2016-07-27
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WASHINGTON, May 23 (RNS)--Frances Kissling is under no illusions that her latest campaign will endear her to the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. She knows the harder she pushes for abortion rights, the harder the church pushes back.

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

She got both.

But even she couldn't foresee the strength of the backlash, in which she was labeled an anti-Catholic bigot by the National Council of Catholic 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 as a backward attempt to find a platform within a church that has never welcomed her views.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We are Catholics, and we use contraception, we have abortions, we get 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 need a church that speaks out to prevent these tragedies, and currently the church contributes to them."

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

That's an argument that doesn't fly with Ray Flynn, the conservative former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who vociferously supports the church. Flynn said that as ambassador, his discussions with the Vatican were diplomatic, not theological.

"I wasn't talking about papal indulgences or annulments," Flynn said. "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 longtime thorn in their side, and roll their eyes. Recently, the nation's Catholic bishops dismissed Catholics for a Free Choice as a "rejection and distortion of Catholic teaching" that "merits no recognition or support as a Catholic organization."

Kissling, in turn, looks at the church hierarchy and shrugs her shoulders. She is accustomed to the cold reception. "We have no expectations that we will be welcomed with open arms. We are not looking for an invitation to sit at the bishops' dinner table," she says.

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

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

As for the See Change Campaign, even Kissling will admit she's not sure if it will ever happen. She has no time frame, no lobbying strategy, no one at the United Nations who agrees with her yet.

Her campaign has also prompted a backlash from unlikely allies outside the church. While Kissling claims 500 endorsing organizations--such as Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL)--a counter-movement has found support from strange bedfellows.

Focus on the Family, the icon of evangelical conservatism, has signed on to "protect" the Vatican at the United Nations. So has the Republican National Committee, which used the issue as a political football lobbed at Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has endorsed NARAL and, in the Republicans' view, by extension wants the Vatican out of the United Nations.

Daniel Maguire, an outspoken pro-choice professor of ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said turning the See Change Campaign into a political battle obscures the real issue in the debate--the changing role of women in the world.

"These patriarchies are threatened by the rise of a new kind of women who will not accept the definitions put upon them," said Maguire, who supports the campaign. "The real issue is not fetuses, but women and their new power and new image."

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