The vice-presidential debate was well hyped and lived up to its billing. Pugnacious, substantive, and entertaining—it was a far more edifying experience than the initial encounter between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. One of the most edifying parts of the debate was when moderator Martha Raddatz asked both candidates about their Catholic identity and the issue of abortion. The responses given by Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan seemed to confirm one of the big story lines leading up to the debate: that there would be a clash between two different Catholic worldviews.
But I saw and heard something different: two deeply Catholic candidates who were basically very much alike.
Both Biden and Ryan were doing Catholicism--American style.
Biden and Romney together agreed with the Catholic Church’s fundamental position that abortion is the taking of a human life. Of course, their specific policy positions were different: Biden stated that he would not impose his religious beliefs on others and supported a woman’s right to choose; Ryan argued that his position against abortion was informed not only by his religion but by science
In articulating their positions, both candidates were accommodating political reality in contemporary America. Within the Democratic Party, there is little room for those who oppose abortion —even though it would stand to reason that if abortion is the taking of human life, the government should prevent it since it’s the government’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable. But Ryan accommodated political reality as well. He indicated that he would support exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and when mother’s life is threatened-- exceptions that he had once argued against. Ryan’s position that issues regarding abortion should be either decided by the states or elected officials—not the courts--is also an interesting accommodation, since it seems to leave the definition of human life subject to majority vote. Of course, Ryan’s outlines only a very limited role for government in protecting human beings outside the womb: the poor, immigrants, the socially marginalized all assume a lesser place in Ryan’s politics than do the unborn. Biden got in a last-minute jab that hit Ryan on not supporting Catholic social doctrine. But neither candidate seemed to offer a consistent message about the role of government and the promotion and protection of human life in all its stages, even though both candidates presumably accept Catholicism’s view that there is a continuity between human life in the womb and human life outside it.
This is doing Catholicism--American style.
When Biden and Ryan answered the question about abortion and their Catholic identity, they reflected back particularly or peculiarly American configurations of Catholic values. A majority of American Catholics would be a little more comfortable with Biden’s policy positions, although leading members of the Catholic hierarchy are clearly more enamored with Ryan’s. But if the range of policy positions of each candidate was mapped in relation to an idealized framework of Catholic principles, there would be crucial points where pragmatic accommodations to American political realities would stand out quite prominently.
Catholic doctrine is often presented as a seamless totality: every part has a hierarchical position related to the whole. But Catholicism as it is lived by most Catholics—whether they be clergy or laity—involves a series of accommodations. Sometimes these accommodations are “prudential” and sometimes they are cynical. Catholics in every context make them.
In the vice-presidential debate we saw how Biden and Ryan are fully American Catholics. Their “American-ness” would have been on full display if Martha Raddatz had asked the Catholic identity question not in relation to abortion, but in relation to ethical issues raised by “the war on terror.” Both candidates would probably have engaged in definitional gymnastics regarding torture and preemptive war. But I would also imagine that there would have been little daylight between their positions on drone strikes, even though from a Catholic perspective this particular use of force is deeply problematic.
The vice-presidential debate was about policy. Martha Raddatz deserves credit for raising the issue of religious identity in relation to a policy question that is important to many Americans. But if there had been time for a follow-up, I would like to have heard both candidates reflect on how Catholicism had challenged them: not just as public servants but also as individuals. While being Catholic inevitably requires accommodation to one’s own political context, being Catholic can also provide a way to envision possibilities that are not limited by our own social and cultural location. I recognized Joe Biden and Paul Ryan as fellow American Catholics. As their debate concluded, I wondered whether they had struggled with American-style Catholicism as much as I and many other Catholics continue to do.