MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The legacy of Pope John Paul II is playing out in America politics: A generation of American Catholic bishops, selected by Pope John Paul, are very conservative on social issues and vocal about their views.
And they've been increasingly vocal recently, as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: The night before the House of Representatives voted on heath care reform last month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi received some visitors. One was Congressman Bart Stupak, a pro-life Democrat, who wanted to amend the House bill to permanently strip federal funding for abortion. He brought with him two representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said they would not support any bill without that amendment.
Stupak later put it this way.
Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): We want to send a message: If you're going to start messing with abortion and health care, you got a problem.
HAGERTY: The meeting was a turning point. Pelosi allowed a vote on the amendment the next day and it passed.
Democrat Rosa DeLauro, a pro-choice Catholic, says the bishops are elevating abortion over every other issue, and they're rejecting the tradition established by John F. Kennedy that Catholic politicians vote according to their conscience, not the dictates of Rome.
Representative ROSA DELAURO (Democrat, Connecticut): The activity that the Catholic bishops have engaged in implies that the church will determine and dictate public policy.
HAGERTY: But John Myers, the archbishop of New Jersey, says bishops have every right to lobby Congress and influence laws.
Archbishop JOHN MYERS (Newark, New Jersey): I don't think it was improper because what we talked about were moral issues. And if anyone has the responsibility and the right to speak out on moral issues, it's religious leaders.
HAGERTY: Myers says bishops are becoming more assertive because they feel the country is reaching a moral tipping point: abortion remains legal, President Obama lifted the ban on stem cell research, and a few states are allowing same-sex marriage. The bishops' frustration began to boil over with an event at Notre Dame.
Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
HAGERTY: In May, the university awarded Barack Obama, the new pro-choice president, with an honorary degree. Prominent church leaders heaped criticism on the university for the invitation. The local bishop, John D'Arcy, boycotted the event, telling a radio program:
Bishop JOHN D'ARCY (Fort Wayne-South Bend): Some would call that a betrayal of Catholic teaching and of the church to which Notre Dame is attached. And I would agree with that.
The Reverend JAMES MARTIN (Editor, America): I think the Obama visit to Notre Dame was a real watershed moment. That really drove some of the bishops to distraction.
HAGERTY: Father James Martin is an editor at the Catholic magazine America. He says the bishops are irked by the new political landscape, and he says there's another factor. These bishops are part of the John Paul II generation, elevated in part because they shared the late pope's conservative theology.
The Rev. MARTIN: And you're also seeing a new president who's a Democrat and with whom many of these bishops disagree. So I think all these things are coming together to form a kind of perfect storm.
HAGERTY: Now, Martin says, those bishops are flexing their muscles. They told Catholics in Maine to vote against a law allowing same-sex marriage. It was overturned last month. In Washington, D.C., the archbishop announced that Catholic Charities might have to cancel contracts with the city to provide services to the poor if a similar law passes this month.
And then there's the battle between Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, and his parishioner, Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy, over Kennedy's support of abortion rights. After Kennedy revealed that Tobin had told him not to take communion, the bishop took to the airwaves, here with MSNBC's Chris Matthews.
Bishop THOMAS TOBIN (Providence, Rhode Island): The point is that any Catholic in public office, his first commitment has to be to his faith, not just for a Catholic, but for a member of any religious community.
HAGERTY: George Weigel, a conservative Catholic and author, says the bishops are finally acting as boundary guards of Catholicism.
Mr. GEORGE WEIGEL (Analyst, Ethics and Public Policy Center): Bishop Tobin finally broke through this tribal reluctance to criticize the Kennedy family and said: No. Excuse me. I'm the guy when it comes to defining Catholic identity in Rhode Island, not you.
HAGERTY: But Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro says the bishops are using Holy Communion as a political weapon.
Rep. DeLAURO: I think every Catholic member of this body who walks into a church to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist has at the back of their mind that they could be potentially denied.
HAGERTY: Now, Catholic senators have to consider that issue as they vote on their version of health care reform. The bishops have sent a letter, saying they will oppose any bill that contains funding for abortion.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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