffering in the future will require open political opposition and direct mass action against this movement (and possibly, for those who are strong-willed enough, the occasional use of a projector). The Catholic anti-abortion movement does not exist to save lives, it exists to dominate, and the institutional church is fine with that, and they aren’t particularly interested in pushing away the white supremacists who uphold this vision. Pavone just happened to be the exception because he was a bad employee. The next leaders in the anti-abortion movement will act an awful lot like him; he is the exact kind of person that the movement has worked very hard to develop and promote for fifty years.
So, I suppose if Catholic media would like to do anything about this, especially as they observe the 2023 March For Life, they can work a little bit harder than America magazine did last year. Maybe this year, we can avoid running “the pro-choice movement crossed a red line” and “did you guys notice all these Nazis seem to be hanging out with us?” in the same week. Maybe we can avoid thinkpieces like “does Frank Pavone give the movement a bad rap?” Maybe we can be clear-eyed about how we got here, who makes the decisions on where the church’s resources and vocal support goes, and who are the people that have always been prominent figures in this movement. Maybe we can be clear about just how much suffering this movement has caused, and why it needs to be opposed. If you're waiting for leaders in the movement or leaders in the church to speak out strongly or turn the existing movement into something more compassionate, well: here comes nobody.
Well, it’s been a while since I paid close attention to her output, so maybe she does, but she certainly shouldn’t.