The Bishops and Their Pawns

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, spreading smoke at his day job.

I’ve been focusing on monied interests in the past few weeks, but if you want a striking example of how American democracy has evolved to favor the interests of the powerful over the people, consider this article on Huffington Post by Laura Basset about another form of ungodly influence over the body politic:

A group of men with no real background in law or medicine, but blessed with a strong personal interest in women’s bodies, have quietly influenced all of the major anti-abortion legislation over the past several years. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops may be one of the quietest, yet most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill, with political allies that have enabled them to roll back decades of law and precedent.


While the bishops have always been vocal on the issue of choice, they have emerged since the 2009 health care reform debate as one of the most powerful anti-abortion advocates on Capitol Hill.

Now, they are stepping up their attack on women’s choice with a new, high-intensity campaign aimed at the latest front in the national anti-abortion battle: birth control. And the opposition is worried that they might have just enough sway over lawmakers to succeed.


“Those bishops were literally sitting in [the office of Bart Stupak, D-MI, author of a controversial anti-abortion mendment to the health care reform act of 2010] … and, from what we could tell, instructing him all about the laws he should be supporting, and the text of the laws, and the strategy of getting them through,” said Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women. “It was absolutely appalling.”

Basset points out that the Stupak Amendment, though it passed in the House, did not make it into the final bill, but its removal, which made possible the passage of health care reform, came at the price of President Obama’s promise to issue an executive order prohibiting federal funds from paying for abortions. This “failure” on the part of the bishops to get the letter of their demands has certainly not inhibited them from exercising their power over legislators, especially since the Republican takeover of the House this year. Republicans  have introduced three bills whose passage, women’s groups are arguing, would have a chilling effect on women’s reproductive freedom:  the Protect Life Act (H.R. 358), the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 361) and the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179). Basset points out that each of these pieces of legislation was authored in part by Richard Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and all are the subject of intensive lobbying by the bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.

Besides being a spooky story about a governmental attack on personal freedom at the behest of a small group of powerful men, Basset’s piece highlights one of the great weaknesses of American representative democracy: it is extremely vulnerable to being manipulated to thwart the people’s will. Naked money, though it is clearly one of the very greatest threats, is not the only source of danger. The bishops are not as capable of outright buying influence as, say, Wall Street bankers or corporate chairmen, certainly. Oddly enough, they’re not even capable of speaking for the majority of their own constituency  with any accuracy. Basset notes that a majority of Catholic men and women (about 22% of the US population are nominally Catholic ) favors the use of birth control; 63% support mandating insurance companies to pay for contraceptives. So why does this group of bishops have so much power over federal lawmakers, and what does it mean about us as a nation that they have such disproportionate power to their size and relevance to the people’s interests?

The first part of that question is steeped in complicated history and, therefore, defies any easy answer. Obviously, the Catholic church is a powerful institution in the Western world, and though, like all organized religions, it’s shedding believers (not to say devotees) in developed nations (not least of all through some scandalous faults of its own), it hangs onto its privileged social position mainly by virtue of very deep pockets and deep, deep roots in the cultural soil. But why are American legislators so vulnerable to the bishops’ sway? Don’t we have strict separation of church and state here?

An innocent might say that the key lies in the moral strength of the bishops’ positions, that American legislators are susceptible to them because, fundamentally, the US is a conservative nation that accepts the authority of religious institutions in matters of conscience.  An innocent might say that, but it doesn’t explain why our political class is more apt to restrict women’s freedom of reproductive choice than even self-identified Catholics in the general population would if they had direct power over the democracy.

It turns out that this actually may just be another case of money talking in DC, as Basset explains in her HuffPo article. The ad hoc committee was formed as a result of the church losing a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to minister, for lack of a better word, to victims of human trafficking because their services elided “the full range of contraceptive and gynecological services that other agencies provide, such as abortion referrals, birth control pills and condoms.” The bishops reacted against what they claimed was discrimination against their services based on religious belief. Basset writes:

President of Catholics for Choice Jon O’Brien, however, believes the establishment of the ad hoc committee was more about money and political power than religious liberty.

“This is really a political committee designed to lobby to get the results bishops want for their charities,” he told HuffPost. “International aid is a big business, and the bishops are investing the staff, time and resources to make an issue around this so they don’t lose more contracts going into the future.”

If the bishops can sway Congress and the Obama administration over to their side on the issue of contraception, it could restrict access to birth control for millions of U.S. women and sexual trafficking victims worldwide.

“What they’re attempting to do is use the legislative process to legislate us and others into their sense of morality,” O’Brien said. “If you can’t reach them at the pulpit, you go to Congress! And sometimes they win.”

If the bishops win on these pieces of legislation, chalk it up as a loss for American women–and American democracy.

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