Catholics for a free choice

Catholics for Choice
Abbreviation CFC
Motto In Good Conscience
Formation 1973
Purpose/focus Pro-choice advocacy[1] and activism[2][3]
Headquarters Washington, D.C.
President Jon O'Brien

Catholics for Choice (CFC) is a pro-choice dissenting Catholic organization based in Washington, D.C.[4] Formed in 1973 as Catholics for a Free Choice, CFC states that its mission is "to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman's moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health."[5] The group gained some notice and status after its 1984 advertisement in the New York Times challenging Church teaching on abortion led to Church disciplinary pressure against some of the priests and nuns who signed it. It has lobbied nationally and internationally for pro-choice goals and led an unsuccessful effort to downgrade the Holy See's status in the United Nations. CFC was led for 25 years by Frances Kissling and is currently led by its president, Jon O'Brien.

A number of Catholic bishops and conferences of bishops have unequivocally rejected and publicly denounced CFC's identification as a Catholic organization.[6] For example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops,[7] and the Archdiocese of Mexico have stated that CFC is not a Catholic organization and that it promotes positions contrary to Catholic teaching.[8]


CFC was founded in 1973 by Catholics Joan Harriman, Patricia Fogarty McQuillan, and Meta Mulcahy as Catholics for a Free Choice, with the aim of promoting access to abortion in the context of Catholic tradition.[9] It emerged from Catholics for the Elimination of All Restrictive Abortion & Contraceptive Laws, a New York lobby group that had been formed in 1970.[10]


In an early bid for publicity in 1974, on the first anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, McQuillan, the group's first president,[11] had herself crowned pope on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.[9]

An early member of the board of directors was Joseph O'Rourke, then a Jesuit priest. In August 1974, President Harriman asked O'Rourke to travel with her to Marlboro, Massachusetts, to baptize a baby whose local priests refused to perform the rite – Catholic canon law forbids priests from baptizing an infant if they are not assured that at least one of the parents will raise the infant with the Catholic faith.[12][13] The baby's mother, 20-year-old Carol Morreale, had been interviewed regarding an abortion clinic that was proposed for Marlboro by Bill Baird, an activist from New York City.[12] Morreale told a newspaper reporter that she did not advocate abortion herself but that she was in favor of free choice for others and thus she supported Baird's proposal.[12] Because of her statement in the newspaper, and the town's polarization over the banning of abortion clinics, Morreale's local priest would not baptize her three-month-old son Nathaniel, and Humberto Sousa Medeiros, the Archbishop of Boston, said that he would not allow any other priest to perform the rite.[12] On August 20, 1974, O'Rourke publicly baptized the baby on the steps of the Marlboro church, in front of its locked doors and 300 spectators.[14] O'Rourke acted against his superiors' express orders. This was preceded "by a long trail of discontent, often testing the authority of the church", according to the New York Times News Service. O'Rourke was dismissed from the Jesuit Order in September.[15][16] He served for a time as CFFC board president.[11]


In 1979, Patricia McMahon became CFFC president. McMahon shifted CFFC's legal status from a lobby to an educational association, opening up the group to tax-exempt status and to foundation support.[17] One result of this was a $75,000 grant on behalf of the pro-choice Sunnen Foundation which funded the group's first publications, the Abortion in Good Faith series.[17][18]

In 1978 Frances Kissling joined CFFC. Kissling had operated an abortion clinic and was a founder and director of the National Abortion Federation. In 1980, she became a member of CFFC's board of directors and in 1982 was made president, which position she held until her retirement in February 2007.[1][19][20] Kissling lobbied politicians and activists, many Catholic, to work in favor of giving women access to contraception and abortion.

