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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.

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But you'd be hard-pressed today to find a vote delivered by a bishop -- at least not because of a statement made from the pulpit for or against a given politician. Political polls have, for decades, shown that a monolithic Catholic vote no longer exists; the voting behavior of Catholics is virtually indistinguishable from that of the public at large. Catholics come in all races and classes, and their votes typically break along those lines -- just like those of the rest of America.

So if the bishops can't deliver the votes of their flock or control the leaders of the church's institutions, do they have any power left? Well, yes, they do -- for the time being. They have money -- money from the collection plates of their parishes, which they've been diverting to campaigns against gay marriage, often in states far away from those in which the money was collected. Those dollars, according to a report by Dominic Holden in The Stranger, a Seattle area newsweekly, are contributed by parishioners who are largely unaware of their ultimate use. They think they are contributing to charity, Holden reports, when, actually, most Catholic charitable institutions receive the bulk of their budgets from the government, as contractors for safety-net services. He cites contributions from archdioceses around the country of more than $500,000 to an anti-gay marriage campaign in Maine, directed there by the bishops.

But once the bishops' misuse of collection-plate offerings receives further exposure, I'm betting they'll lose that power, too.

Many of the Catholics that Holden spoke to for his report expressed dismay that the church is spending its political capital and parishioners' money to fight for antiquated and discriminatory notions of sexual morality rather than to defeat the death penalty or advocate for immigrants. At a recent meeting of progressive and liberal religious types I attended in Washington, DC, I heard the same complaint from the Catholics in the room.

The bishops won't go down easy, of course. At Salon, Sarah Posner writes of a hearing scheduled for today, convened by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at which the bishops, along with allies from other denominations, will answer this question: "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" (Gee, I wonder what the answer will be.) Issa, chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, has made the hyperbolic dogging of the Obama administration something of a speciality.

It is fitting that the bishops, who once reveled in their unilateral power over their own flock, secure in the power of their own lobby, now seek allies among the most regressive factions of the church's rivals on the roster of the world's great religions, most notably among the Protestant evangelical right (which will be represented at tomorrow's hearing by Craig Mitchell of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Their people having left them, the fate of the bishops' political power may lie in the hands of Protestant preachers who once derided Catholics as non-Christians, who find in the bishops a symbol to display before their own evangelical acolytes of a once-powerful church undone by the purportedly anti-religious government of an African-American president. In this sense, the bishops' remaining political power is in a revisionist history of their own disempowerment.

Though we may never know whether the administration planned it this way or simply happened upon a game-changing maneuver, the contraception accommodation -- which puts the onus on insurance companies, not employers, for the provision of no-co-pay contraception -- effectively drove a wedge into a fault line in the power structure of the church. The bishops now stand on the edge of a chasm, wide and deep, shouting to their theologians, institutional leaders and their very flock on the other side, only to hear nothing but the sound of their own voices echoing back at them.

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