Catholic Bishops Fight For Authority Over U.S. Flock

Bishops listen to an address by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a powerful institution, at least on paper.

But a recent debate over contraception coverage has exposed a deep divide between the 271 active bishops and the rank-and-file U.S. Catholics who are supposed to follow their moral authority. It also has raised questions about why some prominent Catholic intuitions ignore the bishops’ teachings – and whether the bishops will be able to reassert their authority.

The gulf has left some politicians, ever eager to court the Catholic vote, struggling to figure out who now speaks for the Church. Some ordinary Catholics in the pews are wondering the same.

“The bishops have lost their monopoly on speaking, and they have lost a lot of their clout,” said Father Thomas Reese, a Georgetown University theologian and church scholar.

Led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the bishops have been pressing a muscular campaign to fight a federal mandate that would have required all health insurance plans, including those offered by religious employers, to offer free birth control.

A leading voice, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut., was scheduled to testify on Thursday on Capitol Hill.

But other widely-respected Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association, which represents hundreds of Catholic hospitals, have disavowed the bishops’ fight. They have accepted a compromise, announced last week by President Barack Obama, to allow religious institutions to opt out of paying for contraceptive coverage. (Their insurers would pick up the tab instead.) [More]