Explaining the Catholic Bishops' Influence

The U.S. Catholic hierarchy is helping shape healthcare reform and raising its voice on other issues

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

With the Senate poised to pass its healthcare bill Thursday morning, abortion may be the biggest sticking point in the coming attempt to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the legislation. Both have abortion funding restrictions that the abortion rights lobby says it won't accept and that a powerful bloc of moderate Democrats says are necessary to securing their support for the final bill. More than any other religious body, it's the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops that have informed those senators' abortion positions.

What explains the bishops' power? My most recent God & Country column from U.S. News Weekly explains. Here's the meat:

Few would have predicted as influential a public role for the bishops earlier in this decade, when the priest abuse scandal rocked the American Catholic Church. "In 2003, we were all saying that the bishops' credibility was so badly damaged that they were essentially cooked as political players," says John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. "That's what's most striking: They've weathered the storm and continue to be effective political players."

Part of the bishops' influence is explained by sheer numbers. Nearly a quarter of the American electorate identifies as Roman Catholic, and 6 in 10 of that quarter say they attend mass at least once a month. But just as important are the bishops' deep ties to officials in both political parties, an increasingly rare attribute of interest groups in Washington, where the bishops conference's staff is headquartered. (Nearly 300 American bishops serve in dioceses across the country). Though the bishops' conservative views on abortion and gay marriage line up with the Republican Party, their stance on immigration and their support for healthcare as a "fundamental right" more or less mirror Democratic positions. Says Allen: "The bishops are the only players on the religious landscape that can put together certain bipartisan coalitions."

That is why their lobbyists have secured meetings with Democrats from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on down regarding abortion concerns in healthcare reform while evangelical abortion foes have been strategizing mostly with out-of-power Republican allies. "Some conservative Catholics are hard on the bishops for liberal stances on social issues," says Donohue. "But it gave them a seat at the table on Stupak."

The Catholic Church's hierarchical structure provides another political benefit: making it clear that the bishops speak for the church. Though evangelicals have gained political power in recent decades, an ever changing cast of political leaders from dozens of different denominations makes it difficult for elected officials to tell who represents the movement. More liberal mainline churches, meanwhile, are split on issues like abortion and gay marriage, and their declining numbers have curbed their political clout. "Where are the mainline Protestant churches on questions of morality?" asks Schneck. "The prominent voices in the civil rights struggles have been silenced."

Read the full piece here.

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