Catholics for Choice

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Catholics for Choice
PurposeAbortion rights advocacy[1][2]
HeadquartersWashington, D.C.
Jamie L. Manson

Catholics for Choice (CFC) is a dissenting Catholic group that advocates for abortion rights which is based in Washington, D.C.[3] Formed in 1973 as Catholics for a Free Choice, the group gained notice 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 abortion rights 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 Jamie L. Manson.

A number of Catholic bishops and conferences of bishops have unequivocally rejected and publicly denounced CFC's identification as a Catholic organization.[4] For example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops,[5] have stated that CFC is not a Catholic organization and that it promotes positions contrary to Catholic teaching.[6]


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.[7] It emerged from Catholics for the Elimination of All Restrictive Abortion & Contraceptive Laws, a New York lobby group that had been formed in 1970.[8]


In an early bid for publicity in 1974, on the first anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, McQuillan, the group's first president,[9] had herself crowned pope on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.[7]

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 Marlborough, 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.[10][11] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[10] On August 20, 1974, O'Rourke publicly baptized the baby on the steps of the Marlborough church, in front of its locked doors and 300 spectators.[12] 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.[13][14] He served for a time as CFFC board president.[9]


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.[15] One result of this was a $75,000 grant on behalf of the pro-abortion rights Sunnen Foundation, which funded the group's first publications, the Abortion in Good Faith series.[15][16]

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][17][18] Kissling lobbied politicians and activists, many Catholic, to work in favor of giving women access to contraception and abortion.

The New York Times ad[edit]

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.[9] 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...."[9]

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-abortion rights position, and in October 1984 Kissling responded to O'Connor by placing an advertisement signed by 97 Catholics, including theologians, lay persons, priests and nuns, in The New York Times.[1][9] 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."[19]

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.[19] 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.[7][9][20]


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.[18]

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 The 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."[21]


In March 1999,[22] CFC launched a failed campaign to downgrade the status of the Holy See in the United Nations to that of an NGO from that of a non-member state.[17][23][24] Had the campaign, branded as "See Change", been successful, the Vatican would no longer have had a vote on UN policy nor speaking rights.[25] The campaign drew support from 541[26] groups, including women's, family-planning and abortion groups, such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood.[24][27]

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.[22][23][24][28] 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?"[28]

The campaign was supported by European Parliament politicians from three Dutch parties.[29] It was also supported by Marco Pannella, a founder of the Italian Radicals.[30]

The campaign faced difficulty in the UN from the start and, according to U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq in 1999, seemed "unlikely" to succeed.[23][24] 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.[31]

In 2007, CFC's former Vice-President and Director of Communications, Jon O'Brien, was appointed President.[citation needed] In 2019, CFC's former Vice-President and Domestic Program Director, Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, was named Acting President.[citation needed] In October 2020, National Catholic Reporter columnist Jamie L. Manson took over as president of the organization, leaving her position at NCR.[32]

Operations and funding[edit]

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.[19]

In 2007, CFC had a budget of $3 million, increased from $2.5 million annually in the years leading up to 2003.[1] It has been supported largely by secular foundations such as the Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Playboy Foundation.[1][18][33]

Conflict with the Catholic Church[edit]


CFC and the Church hierarchy are moral and political opponents. For Roman Catholic 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.[19] Critics say that CFC speaks for bigger, secular pro-abortion rights organizations and also that it is a facade for anti-Catholicism.[18] 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."[19] 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."[6] 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."[6] 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."[34] 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 Roman Catholic Church because of its support for the legalization of abortion, among other things.[35]

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."[18] She said the CFC arguments were not different from other pro-abortion rights groups.[18] Pennsylvania State University professor and historian of religion Philip Jenkins wrote that CFC is a public voice for anti-Catholic opinions. He wrote that in 1991 Frances Kissling stated, "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".[31]


Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, issued an interdict in March 1996 forbidding Catholics within his diocese from membership in 12 organizations including CFC. Bruskewitz stated that membership in any of these 12 groups "is always perilous to the Catholic Faith and most often is totally incompatible with the Catholic Faith." Members of the diocese were given one month from the date of the interdict to remove themselves from participation in the named organizations or face automatic excommunication.[36] Bruskewitz noted that heeding the ban on receiving the sacraments, which results from excommunication, would "be left to the person's conscience."[37] 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."[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Djupe, Paul A. and Laura R. Olson, Encyclopedia of American religion and politics, p. 84, Infobase Publishing 2003
  2. ^ Dillon, Michele (1999). Catholic identity: balancing reason, faith, and power. Cambridge University Press. p. 104. ISBN 9780521639590.
  3. ^ Kretschmer, Kelsy (Winter 2009). "Contested Loyalties: Dissident Identity Organizations, Institutions, and Social Movements". Sociological Perspectives. 52 (4): 433–454. doi:10.1525/sop.2009.52.4.433. JSTOR 10.1525/sop.2009.52.4.433. S2CID 143359410.
    Dillon, Michele (1999). Catholic identity: balancing reason, faith, and power. Cambridge University Press.
    Davies, Margaret (April 27, 2011). "The future of secularism: a critique". Law and Religion in Public Life. Taylor & Francis. p. 66. ISBN 9781136725845.
    Byrnes, Timothy A.; Segers, Mary C. (1992). The Catholic Church and the politics of abortion: a view from the states. Westview Press. p. 171.
    McBrien, Richard P. (1987). Caesar's coin: religion and politics in America. Macmillan. p. 155.
    Paludi, Michele Antoinette (2010). Feminism and Women's Rights Worldwide. Women's Psychology. Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 136. ISBN 978-0313375965.
    "Catholics for choice protest in Rome". The Washington Times. Reuters. July 12, 1994. Retrieved June 6, 2012.(subscription required)
    "Stupak Like a Fox". Newsweek. November 18, 2009.
    "Catholic group urges Harper to include abortion in G8 plan". Macleans. April 7, 2010.
    "Hands off health care, US Catholic group tells bishops". Agence France-Presse. March 5, 2010. Archived from the original on December 5, 2014.
    "Events planned for World AIDS Day". USA Today. Associated Press. November 30, 2003.
    Tumulty, Karen; Vickers, Robert J. (November 13, 1989). "Pro-Choice Advocates Rally Coast-to-Coast". Los Angeles Times.
    "U.S. nuns get Vatican ultimatum". The Montreal Gazette. UPI. December 19, 1984.
    "Bishops' role in debate on abortion questioned". The Washington Times. October 26, 1990.(subscription required)
    Sharpe, Jerry (June 9, 1984). "Abortion up to women, Catholic group contends". The Pittsburgh Press.
  4. ^ Robert L. Fastiggi (2010). New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2009. Gale/Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-1-4144-7527-1. Retrieved June 11, 2012. Catholic bishops and conferences of bishops have consistently repudiated the claim of CFFC to be a Catholic organization.
  5. ^ "Comment by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Regarding a group calling itself 'Catholics for a Free Choice'". Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archived from the original on September 28, 2011. Retrieved August 31, 2011.
  6. ^ a b c U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – NCCB/USCC President Issues Statement on Catholics for a Free Choice Archived November 13, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, May 10, 2000.
  7. ^ a b c Davis, Tom (2005). Sacred work: Planned Parenthood and its clergy alliances. Rutgers University Press. pp. 146–147. ISBN 0-8135-3493-3.
  8. ^ Brubaker, Pamela K. (2010). "Gender and Society: Competing Visions of Women's Agency, Equality, and Well-Being". Women and Christianity. ABC-CLIO.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Kissling, Frances (2006). "Women's Freedom and Reproductive Rights: The Core Fear of Patriarchy". In Rosemary Skinner Keller; Rosemary Radford Ruether (eds.). Encyclopedia of women and religion in North America. Vol. 3. Indiana University Press. pp. 1104–1106. ISBN 0-253-34688-6.
  10. ^ a b c d "Religion: Sins of the Mother". Time. September 2, 1974. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008. Retrieved August 30, 2011.
