After 25 Years, a Catholic Warrior Steps Aside
WASHINGTON — In her 25 years as head of Catholics For a Free Choice, some interesting epithets have been hurled at Frances Kissling. The kinds of names — “confused lionness” and “progressive heretic” to offer a few — that most people would like to avoid.
But Kissling, 62, said she’s come to expect such treatment.
“It doesn’t even annoy me,” she said with a dismissive flip of the hand. She considers it the cost of occupying the contentious middle ground between fiercely anti-abortion Catholics on one side and fiercely abortion-rights secularists on the other.
“I have really thick skin,” she said, “and having that skin and (being) willing to be in the fray has been enormously helpful to other people.”
Still, after a quarter-century leading Catholics For a Free Choice– 25 years of blistering ads, controversial speeches and quixotic campaigns to upset the Vatican — Kissling is stepping down at the end of the month (Feb. 28).
She’ll still be writing, and possibly teaching, but she’s done brawling with the Catholic church.
“I definitely don’t want to spend as much time in active resistance against the institution. It gets boring. It gets tiring. It’s the same brick wall,” Kissling said.
On a recent wintry Washington evening, Kissling sat in her office, beneath tapestries of Tibetan Buddhist deities and a poster of Che Guevara, and ruminated on her career. Tucking her short blond hair behind her ear, she spoke with the agitated air of someone fired by ideas and always primed for battle.
She gloried over her career highlights, ecstatically speaking of the group’s unsuccessful campaign for a “see change” at the United Nations– that is, to get the Vatican, the Holy See, booted from its status as a non-member state permanent observer.
And she pondered the low points — the things she wished she hadn’t said, some recent political developments that have limited access to abortions.
“I think my side is losing,” Kissling said.
She also reflected on what it means to be a Catholic, and how this New York native — who at age 19 spent six months in a convent with the Sisters of St. Joseph — became such a lightning rod within the church.
Bill Donohue, the conservative firebrand who heads the New York-based Catholic League, said he was “delighted Frances Kissling is leaving.” Two outspoken personalities, Donohue and Kissling have frequently butted heads over the years.
“The woman has been a menace to Catholics by fraudulently describing herself as a Catholic,” Donohue said. “What she stood for is an absolute moral disgrace.”
Other Catholics have used similar terms to depict Kissling over the years,arguing that her support for abortion rights means she has no claim to membership in the church. Brian St. Paul, editor of the conservative Catholic journal Crisis, has likened Kissling to someone who rejects the free-market economy but calls herself a capitalist.
“What makes a Catholic” is a common water-cooler discussion at Catholics For a Free Choice, Kissling said.
“One of the constant questions that we ask each other is: So what does it mean to be Catholic? Are we Catholic? Are they right, are we not Catholic?”
Kissling said she attends Mass occasionally and is “sacramentally oriented into this church,” meaning she’s been baptized and receives Communion. Also, no bishop or ecclesial body has excommunicated or sanctioned her, she said.
Therefore, Kissling reasons, “I am a Catholic. I may be a bad Catholic — but I am a Catholic.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, has condemned Catholics For a Free Choice numerous times, most recently in 2000.
Kissling notes that there are pious Catholics defined by spirituality and prayer, social-justice Catholics defined by doing good, and loyalist Catholics known for their adherence to the papacy. She puts herself in another category altogether: resistance Catholic.
“I fall into the category of Catholic whose attraction to the church is to resist the injustices and stupidity within the institution. That doesn’t make me any less a Catholic than the Catholic whose attraction to the church is fealty and obedience to the pope. It’s just a different kind of Catholic,” she said.
But her career hasn’t been all resistance and arguments. On March 2, a number of luminaries — including writer Anna Quindlen and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. — will fete Kissling with tributes and samba music at a fancy Washington hotel.
Some, like the Rev. Carlton Veazey of the Religious Coalition For Reproductive Choice, say Kissling is a hero. She has challenged Catholics who take the church’s anti-abortion stance on faith and has chastised abortion rights advocates for minimizing the moral significance of reproductive decisions.
“She’s one of the most courageous leaders I’ve ever seen,” said Veazey, whose organization includes members from about 40 U.S. mainline and traditionally African-American denominations.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-choice America, said Kissling “has been a leader in making sure that the spiritual pro-choice position is respected in this country and around the world.”
Keenan said she expects Kissling to continue contributing to the abortion debate as a philosopher and a writer even after she leaves Catholics For a Free Choice.
That’s one notion Kissling won’t dispute.
“I’ll never leave the fray. I’ll just be contributing in a different way. It’s like leaving the convent,” she said with an irreverent trill of laughter.
This article originally appeared on the Beliefnet.com website on February 22, 2007.