THE BLOG
01/27/2015 05:27 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Why Pro-Choice Catholics Matter

Bill Clark via Getty Images

On an unseasonably warm January day exactly one year after the Supreme Court made abortion legal, a 49-year-old woman clad in ersatz vestments made her way up the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral. When she reached the top of the stairs, she turned and faced a crowd of supporters intermingled with curious tourists and office workers on their lunch break. As a white-and-gold cardboard miter emblazoned with a Venus symbol was lowered onto her head, Patricia McQuillan declared herself Her Holiness Pope Patricia the First.

Pope Patricia wasted no time delivering her first encyclical. "The Catholic Church's stand on abortion is only 100 years old, is strictly political and has nothing to do with religion as taught by Jesus," declared McQuillan.

The crowning of Pope Patricia was a media sensation in New York and in feminist circles, but has largely been forgotten since. But Pope Patricia should be remembered because she gave birth to one of the most overlooked but critical components of the 40-year-plus effort to keep abortion legal in the United States: the Catholic pro-choice movement.

McQuillan christened herself Pope Patricia to bring attention to a new organization of pro-choice Catholics that she founded, Catholics for a Free Choice, at a time when it was assumed that most Catholics reflected the view of their leadership and opposed legal abortion. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Roe v. Wade, the most visible opponents of abortion were Catholic and the bishops of the Catholic Church were gaining momentum as the uncontested leaders of the burgeoning effort to roll-back the decision.

As a matter of fact, at the very moment McQuillan was climbing the steps of St. Patrick's, some 6,000 largely Catholic anti-abortion protestors were gathering in Washington, D.C., for the first March for Life. Demonstrators had been recruited from parishes and parochial schools all over the Northeast and bussed in from as far away as Minnesota to illustrate the clout of the Catholic anti-abortion lobby. But it was the beatific Pope Patricia in her cardboard miter and feminist vestments who graced stories about the first anniversary of Roe in Time and Newsweek and in newspapers from New York to Germany, signaling the birth of a distinctly Catholic abortion rights movement that would go toe-to-toe with the institutional church.

McQuillan wouldn't live to see the movement she gave birth to grow beyond its infancy. She was already suffering from metastatic breast cancer when she climbed the steps of Saint Patrick's; she died the following June. But over the next decades, the movement she founded provided a critical backstop to the bishops' efforts to overturn Roe by trying to marshal electoral support for an abortion ban and convince Catholics that it was an article of faith that they couldn't support abortion rights.

The movement did two critical things. First, it helped excavate and publicize an alternative Catholic theology that contradicted the narrative of the hierarchy that the church had always taught -- that abortion was murder and that Catholics could never support it. As McQuillan noted, the Catholic Church had held various opinions about when a fetus is "ensouled," and that for much of its history, it had considered abortion before the fetus had a soul a sin of the flesh on par with contraception, not murder. And feminist theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether posited that the church's ban on abortion, like its ban on contraception, had more to do with how the church viewed women than with unchangeable doctrine.

Just as importantly, the movement gave voice to the significant number of faithful, pro-choice Catholics, helping to make visible Catholic support for abortion rights. When the first congressional hearings were held in March of 1974 on a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, the four main witnesses -- and the only witnesses seen on the televised portion of the hearing--were Catholic cardinals, including the head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who asserted that only a complete ban on abortion was acceptable to Catholics. But when the second set of hearings commenced in September, CFFC arranged for Father Joseph O'Rourke, a pro-choice Jesuit, and Jane Furlong Cahill, a Catholic feminist theologian, to testify about Catholic support for abortion rights and the deep misogyny that informed much of the Catholic teaching about women and sex.

One of the movement's landmark moments came when New York Archbishop John O'Connor criticized vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro shortly before the hotly contested presidential election of 1984 for having signed a letter from CFFC that said the Catholic position on abortion wasn't monolithic. O'Connor had already suggested that voting for a pro-choice politician was incompatible with Catholic teaching. A group of Catholic theologians and activists arranged an open letter in the New York Times, with some 100 priests, nuns and theologians asserting that "a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics," and that "a large number of Catholic theologians hold that even direct abortion, though tragic, can sometimes be a moral choice."

The ad generated enormous controversy. It also "effectively and finally put to rest the myth that Catholics ... share the belief of the Vatican and the U.S. bishops that abortion is to be absolutely prohibited both legally and morally," wrote then CFFC president Frances Kissling and feminist theologian Mary Hunt.

Of course, that didn't end the controversy over Catholics and abortion. Bishops would continue to say that Catholics couldn't vote for pro-choice policymakers and Catholics would continue to make up their own minds, supporting pro-choice candidates like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But the movement did more than create a vibrant space for pro-choice Catholics in public life. It empowered Catholics to think for themselves on abortion. Today, a majority of Catholics support abortion rights and fewer than 20 percent recognize church leaders as the final moral authority on the issue.

And pro-choice people of faith matter more than ever, as debates over reproductive rights are increasingly fused with religious rhetoric and claims of religious freedom, as evidenced by the Hobby Lobby case. Pro-choice Catholics offer an effective counter-narrative to the idea that all people of faith oppose abortion. As Jon O'Brien, the current head of Catholics for Choice notes, "We are pro-choice because of our faith, not despite it."