Biden and Ryan and their Roman Catholicism
While the professing Christian Obama and devout Mormon Romney slog it out for the White House, for the first time in history two Roman Catholics are competing for the office of Vice President. Their head-to-head debate was as illuminating of their characters as it was obfuscating of their religious faith. This being the United States of America, the topic of abortion was unavoidable. From the Telegraph:
As the first pair of Roman Catholics to appear in a single US presidential election, the candidates were challenged to say how their faith had informed their views on the divisive issue of abortion rights. Mr Ryan offered an impassioned case against abortion.One gets the feeling that there are really three candidates in this contest: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York celebrates the Catholicism of both candidates: “Do you not think it’s a cause for celebration in the Catholic community in the United States of America that the two vice-presidential candidates are Catholic?” he asked. “We’ve got two men who - and you can disagree with one of them or both of them - say they take their faith seriously, who don’t try to hide it, and who say, ‘Hey, my Catholic upbringing and my Catholic formation influences the way I think.’ Not bad. Not bad.”
“I believe that life begins at conception,” he said. “That's why I'm pro-life”. In one of several attempts to soften his image of a harsh fiscal hawk by using personal anecdotes, he recalled being shown the ultrasound scan of his first child, Liza as a seven-week-old “bean”, which remained her nickname.
However, after being painted by Mr Biden as an extremist who would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, Mr Ryan faltered when asked if “those who believe that abortion should remain legal” should “be worried” by the prospect of a Romney-Ryan presidency.
“We don’t think that un-elected judges should make this decision,” he said. “People through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination”
There's a very specific choice of words there: '...who say they take their faith seriously'. The Cardinal says both men were picked 'because their Catholicism was attractive'. Yet it isn't at all clear which candidate truly represents the religion, and the Catholicism of each is manifestly offensive to their respective opponents.
The unavoidable media tendency is to examine personal belief through the myopic contact lenses of the prevailing culture wars. Thus Paul Ryan is 'pro-life' and anti gay marriage. He is also committed to subsidiarity and solidarity, in that order, but few will grasp the significance of this for political policy. Joe Biden, on the other hand, is fervently 'pro-choice' and very much in favour of reinventing the institution of marriage to include unions of two men and two women. He's all for solidarity with whatever Obama does or says, and he probably doesn't even understand the meaning of subsidiarity.
This contest is somewhat analogous in the UK to having two Roman Catholic potential prime ministers, one of whom takes The Tablet while the other pores over The Catholic Herald. The former is liberal and progressive - the journal of 'thinking Catholics'; the latter is conservative and rather more robust, not to say trenchant in its views (especially of those who take the 'The Bitter Pill'). There's no love lost between them or their respective readers (eg here): Ut Unum Sint becomes an obscure encyclical of peripheral significance.
Biden's understanding of Roman Catholic social teaching is a world away from Ryan's. “The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who - who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help," Biden explained. For him, it's all about social justice. For Ryan, the preferential option for the poor remains one of the primary tenets of social teaching, but it means you 'don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life'. Biden's Catholicism compassionately keeps the poor poor; Ryan's Catholicism spurs them on to take responsibility for their indolence and inaction. Biden sees victims; Ryan sees sin.
The candidates also differ markedly in their understanding of intellectual liberty and freedom of choice. For Ryan, freedom is to be exercised in accordance with the Magisterium of the Church, while for Biden, it extends to abortion and same-sex marriage, irrespective of the teachings of the Church. Indeed, he has previously said that abortion and contraception are the way forward for Africa, and that he 'understood' China's one-child policy, which most of the civilised world finds utterly incomprehensible, not to say morally repugnant.
Biden’s Catholicism has certainly been a cause for concern for American bishops, but so is Ryan's. Biden has tried to counter these turbulent priests by appropriating such theological giants as Thomas Aquinas to his 'pro-choice' cause, insisting that the Roman Catholic Church has always been healthily divided on such moral issues. Some bishops have sought to excommunicate him as a result, as Vatican authorities advocate. But Ryan has also earned the ire of some bishops for proposing a Randian budget which will decimate (at least) those programmes and community initiatives that serve the poor and vulnerable.
Between these two very different exprssions of Roman Catholicism, Cardinal Dolan is playing the via media Anglican. In 'celebrating' Biden's Catholicism, the Cardinal may be seen to affirm abortion, contraception and gay marriage, not to mention Obama's entire macro-economic programme of deficit denial and debt increase, condemning generations of future Americans to poverty and hardship. Biden is an anti-Benedict Roman Catholic, and he wants no place in the current Church Militant.
But Ryan really is a 'cause for celebration', not only within the Roman Catholic community, but also among Evangelicals and the wider Republican family. Not only is he socially conservative, he is theologically informed and fiscally adept. This is a time for strong leadership and clear values, so quite why Cardinal Dolan is sending out mixed messages to the laity is something of a mystery.
Surely it has nothing to do with 30 dollars of silver.