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Though the church spends no money on activities legally defined as lobbying, it played a major role shaping the bill behind the scenes. For example, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, personally called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and a Roman Catholic, to discuss curbs on abortion.

“The Catholic Church used their power - their clout, if you will - to influence this issue. They had to. It’s a basic teaching of the religion,” Mr. Stupak told reporters last week.

Several liberal Democrats have since vigorously criticized the church, including Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat.

“Who elected them to Congress?” she asked rhetorically in a column published by Politico that accused the bishops of engaging in “more than mere advocacy.”

“The IRS is less restrictive about church involvement in efforts to influence legislation than it is about involvement in campaigns and elections. Given the political behavior of USCCB in this case, maybe it shouldnt be,” concluded Mrs. Woolsey, the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Last week, 90 pro-choice Democrats signed a letter to President Obama calling the limits “an unprecedented restriction on a woman’s access to health insurance coverage of reproductive health services.”

Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, leads a group more than 40 representatives who say they will not support a health care bill that contains the Stupak amendment - about the same number of Democrats who have said they will not vote for one that doesn’t.

“No one group should get to dictate the outcome of legislation in Congress,” she said.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said Monday that many of the bill’s pro-life Democratic backers were put into office as part of the Obama sweep in last year’s elections. Some, such as Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie, Pa., turned out to be staunch Catholic pro-lifers.

“It was a great asset to have women talking about this in the halls of Congress,” he said, adding that these newly minted Democrats felt comfortable working with the USCCB.

“A lot of the pro-life Democrats are uncomfortable with other right-to-life groups, because of their ties to the Republican Party,” he added. “We were seen as nonpartisan; a group that just works with the issues.”

In other business, the bishops considered documents on marriage and artificial aids to help couples conceive - such as in-vitro fertilization - that will be discussed Tuesday.

The marriage document, which sets out a basic theology of marriage, takes stands against artificial contraception and same-sex unions, saying the latter and marriage “are essentially different realities.”

“We have a need to defend marriage within our culture,” said Louisville, Ky., Bishop Joseph Kurtz, adding that the document - presented as a pastoral letter from the nation’s bishops - will serve as “an authoritative point of reference.”

Bishops gave a standing ovation to the Rev. David O’Connell, who is retiring next summer from his post as president of Catholic University of America (CUA) in Northeast Washington.

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