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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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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.

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.

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story states that Catholic Charities had signed on to the accommodation made to religiously-affiliated institutions by the Obama administration regarding the contraceptive coverage mandate. That assertion was based on astatementmade by Catholic Charities CEO Larry Snyder, who on February 10 issued a statement saying, "This compromise enables Catholic Charities USA to not only continue to provide access to quality healthcare to its 70,000 employees and families across the country of many different faiths and backgrounds, but also guarantees the continued delivery of vital services to the more than 10 million people living in need across the country."

The following day, however, Snyder issued arevised statement, calling the accommodation "a step in the right direction." By today, a notice on the Catholic Charities Web site said that the organization's position on the accommodation had been mischaracterized. In a box on the site'sfront page, stating the following:

1. We have not endorsed the accommodation to the HHS mandate that was announced by the Administration last Friday.

2. We unequivocally share the goal of the US Catholic bishops to uphold religious liberty and will continue to work with the USCCB towards that goal.

Any representation to the contrary is false.

Our apologies for having missed this turn of events in our original report.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan
 
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