WASHINGTON, May 23 (RNS)--Frances Kissling is under no illusions that her latestcampaign will endear her to the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. Sheknows the harder she pushes for abortion rights, the harder the churchpushes back.

As head of the independent Catholics for a Free Choice, Kisslingsays she realizes she's fighting a 2,000-year-old institution withfriends in high places. So when she launched her "See Change Campaign"to oust the Vatican from the United Nations, Kissling expected a longfight and a scowl from church leaders.

She got both.

But even she couldn't foresee the strength of the backlash, in whichshe was labeled an anti-Catholic bigot by the National Council ofCatholic Bishops.

"That was like a punch in the stomach," she said. "It was dishonest,and it certainly was un-Christian."

If Kissling has her way, the Vatican would lose its observer status--a diplomatic distinction accorded only to the Vatican and Switzerland--and remain in the United Nations as a non-governmental organization with no official capacity.

Kissling's critics--and there are many--dismiss her campaign asa backward attempt to find a platform within a church that has neverwelcomed her views.

"We as Catholics are concerned that the vision of the church that wethink is most one in which religion is best served byacting as a religion, not a state," Kissling said. "We don't think it'sgood for the Roman Catholic Church to see itself and project itself as astate power."

As a permanent observer, the Vatican has no vote in the UnitedNations but can join debates and participate in U.N. conferences. TheVatican's status is a few steps above organizations such as the WorldCouncil of Churches, the Red Cross, or the World Bank. Catholicism iscurrently the only major world religion to have an official U.N.presence.

But diplomatic nuances aside, what Kissling really objects to is thechurch's stance on abortion and birth control. Ever since the UnitedNations' 1995 Beijing conference on women, the Vatican has used its U.N.presence to speak out against family planning and abortion around theworld.

Now, as the United Nations prepares to take a long look back at theBeijing conference this summer, Kissling is stepping up the rhetoric andvowing to oust the Holy See if the church continues its hard-lineposition on women's health issues around the world.

According to Kissling, 600,000 women die each year because ofpregnancy-related complications--botched abortions, sexuallytransmitted diseases, or lack of access to family planning.

Earlier this year, the Vatican opposed the use of the "morning-afterpill" emergency contraception for rape victims in Kosovo refugee camps.The church has also opposed the distribution of condoms in Africa tohelp stem the spread of AIDS, saying there is no proof condoms wouldhelp prevent the disease.

Kissling says the Vatican deserves no spot at the United Nations ifits policies are "harmful" to the most vulnerable areas of the world.

"We are Catholics, and we use contraception, we have abortions, weget AIDS, and we need help," Kissling said. "The church is not listening,and it's not even a case of benign neglect. This is a case where we needa church that speaks out to prevent these tragedies, and currently thechurch contributes to them."

Kissling's criticisms don't stop there. She says the Vatican shouldbe represented at the United Nations not as a state but as an observingreligious group like any other.

That's an argument that doesn't fly with Ray Flynn, the conservativeformer U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who vociferously supports thechurch. Flynn said that as ambassador, his discussions with the Vatican werediplomatic, not theological.

"I wasn't talking about papal indulgences or annulments," Flynnsaid. "I'd be talking about official matters of international concern,just as I would if I were ambassador to France."

Most officials in the church take one look at Kissling, a longtimethorn in their side, and roll their eyes. Recently, the nation'sCatholic bishops dismissed Catholics for a Free Choice as a "rejectionand distortion of Catholic teaching" that "merits no recognition orsupport as a Catholic organization."

Kissling, in turn, looks at the church hierarchy and shrugs hershoulders. She is accustomed to the cold reception. "We have noexpectations that we will be welcomed with open arms. We are not lookingfor an invitation to sit at the bishops' dinner table," she says.

Some in the church see Kissling's latest campaign as a dysfunctionalattempt to gain legitimacy within the church. If Kissling can't get inthrough the front door, they say, she'll try to break in through theback.

"If you stopped most average Catholics on the street, they wouldn'thave any idea of what [CFFC] is," said the Rev. Robert Friday, aprofessor of moral theology at Catholic University in Washington. "Ijust don't think they have any kind of real standing within theinstitutional church."

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