In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, many observers forecasted that the U.S. church and particularly its bishops would lose much of their political influence on social issues.
But, according to Notre Dame sociologist David Yamane, the bishops’ political influence has not significantly suffered since the scandals of 2002. In Commonweal magazine (May 23), Yamane writes that a study he is conducting on bishops’ role in state suggests that much of Catholic political action is separate from the bishops’ influence (and reputations) through the church’s state conferences. The scandal in some cases did forestall other initiatives, especially in addressing legislation on the statute of limitations and clergy reporting of sexual abuse cases.
But there were other Catholic political victories. Among these, Iowa became just the second state to ban reproductive and therapeutic human cloning; the bill was introduced and advocated in the legislature by the Iowa Catholic Conference. In Oregon, the state conference put through a bill where health-care payers receive a conscience exemption on services that might be objectionable on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions. These state conferences are becoming increasingly important with the devolution of many social issues from the federal government to the state level, such as capital punishment, welfare, health care and abortion.
The concerns about the decline of bishop’s influence due to the scandals has centered on the church’s religious authority structure. But the state conferences — entities that have not received much attention from scholars and journalists — also have what Yamane calls an “agency structure” that carries out much of the “messier legislative agenda” apart from the bishops’ religious authority.
In his research, Yamane finds that the state conferences are increasingly sophisticated; a majority of the conferences consider legislative experience as the ideal background for the job. He concludes that the scandal is more localized than many realize, especially since a small minority of bishops have been directly implicated in any misconduct or cover-up. Although state conferences are the public-policy voice of the bishops, these agencies tend not to reflect the agenda of particular bishops.
They are more likely to invoke the tradition of Catholic social teachings as outlined in encyclicals and pastoral statements.
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