New York Times religion reporter Neela Banerjee profiled Frances Kissling who is stepping down as president of Catholics for a Free Choice. The group, which she has been with for almost 30 years, supports abortion and artificial contraception. The Roman Catholic Church has different doctrines.
The headline — “Backing Abortion Rights While Keeping the Faith” — leaves a bit to be desired. As the article points out, Kissling believes she’s keeping the faith. But Catholics who support church teachings on the sanctity of life would certainly disagree. The headline shouldn’t take sides. Imagine if it said “Backing Abortion Rights While Losing the Faith.” At my newspaper we’re not allowed to say we don’t write the headlines since we can disapprove them. But I don’t know how that goes at the Times.
Most articles where the hook is someone leaving a leadership position are a bit fawning for my taste. I remember when Kate Michelman left NARAL Pro-Choice America least year and The Washington Post ran multiple tributes. I’m all for speaking well of the dead, but why must these pieces be so puffy while the subjects are still walking and talking?
Having said that, I actually thought Banerjee’s article was well-balanced and nicely written. Consider how she begins:
Frances Kissling has been called the “philosopher of the pro-choice movement” by her friends and an “abortion queen” by her critics.
But the name Ms. Kissling wears most defiantly, to the consternation of many religious believers, is Roman Catholic. For 25 years, as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, she has angered the church hierarchy and conservative Catholics by criticizing fundamental teachings on sex.
“I’m so Catholic, I can’t get away from it,” said Ms. Kissling, who was once in a convent. “How I construct concepts of life, of justice, it all comes out of being Catholic.”
Catholics for a Free Choice is a group with more political sway than Heathens for a Free Choice because people expect Catholics who emphasize their religion to support church teachings against abortion. A point of debate between Catholics who support church teachings on abortion and those who oppose them is whether it’s accurate for Kissling and her group to claim church affiliation.
Banerjee notes that the group is not well-known among lay Catholics and that it is supported mostly by large secular foundations. Here’s how she sets up the debate in the church surrounding the group:
On Wednesday, Ms. Kissling, 63, will step down from her post, relinquishing her role as one of the most vocal of the so-called bad Catholics, those who manage to accommodate the opposing sentiments of love for the church and anger at much of its doctrine.
“The constant refrain in this office is, ‘Are we really Catholic?’” Ms. Kissling said here in a recent interview. “I know with every ounce of my being that you don’t have to agree with the positions of the church on issues of abortion and contraception to be Catholic.”
Many Catholics passionately disagree. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued statements challenging the right of Catholics for a Free Choice to call itself Catholic. Critics dismiss Ms. Kissling’s organization as a mouthpiece for bigger, secular abortion rights groups and a front for anti-Catholic bigotry.
So far we have Kissling saying that she’s so Catholic, she can’t get away from it, that she constructs concepts of life and justice out of being Catholic and that she doesn’t have to agree with the church about abortion in order to be Catholic. Later on we get other tidbits about Kissling. She is “unequivocal” in her distaste for the church hierarchy.
Yet she left the convent because she disagreed with church teachings on divorce and birth control. That was before she ran an abortion clinic in Pelham, New York. Then there’s this:
“There are days when I think I can’t be a Catholic and that I want to go join a community where I am welcomed, honored, where I can join a parish,” she said. “But in the end, I don’t want to be a Methodist. I’m a member of the greatest religion in the world.”
I love how much religion was included in this profile but I was surprised by the lack of substance in two parts. Considering Kissling’s lack of support for the church and some of its teachings, I wish the article had mentioned her reasons for wanting to stay in the church.
Further, I’m sure both Kissling and her critics in the church have reasons for their positions about whether she is Catholic. Beyond “I know with every ounce in my being that I’m Catholic,” that is. But substantive arguments aren’t mentioned. In the very last paragraph we learn that Kissling isn’t even a member of a parish. That would seem to support the church’s position. But what’s the response of Kissling and her cohorts?
I think it’s an important question to answer because it shows the very real and contentious limits of allowing people to self-identify. This goes double for groups and individuals who claim an affiliation with organizations they disagree with on key issues.