(Reuters) - The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a powerful institution, at least on paper.
But a recent debate over contraception coverage has exposed a deep divide between the 271 active bishops and the rank-and-file U.S. Catholics who are supposed to follow their moral authority. It also has raised questions about why some prominent Catholic intuitions ignore the bishops' teachings - and whether the bishops will be able to reassert their authority.
The gulf has left some politicians, ever eager to court the Catholic vote, struggling to figure out who now speaks for the Church. Some ordinary Catholics in the pews are wondering the same.
"The bishops have lost their monopoly on speaking, and they have lost a lot of their clout," said Father Thomas Reese, a Georgetown University theologian and church scholar.
Led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the bishops have been pressing a muscular campaign to fight a federal mandate that would have required all health insurance plans, including those offered by religious employers, to offer free birth control.
A leading voice, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut., was scheduled to testify on Thursday on Capitol Hill.
But other widely-respected Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association, which represents hundreds of Catholic hospitals, have disavowed the bishops' fight. They have accepted a compromise, announced last week by President Barack Obama, to allow religious institutions to opt out of paying for contraceptive coverage. (Their insurers would pick up the tab instead.)
During the bitter debate, several prestigious Catholic institutions, including Georgetown, Fordham and DePaul universities, acknowledged that they already cover contraception in employee insurance plans.
Women's groups cried hypocrisy: While the bishops argued that covering birth control was immoral, some of the faith's flagship schools were quietly doing just that - with impunity.
"The sky didn't fall. They didn't shut down. They didn't get kicked out of the Catholic Church," said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, which supports broad family planning access.
The bishops balked at the hypocrisy charge; just because some Catholics disregarded their teachings did not negate their validity, they said.
Even so, Bishop Lori said in an interview that he expected a renewed push to crack down on wayward Catholic institutions. "I'm sure there's going to be some discussion about that," he said.
DePaul, which is the largest Catholic university in the nation, declined to comment. Georgetown's spokeswoman would not give specifics, but said the university is "in regular contact with the Archdiocese on matters of mutual interest."
Fordham would not comment, but in the past its officials have noted that New York requires contraceptive coverage in most employee health insurance plans. Other Catholic institutions in states that require birth control coverage have gotten around that mandate by self-insuring or organizing their plans under federal law.
"This whole debate has brought attention to this issue in a new way," said Richard Doerflinger, who directs the Conference of Catholic Bishops' work on abortion and contraception. "Each bishop has the task of making sure the institutions in his diocese follow the ethical directives of the church."
In practice, however, the bishops have little sway over Catholic institutions. Most Catholic colleges and hospitals are legally independent. They are supposed to follow ethical principles laid out by the pope and submit to the moral authority of their bishops.
Yet as the contraception debate exposed, they rarely face serious consequences when they flout those principles.
"This really highlights the elephant in the room," said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which works with colleges to strengthen their Catholic identities. "It is absolutely a wake up call."
Local bishops do have the power to strip an institution of its church affiliation - and have occasionally done so.
In 2003, the Archdiocese of New York declared Marist College no longer Catholic. The college had angered bishops by inviting a politician who supported legal abortion to give a commencement address. Two years later, Marymount Manhattan College also lost its Catholic affiliation, for the same offense.
And in late 2010, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix stripped the Catholic designation from St. Joseph's Hospital there, after doctors performed an emergency first-trimester abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman with perilously high blood pressure.
But the bishops have largely refrained from such dramatic steps.
When Notre Dame in 2009 bestowed an honorary degree on Obama, who supports legal abortion, dozens of bishops protested - but the university kept its Catholic affiliation.
Catholics who support a more confrontational stance say they hope the birth control furor will prod a more aggressive house-cleaning.
"The bishops are now reasserting their authority," said Anne Hendershott, a sociologist at the King's College in New York who writes frequently about the church. "Either you're Catholic or you're not - and if you're Catholic, you have to follow the teachings of the church."
Yet that has been a difficult message for the bishops to enforce, not just at colleges and hospitals, but among the rank and file.
Recent polls showed that nearly all Catholic women of reproductive age have used birth control, in defiance of church teaching.
And a poll commissioned last year by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture found that just 16 percent of Catholics recalled hearing about the booklet the bishops regularly print to guide Catholics on political decisions. Of those who had heard of it, just 1 percent had read it. And 74 percent said the document did not influence their votes.
While most lay Catholics accept the bishops as doctrinal authorities, "I don't think your average Catholic is walking around in daily life wondering what the bishops think of them," said Leslie Tentler, a history professor at the Catholic University of America.
Some scholars trace the decline in the bishops' influence to the child sexual abuse scandals and questions about the church's willingness to confront pedophile priests. Others argue that the bishops' aggressive lobbying on issues such as gay marriage and abortion have alienated some Catholics.
In fact, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has always been a political body. It was founded in the early 20th Century as a Catholic counterweight to the clout of the Protestant Temperance Movement, which pressed to end alcohol sales.
For decades, the Conference marched in step with Democrats, supporting policies that aided the poor immigrant families who made up much of the church's membership, Reese said.
In recent years, as more conservative bishops have taken leadership roles, gay marriage and abortion fights have taken center stage. But they're not the only causes the bishops take up. Last year, they joined a coalition to speak out against federal budget cuts to services for the poor. They also have advocated allowing illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.
The conference last year reported assets of $349 million and revenue of $105 million, the bulk of it from government contracts to help the sick and the needy.
The bishops spent $31 million last year on policy advocacy and public education, according to their financial statements. That's up from $25 million in 2008.
In the contraception fight, some bishops are convinced they have a winning issue; they believe they can both sway the political debate and rally rank-and-file Catholics.
Obama in 2008 won the votes of a 54 percent of Catholics, reversing a Republican majority of the Catholic vote won by George W. Bush in 2004. Catholics are about a quarter of the U.S. population and have large blocs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which are battleground states in the 2012 election.
Bishop Lori said he could sense support for the bishops' moral stance last Sunday, when he preached about the contraceptive mandate before a packed house of 1,600 faithful. "At the end," he said, "people applauded. In the Catholic tradition, people don't do that too often."
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Paul Simao)
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