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Catholic Church Powering Their Way Into Politics

The most disturbing element of the Stupak amendment fight is the outsized influence of the Catholic Church, particularly the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who insistently lobbied on the health care bill as it wrapped up in the House.

The call came in from Rome, just as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants were scrambling to round up scarce votes to pass their sweeping health overhaul.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was on the line for Pelosi, calling to discuss adding strict abortion restrictions to the House bill.

It was just one element of an intensive lobbying effort orchestrated by the nation’s Catholic bishops, who have emerged as a formidable force in the health care negotiations. They used their clout with millions of Catholics and worked behind the scenes in Congress to make sure the abortion curbs were included in the legislation — and are now pressing to keep them there.

The church has no official lobbyists and spends no money on political actions, at least according to their accountants. But clearly they have wielded a tremendous amount of power and practically seized a veto power over the final bill.

This could be why Rep. Stupak is almost arrogant in his pronouncements since the vote, saying confidently that there will be “hell to pay” if his language restricting reproductive choice is stripped from the bill. He has the power of the Church behind him, so the “hell” imagery is appropriate. He’s comfortable saying that any language looser than his would “legitimize abortion as a federal policy” even though it’s already a legitimate and legal procedure. He’s dismissive of the massive class divide that his language would cause – and the Hyde Amendment has already caused – preferring to babble the “current law” talking point six times in a single paragraph, secure in the knowledge that he has the Church to back him up:

No, we’re going with current law. If current law is a class divide, then they must conclude that current law is too. No, all I’m doing is keeping current law–I’m not trying to divide classes or anything like that. All I’m doing is keeping current law that’s been current law since 1976.

Jeff Sharlet has an incredible piece about Stupak and his partner on the amendment, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), and their relationship to the shadowy Christian organization The Family, dissenting a bit that this is the province of the Catholic church:

Much is being made in the media about the role played by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, which lobbied hard for the amendment. “We just have to accept this as a Catholic thing,” goes the new conventional wisdom. Leaving aside the fact that a strong majority of American Catholics are pro-choice, that story line obscures the increasingly significant role played by evangelical conservatives within the Democratic Party.

Start with Stupak and Pitts themselves. Although Stupak is a Catholic, he’s lived since at least 2002 in the C Street house run by the Family, which cultivates political leaders on behalf of a long-term vision of what Joe Pitts, speaking at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast (the group’s only public event), called “God-led government.” After the summer sex scandals of Sen. John Ensign, Gov. Mark Sanford and former Rep. Chip Pickering, C Streeters all, made the Capitol Hill address infamous, Stupak denied any knowledge about the house he lives in. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stupak told Michigan reporters when asked about his residence in the house, where he’s been enjoying below-market rent for the last seven years, courtesy of C Street’s tax-exempt status as a church. But when the Los Angeles Times asked Stupak about his role there in 2002, he pleaded secrecy instead of ignorance: “We sort of don’t talk to the press about the house.”

However, at a minimum, the Church has become emboldened by their recent victory, enough to make threats to the DC City Council that they would abandon the social services they provide in the city if it passes a law allowing gay marriage:

Fearful that they could be forced, among other things, to extend employee benefits to same-sex married couples, church officials said they would have no choice but to abandon their contracts with the city.

“If the city requires this, we can’t do it,” Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Wednesday. “The city is saying in order to provide social services, you need to be secular. For us, that’s really a problem.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro has more.

I mean, this is a form of blackmail. And it’s coming from an organization that pays no federal taxes and is supposed to engage in no political activities.

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David Dayen

David Dayen