America's Catholic bishops have been allies of the Republican Party for almost four decades.
The Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 launched the cooperation as Republicans quickly proclaimed themselves forever opposed to abortion. President Nixon and others thought it was a very good political strategy. They were right. Evangelicals,
many Catholics, and the bishops came to the Republican side.
Republican Party leaders have done nothing to change the court decision but they always said the right things and were properly indignant. In return, they received votes and money
from their religious allies.
The bishops would of course never tell their parishioners to vote Republican, but they left little to the imagination. Priests would preach at mass about the necessity of voting only
for pro-life candidates. They would harangue against same sex marriages and occasionally a pro-choice Catholic would be publicly denied communion.
Events of the last month indicate the bishops are going to take an even more aggressive stance against Democrats than normal. Catholic priests in literally hundreds of churches have been attacking President Obama on a weekly basis since last fall. The priests got their marching orders from the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops which, at a November meeting, decided that "religious freedom" would be their theme for the year.
Many Catholics thought this a strange decision. But the bishops had their reasons.
They were angered at losing a federal grant to provide assistance to victims of sex trafficking.
Importantly, they fought back against an HHS decision that mandated Catholic hospitals and colleges to provide contraceptive insurance to employees.
Many Catholics agreed that this was a case of violation of conscience and protested.
The Obama administration quickly realized its mistake and worked out a compromise that satisfied the religious women who work in the hospitals, influential Catholic publications such as "America" and the "National Catholic Reporter" and virtually every other health-based Catholic group.
But not the bishops. They were still angry and continued the ongoing weekly attacks at mass. Some analysts thought this was an approach the bishops felt would help regain some of the credibility lost in the child abuse scandals of the last decade.
The bishops have, however, raised the stakes in the last 10 days.
The USCCB chair, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, went on the right wing talk show host Bill O'Reilly's broadcast to accuse the Obama administration and its allies of trying to divide the Catholic Church in America. Such a charge from a Cardinal and USCCB Chair would normally get headlines. But not this time. It appears the ongoing attack by the bishops was becoming old news.
And so Dolan turned to another conservative outlet -- being interviewed in the Wall Street Journal on March 31. His approach was the same as in the O'Reilly interview. Dolan likes to present himself as an apolitical and simple priest. He conveys the idea that he is respectful of the president and did not want to have a battle. People who know him often say he is a moderate and is ousted to extreme positions by other bishops. But that's not what a close reading of the interviews shows. Dolan went after President Obama hard, leaving his interviewer saying the president was deceitful.
Dolan is hardly the innocent he portraits himself as. He was not slated to be the USCCB Chair but was elected to that post when a 50-year plus tradition of elevating the number two officer was overturned so the much more conservative Dolan could be elected.
Dolan is also a friend of Rep. Paul Ryan, Chair of the House Budget Committee, whose budget would cut 3.3 trillion in low and moderate income programs.
As aggressive as he is in the issue of religious liberty, Cardinal Dolan has been very kind to his friend Ryan and no comment has come from the USCCB despite the Church's long tradition of social justice and support for the poor.
Cardinal Dolan is certainly the most visible of the bishops taking pro-Republican positions.
Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport is chair of the USCCB Committee on Religious Freedom. He was a witness at the now infamous House Operations hearing on Womens' Health. You remember that one -- it had no women. Lori has since been promoted to Baltimore Archbishop.
We also learned this week that Anna Maria College in Massachsetts has revoked an invitation to Vickie Kennedy, widow if the late Senator Edward Kennedy, to receive an honorary doctorate and give the commencement speech at the May graduation.
The reason? Bishop Robert McManus applied pressure to Anna Maria because Mrs. Kennedy was "too liberal."