In a move which is causing bafflement and anger among religious believers and human rights campaigners, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, has encouraged Catholics to withdraw support from Amnesty International because it supports the decriminalization of abortion for women facing violence.
The Cardinal claims that Amnesty is "promoting abortion rights" and says that this is a betrayal of its original identity. He says: "By pushing for the decriminalization of abortion as part of their platform, Amnesty International has disqualified itself as a defender of human rights."
But Amnstety International -respected the world over, and feared by states that abuse human freedoms - has vigorously defended itself, saying that the attack is partial, misinformed and unfair. Thousands of catholics are writing to the Vatican and church leaders to protest the remarks by Cardinal Martino.
Before April 2007, the London-based civil rights NGO had taken a neutral stance on abortion, but shifted its position on some particular cases in response to the "pandemic of violence against women," explained Kate Gilmore, Amnesty's executive deputy secretary general.
"We have to articulate a response to pregnancies resulting from violence," Gilmore said. "If you're pregnant as a result of rape, you should, without force, fear or coercion, be able to make a choice whether to continue that pregnancy or not."
Many churches take a similar stance, and millions of Catholics are defying the hierarchy on reproductive issues including contraception - which is outlawed officially by the Church.
Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a Catholic lawyer who devoted his life to human rights issues. He died in 2005. The organisation he founded was focussed mainly on the rights of prisoners of conscience around the world. They encouraged members to write to prisoners and take part in letter writing campaigns and vigils. Amnesty International, now with a membership of over 2.2 million in over 150 countries and territories.
Recently, Amnesty joined other international organizations, such as the United Nations Children's Fund, in recognising that granting legal abortions to women who have been sexually violated and subject to violence is a necessary and compassionate policy - rather than leaving them to be preyed on by illegal and often dangerous operatives.
Catholics who oppose abortion in all cases are also concerned that in taking what they see as a confrontational and negative stance, the Vatican is causing its reputation further untold damage among both believers and non-believers.
But Cardinal Martino, who served as the Holy See's permanent observer at the United Nations, says that this change of position is part of the "pro-death" agenda in modern culture.
The cardinal said that Amnesty International's decision means Catholics and Catholic organizations should no longer financially support the group.
Supporters of the human rights group say it is wrong and immoral for the Church actively to seek to withold funds from an NGO which saves people's lives.
Amnsety's current stance supports access to abortions in cases of rape, incest, violence or when pregnancy represents a risk to the mother's life or health. The group's original position only spoke out against forced abortions.
Ms Gilmore said today that Amnesty would continue to stay out of the debate on the overall morality of abortion.
Amnesty International does not accept funds from organised religious groups, governments or political parties, in an effort to maintain its independence. It relies on individual supporters and dedicated local grousp, including Christians and people of all faiths and none.