New York Times ad

Main article: A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion

In 1982, CFC sponsored a briefing of Catholic members of Congress, highlighting the majority of American Catholic opinion that dissented with the Catholic Church on the topic of abortion.[11] Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro wrote an introduction to the briefing, and endorsements were also received from Congressmen Tom Daschle and Leon Panetta. Ferraro wrote that responses varied to the problem of abortion, and that "the Catholic position on abortion is not monolithic..."[11]

During the 1984 presidential campaign, Ferraro was chosen as the vice-presidential running mate of Walter Mondale. Cardinal John Joseph O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, sharply criticized Ferraro's pro-choice position, and in October 1984 Kissling responded to O'Connor by placing an advertisement signed by 97 prominent Catholics, including leading theologians, lay persons, priests and nuns, in The New York Times.[1][11] The advertisement, entitled "A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion", stated that "direct abortion ...can sometimes be a moral choice" and that "responsible moral decisions can only be made in an atmosphere of freedom from fear of coercion."[21]

The ad directly challenged Church authority. The Catholic Church took disciplinary measures against some of the nuns who signed the statement, sparking controversy among American Catholics, and intra-Catholic conflict on the abortion issue remained news for at least two years.[21] In the end, CFC was seen to gain credibility and status by the advertisement, while the Church hierarchy was unable to advance their political goals on the topic of abortion.[9][11][22]


In 1992, CFC was classified as a non-governmental organization by the United Nations (U.N.); CFC subsequently participated in some U.N. conferences.[1] With other groups, the CFC successfully lobbied against the naming of John M. Klink, a former representative of the Holy See at the U.N., to lead the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in 2001. More recently, it has assisted in drafting legislation with the stated goal of reducing abortions, partly by increasing financing for family planning.[20]

In April 1995, the National Catholic Reporter published a letter by Marjorie Rieley Maguire, a theology professor, former CFC activist and co-author of CFC's 1984 New York Times advertisement, "A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion". In her letter, Maguire described CFC as "an anti-woman organization" devoted to "the promotion of abortion, the defense of every abortion decision as a good, moral choice and the related agenda of persuading society to cast off any moral constraints about sexual behavior." Maguire also charged that when she was involved with CFC, she "was never aware that any of its leaders attended Mass" and that "various conversations and experiences convinced [her] they did not."[23]


In March 1999,[24] CFC commenced an unsuccessful[19] international[25] campaign, called "See Change", which aimed to downgrade the status of the Holy See in the United Nations[26] from Permanent Observer to NGO status, which would mean that the Holy See could not vote on U.N. policy and must be invited if it wished to address a meeting.[27] The campaign drew support from 541[28] groups, including women's, family-planning and abortion groups, such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood.[26][29] See Change's website says, "We believe that the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic church, should participate in the UN in the same way as the world's other religions do—as a non-governmental organization....While the Holy See has the right to a voice at the United Nations, that voice should only be as loud as those of the world's other religions. NGO status would allow the Holy See to continue to advocate for its positions, but without the benefit of a special platform for its views."[30]

The campaign was begun after Vatican representatives at various UN conferences blocked consensus on certain topics related to sexual and reproductive health, such as condom distribution and safe sex education in AIDS prevention programs and family planning, birth control, and abortion.[24][25][26][31] Kissling, then CFC's president, asked: "Why should an entity that is in essence 100 square acres of office space and tourist attractions in the middle of Rome with a citizenry that excludes women and children have a place at the table where governments set policies affecting the very survival of women and children?"[31]

The campaign was supported by European Parliament politicians from three Dutch parties.[32] It was also supported by Marco Pannella, historic leader of the Italian Radicals.[33]

The campaign faced difficulty in the UN from the start and, according to U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq in 1999, seemed "unlikely" to succeed.[25][26] Anglican Bishop John Baycroft said "The Vatican has as much right to be [in the UN] as any of the other countries", as the modern remnant of the Papal States. Pennsylvania State University professor Philip Jenkins wrote that the See Change campaign is anti-Catholic, and that the major diplomatic and mediation activity of the Vatican makes it deserve recognition far more than many other UN members.[34]

In 2007, CFC's former Vice-President and Director of Communications, Jon O'Brien, was appointed President.


