US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Are they or aren't they? The bishops as lobbyists

Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Nancy Pelosi is once again drawing the ire of Catholics for something she said about the leaders of her own church. This time, Pelosi is under fire for having the audacity to call the U.S. bishops "lobbyists."

The comment came in response to a question at a press conference about the bishops' strong backlash against the requirement for health care plans to cover contraception. Asked whether she agrees with the bishops' position on this, Pelosi said, "I have great respect for our bishops when they are my pastor. As lobbyists in Washington D.C., we have some areas of disagreement."

A host of bloggers were quick to latch on to the story, using the comment to question Pelosi's Catholic faith or worse, as evidence that she is "pure evil." Now I'm not necessarily a defender of Pelosi's politics, nor do I know enough about her personal spirituality to take a firm stand on her relationship with God, but I still have to ask: Is what she said really all that wrong?

Pelosi's comment comes shortly after the Pew Forum's report on religious lobbying, which cited the Catholic Church as one of the largest religious lobbyists in Washington, drew its own share of criticism. The bishops' conference complained that Pew's numbers were way off, as were its characterizations of what counts as lobbying or advocacy (Pew included, for instance, the bishops' Catholic News Service as an example of advocacy). [UPDATE: Pew Forum has notified me that they actually did not include CNS as an example of advocacy, but rather, the USCCB's publicly available financial statements, which were used in compiling the report, grouped CNS into the same budget category as some of its advocacy initiatives, making it impossible to distinguish advocacy and non-advocacy spending. See this new post for more information.]

But in a response to the Pew report, USCCB media relations director Sister Mary Ann Walsh never denied that the conference is engaged in government advocacy efforts. She simply clarifies the number of people doing it and the amount of money spent on it, which is much less than the Pew Forum calculated. So the bishops themselves don't seem to mind the "lobbyist" label, so long as it is applied accurately.

The word "lobbying" often carries a negative connotation, but not all lobbying is a bad thing. In fact it is critically important for church leaders and other non-profit groups to lobby at the federal and state levels as a way to ensure that the concerns of those who often don't have a voice in lawmaking are heard. Sure, lobbying has more than its fair share of corruption, but that only makes it more important for the "good" kind of lobbyists to get in the ear of legislators. So the Catholic bishops, and their conference staff at the state and national level, are indeed lobbyists, and saying so shouldn't be seen as an attack.

If I understand Pelosi correctly, her comments show that she draws a firm line between her relationship with the church as a person in the pews and in her work as a public official. As a lawmaker, she seems to be focused on laws that suit her entire constituency (and thus placate voters and those other lobbyists, of course) rather than simply doing what would most please the bishops.

It seems like Pelosi, whether you like her policies or not, doesn't let her interactions with the church in one area of her life influence them in another. Isn't that what the separation of church and state is all about?