Perception v. Reality of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

When it came down to it last weekend, the House Democratic leadership believed that it needed a handful more votes from Democrats to pass the health care reform bill, and the only way to secure them was to consent to the wishes of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

“At the end of the day,” says Jessica Arons, Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress and a member of its Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, “politicians still fall back on their own conventional wisdom and tried to privilege one religious perspective over another. It’s the politician’s perception of who commands more power.”

But that perception created an imbalance of political power, putting excessive power in the hands of the bishops to turn the health care bill into the biggest rollback of reproductive rights in decades. “I do think that [the House] leadership exaggerated influence of bishops over Catholics,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “They claimed they had great mobilization. Where? Where’s the evidence of that?”

Indeed informal and admittedly unscientific surveys on Catholic web sites show a majority of respondents saying their church did not address the health care issue as directed by the USCCB the Sunday before the crucial vote. “What is certainly true,” O’Brien went on, “is that the lobbyists were very busy on Capitol Hill. That doesn’t meant that Catholic voters agree with what the USCCB put forward. We’re not talking about the power of the bishops to mobilize Catholics, we’re talking about the weakness of the Democratic Party to understand the nature of the bishops’ lobby.”

Members of Congress who, in O’Brien’s words, “bent the knee” to the bishops, “drank the Kool-Aid.”

Many Catholics are passionate about health care reform, said O’Brien, but also believe in abortion rights and don’t want to see the issue politicized at mass. “The mass is not a political rally. It is actually a religious, very important service, where people come together to receive the body and blood of Christ. The idea that you’re using it as a rally for bishops is implausible to a lot of Catholics.”

“We need to burst their [politicians’] bubble,” said the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) and a Baptist minister. “It’s a perception that the bishops carry that kind of power.” If they did, he added, Catholics would not, for example, use contraception at the same rate as other Americans, in contravention of Vatican teaching.

Veazey pointed out how John F. Kennedy, when running for president, “had a very difficult time” because political opponents claimed he would be taking orders from the Vatican.

“I see this as worse,” said, Veazey, “for them [the bishops] to say we won’t vote for health reform if we don’t get our way. . . . This is a democracy, not a theocracy.” He added, “the Congress is trending toward a dangerous precedent by taking one ideology over another.”

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