Pope Benedict XVI is known for his conservative theology, but it's his predecessor's legacy that is playing out in U.S. politics today. A generation of U.S. Catholic bishops who were selected by John Paul II is conservative on social issues, and they are willing to mix it up in the public square to push their views.
Exhibit A: the health care overhaul. On Nov. 6, the night before the House of Representatives voted on heath care, Speaker Nancy Pelosi received some visitors. One was Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, an anti-abortion Democrat, who wanted to amend the House bill to permanently strip federal funding for abortion. Critics say that would make it harder for all women to pay for abortions. Stupak brought with him two representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said they would not support any bill without that amendment.
As Stupak later put it, "We want to send a message: If you start messing with abortion and health care, you've got a problem."
The meeting was a turning point. Pelosi allowed a vote on the amendment the next day. It passed.
Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, a pro-choice Catholic, says she was dismayed that the bishops seemed to be elevating abortion over every other issue, including the health care needs of the poor.
"In their quest to push on the issue of abortion," she says, "they failed in the church's mission. They really act like a bunch of lawyers who are instructing members how to vote on arcane House rules."
DeLauro says the bishops are rejecting the tradition established by John F. Kennedy that Catholic politicians vote according to their conscience, not the dictates of Rome.
"The activity that the Catholic bishops have engaged in implies that the church will determine and dictate public policy," DeLauro says.
But John Myers, the archbishop of Newark, N.J., says bishops have every right to lobby Congress and influence laws.
"I don't think it was improper because what we talked about is moral issues, and if anyone has the responsibility and the right to speak out on moral issues, it is religious leaders," Myers says.
He says bishops are becoming more assertive because they feel the country is reaching a moral tipping point: Abortion remains legal, President Obama lifted a ban on stem cell research, and a few states are allowing same-sex marriage.
The bishops' frustration seemed to boil over in May when the University of Notre Dame awarded an honorary degree to Obama, who supports abortion rights.
Prominent church leaders criticized the university for the invitation. The local bishop, John D'Arcy, boycotted the event.
"Some would call that a betrayal of Catholic teaching and of the church to which Notre Dame is attached," he told a local radio station. "And I would agree with that."
Cardinal Francis George, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the invitation "an extreme embarrassment," while Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said it was "a big mistake."
"I think the Obama visit to Notre Dame was a real watershed moment," says Father James Martin, an editor at the Catholic magazine America. "That really drove the bishops to distraction, and I think that really prompted a lot of them to be more vocal than they would have been 20 to 30 years ago."
The Legacy Of John Paul II
Martin says the bishops are irked by the new political landscape. And there's another factor: These bishops are part of the John Paul II generation, elevated in part because they shared the late pope's conservative theology.
"I think what you're seeing is people that are much more likely to be outspoken about social issues that they consider important to the Catholic Church," says Martin. "And you're also seeing a new president who's a Democrat and with whom many of these bishops disagree. So I think all these things are coming together to form a kind of perfect storm."
And now those bishops are flexing their muscles. They told Catholics in Maine to vote against a law allowing same-sex marriage. It was overturned last month. In Washington, D.C., the archbishop announced that Catholic Charities may have to cancel contracts with the city to provide services to the poor if a similar law passes this month.
And then there is the battle between Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., and his parishioner, Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy. Because of Kennedy's support of abortion rights, Tobin suggested to him, privately, that he refrain from taking Holy Communion. After Kennedy made the exchange public, the bishop took to the airwaves.
"The point is that for any Catholic in public office, his first commitment has to be to his faith," Tobin told MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "Not just for a Catholic, but for a member of any religious community. No commitment is more important than your commitment to your faith, because it involves your relationship with God."
George Weigel, a conservative Catholic analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and author of several books about the popes, says it's about time the bishops stood up and acted as "boundary guards" of Catholicism.
"Bishop Tobin finally broke through this tribal reluctance to criticize the Kennedy family and said, 'No. Excuse me, I'm the guy when it comes to defining Catholic identity in Rhode Island, not you.' "
But DeLauro says the bishops are using Holy Communion as a political weapon, and that makes her and her fellow Catholics on the Hill uncomfortable.
"I think every Catholic member of this body who walks into a church to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist has at the back of their mind that they could be potentially denied," she says.
Now, Catholic senators will have to consider that issue as they vote on their version of health care overhaul. The bishops have sent a letter, saying they will oppose any bill that contains funding for abortion.