Last month's passage of a sweeping ban on federal funding for abortion in the House healthcare bill caught most of Washington by surprise. The Democratic House leadership is closely aligned with the party's pro-abortion rights base, which alleged the ban would roll back abortion access for many women by keeping coverage for the procedure out of federally subsidized healthcare plans. And for abortion rights activists, the central role of the Roman Catholic bishops in pressing House leaders to allow a vote on the ban, known as the Stupak-Pitts amendment—and in helping prod 64 Democratic congressmen to support it—was as galling as the ban itself. "It is extremely unfortunate," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said at the time, "that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and antichoice opponents were able to hijack the healthcare reform bill in their dedicated attempt to ban all legal abortion in the United States."
Antiabortion activists were just as surprised. "I did not think the bishops would have that degree of success with Stupak," says Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
It's hardly the only example of the bishops' impressive political influence on a hot-button issue in recent weeks. The Catholic archdiocese of Portland, Maine, played a lead role in passing a ballot initiative last month that overturned the state's legalization of gay marriage. Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat, recently disclosed that his bishop had asked him to forgo Communion because of Kennedy's support for abortion rights. And Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson revealed last week that he consulted with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in crafting an amendment to the healthcare bill that approximates the strict House ban on federal abortion funding. (Nelson's proposal was defeated.)
The developments mark a newly aggressive political posture for the American bishops. And a string of successes is very likely to embolden them further. Which means that Democrats can expect strong opposition from the bishops if their final healthcare bill lacks a Stupak-like ban on federal dollars for abortion, as the Senate version does. "After the recent success on the Hill [with Stupak], there's an effort on the part of the bishops to be more active on issues of morality," says Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America.
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."