The 2012 presidential campaign could bear a new subtitle: A Tale of Two Catholics.
For the first time in U.S. history, both sides of the ballot include Roman Catholics: Democrats’ Vice President Joe Biden, and Republicans’ newly named vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Ryan, 42, still belongs to the Catholic parish, St. John Vianney in Janesville, Wis., where he was an altar boy. Biden, 69, the first Catholic vice president in U.S. history, attends Mass at St. Patrick’s Parish and St. Joseph on the Brandywine Church, both in Wilmington, De.
Biden and Ryan both cite their faith as a formative influence, but neither is known as a standard-bearer for the Catholic hierarchy’s chief political causes: abortion and gay marriage. In fact, the two candidates are — politically at least — nearly polar opposites.
Biden agrees with the church on social justice issues like poverty, but runs afoul on gay marriage and abortion rights. Ryan, meanwhile, agrees with Catholic doctrine on abortion and gay marriage, but clashes with church leaders on social justice issues.
With Catholics comprising nearly a quarter of the U.S. electorate — and nearly a third in Midwestern swing states — the “Who’s the Better Catholic?” debate may become far more than an intrachurch squabble.
“It really has the potential to have a huge impact on this election,” said Maria Mazzenga, a historian at Catholic University in Washington.
Neither the Democratic nor Republican party platforms perfectly align with the wide body of Catholic social doctrine, which encompasses views on everything from war to economics to the unborn.
“The official teachings of the church can’t really be put into one camp or the other,” said Mazzenga.
or the last two years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has written a series of letters to House lawmakers, including Ryan, arguing that the “central moral measure” of any budget is how it affects “poor and vulnerable people.”
Ryan’s 2013 budget plan, which passed in the House, but has died in the Senate, “fails to meet these moral criteria,” wrote Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
Catholic nuns, scholars and Franciscans have been even more critical.
Nuns protested Ryan’s budget on a nine-state bus tour this summer, rallying outside his district office. The Franciscan Action Network accused the congressman of “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” Nearly ninety scholars at Georgetown University, the nation’s oldest Catholic college, said that Ryan’s budget owes more to Ayn Rand, whom he has cited as a major influence, than to the Gospel.