I am bishop, hear me roar

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The re-emergence of  the American Catholic bishops as a significant force for social conservatism on the national scene is the result of a combination of happenstance, intention, and changes in the political situation, both secular and ecclesiastical. Some of the proximate causes are covered in Barbara Bradley Haggerty’s NPR story, but it worth considering the situation from the middle distance as well.

For starters, the disappearance from the scene of the founding generation of evangelical political leaders (Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, et al.) has left the religious right shrunken and in some disarray. Moreover, having long since abandoned even the pretense of non-partisanship, religious right activists have lost whatever leverage they might once have had with the Democrats who now control the levers of power in Washington. Their troops themselves are so locked into the Republican Party that there’s little the leadership could do to make their influence felt in any case.

By contrast, the Catholic bishops, the priest pedophile cover-up scandal more or less behind them, preside over a swing constituency that is, at least at the margins, responsive to what they have to say. Most importantly, there are enough socially conservative Catholic members of Congress for the bishops to make a difference, at least on the neuralgic issue of abortion. And so, it appears, the bishops have made a difference.

It is, in fact, hard to escape the conclusion that they are prepared to let health care reform go down to defeat if they don’t get their way on keeping abortion coverage out of the final legislation. This is beginning to dawn on pro-health reform folks like John Gehring of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who over on NCR gives the bishops a bit of the business. It would be remarkable if, after over a century of social encyclicals from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, health care reform came about in the United States not because of the Catholic bishops but in spite of them.