CFC describes its mission as "to shape and advance sexual and reproductive ethics that are based on justice, reflect a commitment to women's well-being and respect and affirm the capacity of women and men to make moral decisions about their lives. CFC works in the United States and internationally to ensure that all people have access to safe and affordable reproductive health-care services and to infuse our core values into public policy, community life and Catholic social teaching and thinking."[35]

CFC writes that they "are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others' right to do the same."[35]

Operations and funding

CFC is not a membership organization but an advocacy group. It relies upon paid employees and committed volunteer activists that it selectively recruits in various regions.[21]

In 2007, CFC had a budget of $3 million, increased from $2.5 million annually in the years leading up to 2003.[1] It is supported largely by secular foundations such as the Ford Foundation, Buffett Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Playboy Foundation.[1][20][36]

Conflict with the Catholic Church


CFC and the Church hierarchy are moral and political opponents. For Church officials, CFC's potential to cause harm to their aims is intensified because CFC's positions are taken in the name of Catholics, publicly undermining the authority of the Church.[21] Critics say that CFC speaks for bigger, secular pro-choice organizations and also that it is a facade for anti-Catholicism.[20] The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has repeatedly rejected CFC's claim to Catholic identity and characterized it as "an arm of the abortion lobby."[1] In 1993, the bishops said that CFC is not an "authentic" Catholic organization and charged that it had "rejected unity with the church on important issues of long-standing and unchanging church teaching."[21] In 2000, the USCCB reiterated that CFC "is not a Catholic organization, does not speak for the Catholic Church, and in fact promotes positions contrary to the teaching of the Church as articulated by the Holy See and the NCCB," and that "its activity is directed to rejection and distortion of Catholic teaching about the respect and protection due to defenseless unborn human life."[8] It also stated that "The public relations effort has ridiculed the Holy See in language reminiscent of other episodes of anti-Catholic bigotry that the Catholic Church has endured in the past."[8] The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has twice (in 2002 and 2010) reiterated that Catholics for a Free Choice: "1) is not Catholic and 2) does not represent the teachings or views of the Catholic Church."[37] In 2003, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Mexico rejected any connection with Catholics for a Free Choice and clarified that the group is not part of the Catholic Church because of its support for the legalization of abortion, among other things.[38]

Helen M. Alvaré, an associate professor of law at the Catholic University of America, has asserted that CFC has "no grass-roots base among Catholics."[20] She said the CFC arguments were not different from other pro-choice groups.[20] Pennsylvania State University professor Philip Jenkins wrote that CFFC is a public voice for anti-Catholic opinions. He wrote that in 1991 Frances Kissling said "I spent twenty years looking for a government that I could overthrow without being thrown in jail. I finally found one in the Catholic church.” Jenkins also writes that Kissling engages in "solid seventeenth-century anti-popery".[34]

In response to accusations of anti-Catholicism, theologian, ecofeminist and CFC board member Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote that CFC was part of a schism rather than a proponent of anti-Catholic bigotry, that the accusation was an attempt to portray the "Catholic right" as the only authentic Catholics, and that "the charge of 'anti-Catholicism' is being used as a scare tactic by the Catholic right in the service of repression of progressive Catholic views."[39]


Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, legislated automatic interdict, with effect from April 15, 1996, against Catholics in his diocese who held membership in any of 12 organizations, including CFC, stating that such membership "is always perilous to the Catholic Faith and most often is totally incompatible with the Catholic Faith". Against those who remained members for more than a month he legislated automatic excommunication.[40] Bruskewitz noted that heeding the ban on receiving the sacraments, which results from excommunication, would "be left to the person's conscience."[41] Frances Kissling, then CFC president, said, "What we would advise people in that diocese to say is that, 'We consider ourselves to be Catholics in good faith, and we think you have rendered the wrong opinion,' and to go about their lives as Catholics."[42]

See also


External links

  • Catholics for Choice Official website
  • Magazine
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