In response to some recent posts about the Catholic Bishops position on abortion and health care, some have chided me for caring too much about what the Bishops think. After all, there's plenty of evidence that Catholics don't follow the Bishops on a wide variety of political or social issues, from abortion to contraception to the Iraq war.
But I believe Bishops matter a great deal politically when it comes to the abortion-and-health care debate.
1) They want health care reform to pass. Most pro-life groups are either opposed to Democratic-style universal health care plans (e.g. Family Research Council) or neutral (Right to Life Committee). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the only major pro-life group that wants health care reform. As a result, they have no interest in using the abortion issue to block health care. So when they raise objections about abortion provisions, members of congress may perceive them to be substantively rather than politically motivated.
2) They may influence pro-life Democrats. Pro-life Republicans are unlikely to support health care reform even if the legislation was perfect, from their perspective, on abortion. The more important group is pro-life Democrats, who may be on the fence on health care reform, or lean in favor, but have expressed unwillingness to support it if legislation subsdizes abortion. Even those pro-life Democrats who aren't Catholic can look at the Bishops as kindred spirits, since they too want to both oppose abortion aid and support health care reform. A reminder: about one quarter of Obama's coalition came from pro-life voters.
3) The Bishops give Democrats political cover. The question of abortion and health care is complicated. Some of the issues reside in gray zones, where both pro-life and pro-choice groups can make plausible claims. If the Bishops support the health care package, Democrats and moderate Republicans would have a simple, jargon-free, non-technical response to charges that the plan encourages abortion: "Would the Catholic Bishops really have supported this if it encouraged abortion?"
4) The Catholic vote matters. If Obama hadn't made huge inroads among Catholics, he would not have won the 2008 election. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry 52%-47% among Catholics. Obama beat McCain among Catholics 53%-45%, a stunning 13 point shift. He even improved among regular churchgoing Catholics. I have no illusions that the Bishops either can cause or prevent such shifts among Catholic voters. But given the importance of that vote, from the Democratic perspective, it's better to have the Bishops on board than to not have them.
My usual disclaimer: I'm not commenting on the substance of abortion policy, just the political realities.
More from Steven Waldman on Beliefnet here.