Miller: The Bishops, Abortion, and Health Care

They see themselves as crusaders for human rights—protectors of the innocent, the voiceless, and the powerless. After years of enduring the slings and arrows of opposition, these activists are finally in the power seat. They are among the most important voices on a crucial political question: will abortion finally scuttle health-care reform?

They are America's Roman Catholic bishops.

It goes without saying that the Catholic hierarchy has always been pro-life. Nevertheless, the new prominence of this ancient fraternity is somewhat surprising. For one thing, the American public hardly regards the institutional Catholic Church as sacrosanct. Thanks to continuing sex scandals, many Americans—even American Catholics—roll their eyes on the subject of the Catholic hierarchy's ability to stand as a moral example.

Also, American Catholics reflect the voting public at large, which is to say that they are—and have long been—pro-choice. According to a 1999 poll, more than half of American Catholics believe you can be a good Catholic and disregard the bishops' teachings on abortion.

Now a new generation of bishops, appointed by Pope John Paul II and activist especially on life issues, sees the opportunity to affect abortion policy. They've seized, in particular, on the Democrats' lack of unity on the choice issue, and they've stepped into that gap by articulating a firm and uncompromising anti-abortion stance. In sum: they want health-care reform, but they don't want a single taxpayer dollar to go to abortion providers—or to health-insurance plans that cover abortions. They don't care if the disenchanted laity disagrees with them, and they're less interested than previous generations in working on policy through proper bureaucratic channels.

These new bishops are freelancers, comfortable speaking in public and making their own connections with politicians. Last week Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput made a speech attacking John F. Kennedy's private piety and arguing for a more prominent role for faith in the public sphere. "We live in a country that was once—despite its sins and flaws—deeply shaped by Christian faith," he told an audience at Houston Baptist University. "It can be so again."

Young bishops like Chaput are "more willing to take the heat," says Robert George, the reigning conservative Catholic intellectual and Princeton scholar. "They are cognizant that religious leaders have been very active in the great movements—slavery, civil rights—and they see themselves as standing in that tradition. So they're just not impressed when someone says, 'Look, you're stepping over the line. You really should leave this kind of thing to the laity'…They're of a much bolder stripe, and much more willing to enter the fray and take the punches and the counterpunches."

This strategy has worked, to a point. I spoke last week to Rep. Bart Stupak, the Catholic Democrat from Michigan who, at the 11th hour, attached an amendment to the House health-care bill restricting the use of government funds to any health-care plan that includes abortion. The bishops, he says, were "very, very, very engaged" in the framing of the amendment. Through last summer and fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "was working with my staff." But as the House headed toward a vote, "I asked them to come by, to make sure we were on the same page. After that first meeting, I said, 'I'm not moving forward until you know what I'm doing.' We had to coordinate forces. They'd ask us about members. I'd say, 'I've talked to this one but not to that one.' " The bishops, in other words, were counting votes.

But now, moving past the current quagmire—with the Senate position on abortion to the left of the House and no resolution forthcoming—means compromise, and compromise is not the strong suit of these newly impassioned bishops. They enrage conservatives, who want them to renounce reform, and inflame liberals, who want them to take an easier stand on abortion. The bishops refuse. They believe they're right, and righteousness drives them. "We hold those two values together in a way that both parties don't," says Richard Doerflinger, who runs the pro-life office of the USCCB. "We think they really demand each other and can't be separated at the level of principle." If the bill goes down, "we won't be celebrating," says Doerflinger. Such is the price of righteousness. But the 40 million Americans without health care might not agree.