  11. ^ Harriman, Joan (January 1975). "Correspondence". Commonweal. 101 (12). I will clarify some facts surrounding the Baptism in Marlboro, Mass. In the name of Catholics for a Free Choice, as president, I called Rev. Joseph O'Rourke who is on our board of directors and asked him to baptize the Morrealle baby. I placed the call Aug. 12 and he returned it Aug. 13th. On Aug. 16th I went to Boston for the press conference to announce that Rev. O'Rourke would perform the Baptism. I stated at the press conference that Father Keane was unacceptable to all since he had publicly condemned "Free Choice." CFFC supports "Free Choice" and protects Catholic laypersons and clergy from oppression by the hierarchy. There was a clear-cut issue of reproductive freedom that was made public before Catholics for a Free Choice was ever involved. The date for the baptism was set after the press conference; a prime consideration was that it be a time when relatives and friends of the Morrealle family would be able to attend.[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ "Priests Call Baptism 'Heresy'". Wisconsin State Journal. August 22, 1974. Retrieved August 30, 2011.
  13. ^ Priest Expelled for Forbidden Baptism Sarasota Herald-Tribune, p. 4b, October 18, 1975
  14. ^ "When the swallows come back to Capistrano" Bottum, Joseph. First Things, October 1, 2006. at Retrieved 2011-07-14.[dead link]
  15. ^ a b Slavin, Sarah (1995). U.S. women's interest groups: institutional profiles. Greenwood. pp. 98–102. ISBN 9780313250736.
  16. ^ Ellingston, Jenefer (March 1981). "We Are the Mainstream: Dissent in the Catholic Church" (PDF). Abortion in Good Faith. Catholics for a Free Choice. p. 20.
  17. ^ a b "After 25 Years, a Catholic Warrior Steps Aside" Archived September 28, 2011, at the Wayback Machine Burke, Daniel. Religion News Service. 2007-02-22. at CFC website. Retrieved 2011-07-14.
  18. ^ a b c d e f The New York Times. Backing Abortion Rights While Keeping the Faith. Banerjee, Neela. February 27, 2007
  19. ^ a b c d e Dillon, Michele (1999). Catholic identity: balancing reason, faith, and power. Cambridge University Press. p. 106. ISBN 9780521639590.
  20. ^ Weaver, Mary Jo (1999). What's left?: liberal American Catholics. Indiana University Press. p. 96. ISBN 0-253-21332-0.
  21. ^ D. DeMarco, "'Catholics for Choice' Is Neither", National Catholic Register, January 15, 2008
  22. ^ a b "US-based Catholic group, feminists oppose Vatican position at UN". Agence France-Presse. March 15, 2000.
  23. ^ a b c Sandrasagra, Mithre J. (March 14, 2000). "NGOs Call For Review of U.N. Status of Holy See". Inter Press Service.
  24. ^ a b c d Eckstrom, Kevin (June 2000). "Pro-Choice Catholic Group Challenges Vatican at U.N.". Religion News Service.
  25. ^ Shulgan, Christopher (April 19, 1999). "Canadians join move to oust Vatican from UN International coalition". Ottawa Citizen.
  26. ^ Pollitt, Katha (June 26, 2000). "Women: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?". The Nation.
  27. ^ Cornwell, Rupert (August 29, 1999). "Catholics bid to strip Vatican of statehood". The Independent on Sunday.
  28. ^ a b McGarry, Patsy (March 25, 1999). "Campaign to challenge Vatican's status at UN". Irish Times.
  29. ^ van der Laan, Lousewies; Plooij-van Gorsel, Elly; Swiebel, Joke (November 18, 2000). "Doorbreek machtspositie Vaticaan". Trouw.
  30. ^ "Italian maverick politician urges abolition of Vatican state". Agence France-Presse. November 27, 2000.
  31. ^ a b Jenkins, Philip, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, pgs. 84–87, Oxford University Press US 2003
  32. ^ October 15; Religion, 2020 | Angela Bonavoglia |. "Pro-Choice Religious Community Making Their Voices Heard - Women's Media Center". Retrieved December 17, 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  33. ^ Hunter, James Davison, Before the shooting begins: searching for democracy in America's culture war , p. 74, Simon and Schuster, 1994
  34. ^ Comment by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Regarding a group calling itself ‘Catholics for a Free Choice’ Archived September 28, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, April 16, 2010.
  35. ^ Archdiocese of Mexico: “Catholics for a Free Choice” are not Catholic, Catholic News Agency, November 27, 2003.
  36. ^ Extra-synodal Legislation: Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz at March 19, 1996. Retrieved 2011-07-20.
  37. ^ "Catholics in 12 Groups Excommunicated in Nebraska". Daily News. Los Angeles, California: The Free Library, by Farlex. Associated Press. May 16, 1996. Retrieved July 18, 2011.
  38. ^ "Nebraska Bishop Excommunicates Catholic Reformers". All Things Considered. National Public Radio. March 25, 1996. Archived from the original on May 29, 2016.(subscription required)

External links[edit]