WASHINGTON — As pro-lifers flood into the nation's capital for prayer and protest to mark the 29th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the D.C. Metro bus and rail stations will greet them with pro-condom signs courtesy of the pro-abortion lobby Catholics for a Free Choice.
Catholic spokesmen have dismissed the ads as the latest false and misleading salvo from a non-Catholic, pro-abortion organization that has been denounced by the U.S. bishops.
The ads, which read, “Because the bishops ban condoms, innocent people die,” and “Catholic people care. Do our bishops?” have been on display at 50 bus shelters and 134 Metrorail cars in Washington since World AIDS Day Dec. 1. A similar ad appeared in the Washington Post on Nov. 30.
At the start of 2002, similar ads were introduced in several other countries, including Belgium, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Chile and Mexico.
The ads will run through the end of January.
“The Vatican and the world's bishops bear significant responsibility for the death of thousands of people who have died from AIDS,” Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, said in a Nov. 29 press release. “For individuals who follow the Vatican policy and Catholic health care providers who are forced to deny condoms, the bishops’ ban is a disaster,” added Kissling, who is a former abortion clinic director. “We can no longer stand by and allow the ban to go unchallenged.”
Susan Gibbs, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, said that as soon as the ads appeared, complaints began flooding in against them.
“We got so many calls asking what people could do that we put out an advocacy alert briefly explaining the Church's teaching and the claims made in the ads, as well as contact information for Metro board members and lawmakers who oversee funding for Metro,” Gibbs said.
Shortly before Christmas, Gibbs called Metro authorities, who told her the transit agency would not accept ads that were “false or misleading.” Gibbs said the ads are both, as “the bishops do not have the authority to ‘ban’ anything, as the ads claim. They do have the authority and the responsibility to teach.”
Equally wrong, Gibbs added, is the claim that the promotion of chastity is deadly. The Church's teaching against condoms, Gibbs explained, “is part of a broader teaching of abstinence outside of monogamous marriage — the only lifestyle that is completely effective against sexually transmitted disease.”
As for the suggestion that the bishops “don't care” about the AIDS epidemic, Gibbs noted that Catholic organizations currently provide 25% of all HIV/AIDS care worldwide, making the Church the largest provider of this type of care.
Father Frank Pavone, co-founder of Priest for Life, said that it is Catholics for a Free Choice who is endangering public health.
“Catholics for a Free Choice is setting itself up for serious legal trouble,” said Father Pavone. “What happens when people die because of sexually transmitted diseases that condoms fail to prevent? We will see to it that Catholics for a Free Choice take the part of the blame they deserve for misleading people into thinking that condoms provide security that they do not.”
Metro officials maintain that pulling the ads would threaten free speech. Spokesman Ray Feldmann said the transit authority's lawyers determined that “people may disagree with the content and portrayal of bishops” in the ads, but that there was “nothing obscene, pornographic, lewd or offensive” to justify ending their run. “To us, it came down to a First Amendment issue,” Feldmann told the Washington Post. “We're not referees making sure these ads are 100% accurate.”
The Metro agency receives at least $840 million in public subsidies from local and federal governments.
Catholics for a Free Choice is a 25-year-old independent nonprofit group that promotes abortion, “reproductive health” and “gender equality” according to what it characterizes as a “Catholic social justice tradition.”
However, an article in the Jan.-Feb. 2000 of Philanthropy magazine reported that none of the major funders of Catholics for a Free Choice, including the Ford, MacArthur, Rockefeller, Hewlett, Packard and Buffet foundations, support Catholic philanthropy. Indeed, some of the foundations have specific policies prohibiting any support for religiously oriented groups.
Catholics for a Free Choice has also accepted funding from pornographer Hugh Hefner's Playboy Foundation.
The group spearheaded a recent unsuccessful campaign against the Holy See's Permanent Observer status at the United Nations.
The U.S. bishops have repeatedly denounced Catholic for a Free Choice's claim to be an authentically Catholic group. In a May 2000 statement in his capacity as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston said Kissling's group “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.”
As annoying as the pro-condom ads may be, Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, said that the “new assault on the Church will have absolutely no impact on Church teaching related to contraception. Most Catholics have never heard of [Frances Kissling] or her group or her campaign.”
Added Ruse, “She is known and supported by a very small number of pro-abortion zealots and a few fellow travelers in the media. Her impact and the impact of her group is minuscule.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez is executive editor of National Review Online.