NPR - National Public
Radio (U.S.) , December
On Social Issues, Bishops Flex Political Muscle
By Barbara Bradley
Pope Benedict XVI is known for his conservative theology, but
it's his predecessor's legacy that is playing out in U.S. politics
today. A generation of U.S. Catholic bishops who were selected
by John Paul II is conservative on social issues, and they are
willing to mix it up in the public square to push their views.
Exhibit A: the health care overhaul. On Nov. 6, the night before
the House of Representatives voted on heath care, Speaker Nancy
Pelosi received some visitors. One was Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan,
an anti-abortion Democrat, who wanted to amend the House bill
to permanently strip federal funding for abortion. Critics say
that would make it harder for all women to pay for abortions.
Stupak brought with him two representatives of the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops, who said they would not support any bill
without that amendment.
As Stupak later put it, "We want to send a message: If you
start messing with abortion and health care, you've got a problem."
The meeting was a turning point. Pelosi allowed a vote on the
amendment the next day. It passed.
Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, a pro-choice Catholic, says
she was dismayed that the bishops seemed to be elevating abortion
over every other issue, including the health care needs of the
"In their quest to push on the issue of abortion," she
says, "they failed in the church's mission. They really act
like a bunch of lawyers who are instructing members how to vote
on arcane House rules."
DeLauro says the bishops are rejecting the tradition established
by John F. Kennedy that Catholic politicians vote according to
their conscience, not the dictates of Rome.
"The activity that the Catholic bishops have engaged in implies
that the church will determine and dictate public policy,"
But John Myers, the archbishop of Newark, N.J., says bishops have
every right to lobby Congress and influence laws.
"I don't think it was improper because what we talked about
is moral issues, and if anyone has the responsibility and the
right to speak out on moral issues, it is religious leaders,"
He says bishops are becoming more assertive because they feel
the country is reaching a moral tipping point: Abortion remains
legal, President Obama lifted a ban on stem cell research, and
a few states are allowing same-sex marriage.
The bishops' frustration seemed to boil over in May when the University
of Notre Dame awarded an honorary degree to Obama, who supports
Prominent church leaders criticized the university for the invitation.
The local bishop, John D'Arcy, boycotted the event.
"Some would call that a betrayal of Catholic teaching and
of the church to which Notre Dame is attached," he told a
local radio station. "And I would agree with that."
Cardinal Francis George, the president of the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops, called the invitation "an extreme embarrassment,"
while Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said it was "a
"I think the Obama visit to Notre Dame was a real watershed
moment," says Father James Martin, an editor at the Catholic
magazine America. "That really drove the bishops to distraction,
and I think that really prompted a lot of them to be more vocal
than they would have been 20 to 30 years ago."
The Legacy Of John Paul II
Martin says the bishops are irked by the new political landscape.
And there's another factor: These bishops are part of the John
Paul II generation, elevated in part because they shared the late
pope's conservative theology.
"I think what you're seeing is people that are much more
likely to be outspoken about social issues that they consider
important to the Catholic Church," says Martin. "And
you're also seeing a new president who's a Democrat and with whom
many of these bishops disagree. So I think all these things are
coming together to form a kind of perfect storm."
And now those bishops are flexing their muscles. They told Catholics
in Maine to vote against a law allowing same-sex marriage. It
was overturned last month. In Washington, D.C., the archbishop
announced that Catholic Charities may have to cancel contracts
with the city to provide services to the poor if a similar law
passes this month.
And then there is the battle between Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence,
R.I., and his parishioner, Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy. Because
of Kennedy's support of abortion rights, Tobin suggested to him,
privately, that he refrain from taking Holy Communion. After Kennedy
made the exchange public, the bishop took to the airwaves.
"The point is that for any Catholic in public office, his
first commitment has to be to his faith," Tobin told MSNBC's
Chris Matthews. "Not just for a Catholic, but for a member
of any religious community. No commitment is more important than
your commitment to your faith, because it involves your relationship
George Weigel, a conservative Catholic analyst at the Ethics and
Public Policy Center, and author of several books about the popes,
says it's about time the bishops stood up and acted as "boundary
guards" of Catholicism.
"Bishop Tobin finally broke through this tribal reluctance
to criticize the Kennedy family and said, 'No. Excuse me, I'm
the guy when it comes to defining Catholic identity in Rhode Island,
not you.' "
But DeLauro says the bishops are using Holy Communion as a political
weapon, and that makes her and her fellow Catholics on the Hill
"I think every Catholic member of this body who walks into
a church to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist has at the
back of their mind that they could be potentially denied,"
Now, Catholic senators will have to consider that issue as they
vote on their version of health care overhaul. The bishops have
sent a letter, saying they will oppose any bill that contains
funding for abortion.
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