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Has Obama Exposed the Powerlessness of the US Bishops?

With Catholic leaders and churchgoers turning their backs on the bishops, the men who rule the church are watching their political power wane.

In politics, it's said, the perception of power amounts to power itself. If that's the case, then the political power of the U.S. Catholic Bishops has long been based on little more than perception, that of an all-powerful church, an idea too often advanced by a corporate media romanced by the clerics' silken vestments and those great stone piles in which they preach. But among the people of the church, the bishops' pronouncements on matters of sex and politics don't amount to a hill of beans.

Politicians and media have long known this, but the perception remained that there was a "Catholic vote," one the bishops could deliver, even if those voters ignored the bishops' backward sexual edicts. But the events of the past week reveal that the bishops command no one, not even the leaders of Catholic institutions.

In offering the bishops an "accommodation" they refused to accept on a contraception provision of the new healthcare law, the Obama administration effectively exposed the powerlessness of the bishops when the rest of the church rose to accept the offer. Any perception of the bishops' power that remains in the halls of Congress or the annals of news stories exists solely because that perception serves the aims of its purveyors: right-wing politicians and news producers in need of spectacle. And, of course, the bishops themselves.

Current events bear this out. In fact, even more significant than the ground-breaking contraception "accommodation" announced last week by the Obama administration may be its effect on the bishops, who now stand marginalized in their own church, as major Catholic organizations, most of them led by clergy -- the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Catholic Health Association (which represents Catholic hospitals), the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Sisters of Mercy -- signed onto the administration's plan over the bishops' objections.

Adding insult to the bishops' injury are the polls, which show majorities of Catholics in favor of the healthcare plan's mandate for contraceptive coverage by employer-provided health insurance, even if the employer is an institution, like a hospital or university, that is affiliated with the church. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday found that "57 percent of Catholic voters supported the requirement for religiously affiliated employers, like hospitals or universities, to cover the full cost of birth control for their employees, while 36 percent opposed it (7 percent said they did not know)." Further, reported Laurie Goodstein, "There was almost no difference between Catholic and other voters on the question."

And the disagreements don't end with contraception. On gay marriage, too, the laity is at odds with the clergy, the New York Times poll found. "More than two-thirds of Catholic voters supported some sort of legal recognition of gay couples' relationships: 44 percent favored marriage, and 25 percent preferred civil unions," the Times reported. (And when the question is asked with more specificity, making a distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage, Public Religion Research Institute found 71 percent of Catholics in favor of allowing same-sex couples to get married in a courthouse.)

Back in the first half of the 20th century, politicians had good reason to fear the bishops, whose influence on the ward captains and voters of the nation's cities could make or break a politician's career. Back then, Catholics comprised a largely urban population whose members were defined by the ethnic identities of the countries either they, their parents or grandparents had left behind. The bishops were their advocates in an often-unwelcoming land -- paternalistic figures to be obeyed, political kingmakers who could deliver votes directly from their pews.

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