Celebrities are the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Their fame, fortune and power to persuade, inform and entertain, however, extend beyond Hollywood. Unlike the entertainment celebrities, celebrated religious personalities from Tammy Faye Baker to Jimmy Swaggart, from Pat Robertson to Robert Schuller have used their fame and power to their own advantage, attracting millions in donations. But as with Hollywood celebrities, the religious superstars have fans and detractors. Just as some adore Lady Gaga while others despise her, there are those who worship the celebrated Fr. Frank Pavone while others think of him as a shameless, greedy imposter. Pavone began his early parish priest life in the Archdiocese of New York, and rose to fame and fortune following his 1993 appointment as the full-time director of Priests for Life. As a celebrity, Pavone embodies the outer trappings of a serious religious life with the all-consuming popularity of profane celebrity culture. It might seem contradictory to consider the sacredness of religion with the sacrilegious nature of the celebrity world when describing one Catholic priest, especially a staunchly anti abortion leader. Yet, as celebrity scholar David Chidester notes, popular culture and religion operate in characteristically similar ways—both have their machinery, superstars and devotees. Like all entertainment celebrities, Pavone is both a name and a product. He is widely recognized across the U.S. as a television, radio, newspaper and Internet personality among the prolife glitterati and politicos. His fame has drawn nearly $12 million in donations yearly. As for his devotees, an encounter with the Executive Director of Priests for Life is no different than an encounter with the likes of George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. His groupies breathe in the air of the superhuman, sacred and transcendent. They pose for photographs, beg for autographs and grovel over his every word. One such encounter happened in an Allentown PA church where I interviewed Pavone, thanks to arrangements made by three female antiabortion protesters. On this particular evening, these three women, bedecked with jewels and voluptuous face painting were flushed with excitement. And despite his illogical arguments against abortion and his obvious disdain for women’s reproductive rights, these past-their-prime women cooed at his every word, undulated in ecstatic response to his touch. It was a sight to behold. Grown women being seduced by a charlatan in a collar—the sacred and the profane in one egotistical storyteller. Pavone’s narratives, following his bright moment in the media with the Terri Schiavo euthanasia debacle, have now been reduced from the inclusive prolife to exclusive anti abortion agenda as a venue for his celebrity. Priests for Life, thus, is a misleading term because the organization focuses solely on controversial, attention-grabbing topic of abortion. The death penalty, hunger, starvation and other ‘life’ issues just aren’t sexy enough for the antiabortion zealot known as Frank Pavone.
Curiously, his fan base reaches beyond the boundaries of Catholicism to other anti abortion institutions such as the aggressively misogynistic Operation Rescue and God-deluded Operation Save America. Pavone has also engaged in many secular activities include media-centric events like attending and being honored at the $500-a-plate the annual Proudly Pro Life Award dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria with Rush Limbaugh, Steve Forbes, Charlton Heston, and Ben Stein and 700 other guests. Like the celebrity Paris Hilton who sells perfume, jeans and herself, Pavone sells his abortion-related books, offers his services for scheduled talks, television appearances, and newspaper columns rather than adhere to a strictly clerical schedule. In many ways, Pavone’s work parallels that of Jimmy Swaggart. They both trafficked in the presentation of the charismatic self, the faithful servant living a meager existence. Yet, Pavone’s presentation as the devotee to the unborn appears to be a scam if ratings from independent charity evaluators have any credence. Charity Navigator gave his nonprofit industry an overall poor rating (46 out of 70 points) for lack of accountability and transparency. Further, in the fall of 2011, Fr. Frank was forced to stand down from his antiabortion mission to fulfill his role as a parish priest when he ran afoul of the church hierarchy. Like the celebrated Reverend Jimmy Swaggart who fell from grace, Pavone may be headed for a similar fate. His superior, Bishop Zurek of Amarillo, Texas, suspended him from his Priests for Life director position due to concerns over financial improprieties and a failure to be an obedient priest. In a Catholic Register article, Dorothy Cummings McLean argues that the worship of celebrities is the “hallmark of a powerful new paganism” that is dangerous for celebrity priests and Catholics because it diverts attention away from God. Like Fr.
Alberto Cutie and Fr. John Corapi, failed priests who basked in the profane magnificence of wealth and fame, McLean suggests that Frank Pavone is following a similar path. I’d agree. Pavone is a celebrity first, an anti abortion crusader second and a lowly priest only when obligated.