The Personalist Project

This post joins the  chorus of voices protesting Fr. Pavone's  grotesque use of an aborted child as a political stump speech prop. (Warning: the last link includes both photo and video from Fr. Pavone's original post.) 

We at the Personalist Project take the personalism of St. John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, as a model. Following Wojtyla, we argue from the premise that the human body is the expression or the sign of the person. This is the heart of a personalist pro-life ethic. It relieves us from requiring that any individual justify their personhood by meeting benchmarks of ability or independence, as in the utilitarian ethics popularized by writers like Peter Singer, or from limiting personhood to those whose human reason, intellectual abilities, or self-awareness are fully developed and functional. From the moment of conception until death, the visible expression of the person is their body, and the body is integral to the person. The unborn child is no less a person than the child of 8, the man of 38, or the elder of 88--regardless of disability, illness, dependence, lack of virtue, legal status, race, or creed.  

Additionally, the integration of body and soul as one whole is so deeply inherent to Christianity that not only has the Church proclaimed the resurrection of the body from her inception, promising that our bodies will join us in heaven, but a Christian understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation rests on the foundation of the truth that both body and soul are wholly of the person and cannot be divided by a false dualism. The idea that God might only inhabit the body of a man like a God-operated puppet was soundly rejected at the council of Chalcedon.  Christians preach Christ, true God and true man, wholly each and yet one person. Mary's oldest title, Theotokos, reflects this: the mother of the man is the Mother of God. God became man, incarnate in a body—the same body he offers to his followers in the mystery of the Eucharist. 

Christ Pantocrator. Byzantine Mosaic, Public Domain

Accordingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that:

CCC 2300 The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. 

So it is not surprising that Christian practice emphasizes the importance of reverence towards the bodies of the deceased, listing the burial of the dead as one of the corporal acts of mercy.

Christianity is not alone in this. The proper treatment of the bodies of the dead has been a concern of cultures and societies throughout history. Even after death, it is nearly universally understood that the body ought not be treated as a mere object to be used or carelessly disposed of. The body continues to be  the face and the outward expression of a subject--a person--even after death.

Walters Art Museum [Public domain]

I have argued in the past that the use of graphic images of victims of violence violates the respect due to the person when it fails to acknowledge and situate the deceased as a human person with an individual identity. It is always problematic to attempt to shock or emotionally manipulate others for political or ideological reasons, since it appeals not to reason, goodwill, or virtue, but to reactive, sensation-seeking responses like anger, revulsion, and contempt. Fr. Pavone's demagoguery would be enough reason for concern even without the physical presence of that small, abused body beside him.

However, the child is there, in that video. Fr. Pavone did not merely misuse a photo of a child. His response to being entrusted with the body of a deceased abortion victim was to turn the child into an image for use.

This child has already suffered two grave wrongs at the hands of others who could not see in him anything to reverence. First, he was, if Fr. Pavone's information is correct, the victim of an abortion, killed by those he had the most right to expect love and care from. This is a grave evil--I will not quarrel with Pavone on that. But then a second evil befell his small corpse, which was handed over to Fr. Pavone and Priests for Life for a funeral and burial, a corporal act of mercy. Violating this sacred trust, Fr. Pavone chose to delay laying this child's remains to rest, and instead to displayed him, without clothes or cover, without any token acknowledgement of the humanity of his body, naked before cameras as an object--a prop for a political stump speech.

In his fervor to preach the value of unborn human lives, Fr. Frank Pavone abused the privilege he had been given of caring for the body of the small human directly before him. He did not value this body as the remains of a child, to be treated with as much care, concern, respect, and dignity as the body of a deceased human person of any other age or condition. He valued this body instead primarily as the means to an end, towards the end of persuading others, of provoking a response and driving votes to his preferred political candidate. 

Let us not do a third wrong in failing to speak up now against the objectification of this child's body. We must not turn a blind eye in the name of keeping the peace or justify the ill-treatment of a child's body for the sake of pragmatic ends. 

If this child is not precious, no child is. If his body does not merit respectful, reverent treatment, no body does. We cannot treat his body as a thing in death to prove he was a person in life. We cannot stand for the humanity of all the unborn by sacrificing the humanity of this dead infant.

We need to do better.  

Comments (6)

Rhett Segall

#1, Nov 8, 2016 6:55pm

Thanks Kate for the heads up on Fr. Pavone's approach. I can see the perversion of using the aborted fetus  on the altar as an approach  to saving the lives of the unborn. Yet I also keep in mind some other disturbing visuals connected with drawing peoples' attention to their responsibility on behalf of reverence for life. Is their a difference in kind between Pavone's approach and 1) showing gruesome  effects of drunk driving crashes to teens; 2) showing emaciated dead bodies of the holocaust, 3) showing the effects of the chemical warfare in Syria on children, and 4) showing the  realistic crucifixion paintings of some of the most renowned artists, etc.

When I taught moral theology at a Catholic high school I regularly showed the "Eclipse of Reason",  (It always moved me deeply, not infrequently to tears). The teens could opt out of  seeing it, but most didn't. The vast majority of students said the film definitely confirmed their objections to abortion or changed their attitude from pro choice to pro life.Of course I always included many pro life visuals and stories.

While Pavone's approach seems counterproductive, some visuals are irreplaceable.


Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Nov 8, 2016 11:16pm

Rhett, I think we had this exact conversation last time I wrote about this topic!

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Nov 8, 2016 11:17pm

My argument then was that humanising context is essential. The way we treat and present these images--and to what end, and in what context--is important. Documentation is not use in the way that propagandising is use.

Rhett Segall

#4, Nov 9, 2016 8:44am

Ah yes, I felt I was in familiar territory! But important questions always allow for revisiting! Hope I didn't contradict what I said earlier!


Katie van Schaijik

#5, Nov 9, 2016 8:47am

I like that distinction between documentation and propagandizing. Very clear and helpful.

Jules van Schaijik

#6, Nov 9, 2016 8:58am

Ditto to what Katie just said. Good question Rhett, helpful answer Kate. (I had also forgotten the earlier conversation.)

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