Paul Ryan vs Joe Biden: Two Catholics Battle For the Soul of America

A Protestant, a Mormon, and two Catholics ... This is not the beginning of a bad joke; these are the players in our 2012 presidential election. All eyes are on Paul Ryan after presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, announced him as his running mate. Media coverage has specifically focused on Ryan’s Catholic faith. Barack Obama, a Protestant, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, have a common denominator: a Catholic running mate. However, both vice-presidential candidates come from very different poles of the Catholic pool. How much will this difference matter?

The United States is clear in its separation between State and Church and yet politicians’ faiths still matter to voters. In the 2008 election there was a great amount of controversy over then Senator Obama’s possible Muslim faith. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has also faced media frenzy over his Mormon religion. Now with both VP candidates sharing the same faith there is going to be an inevitable spotlight on the divided American Catholicism.   

This presidential election happens to fall on a year that has already proven to be significant for American Catholics. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) rejection of a Vatican takeover, and the Fortnight for Freedom campaign led by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are examples of the unsettling time for the Church in the United States. The Catholic spectrum has become oversimplified into black and white. Either you are for the nuns and are liberal, or you are in support of USCCB and are conservative. Voters want to know what side the vice-presidential candidates stand for—although it is not much of a mystery.

Candidate Romney highlighted the fact that his running mate was Catholic in his introductory remarks saying, “A faithful Catholic, Paul believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.” The focus on Ryan’s faith is significant since he is better known for his fiscal conservatism rather than for his stand on Catholic issues. 

Vice President, Joe Biden’s Catholic faith was also a hot topic shortly after his selection as Obama’s VP. In both cases, being Catholic seems to be an asset, as a way to promote high morals and ethical decision-making. Has the United States come to see the vice-presidency as a ‘moral compass’ position for the president?  

Representative Ryan’s background from a heavily Catholic state has not automatically won him popularity among Catholics nationwide. Members of the LCWR, including Sister Simone Campbell, led the ‘Nuns on the Bus’ nine-state tour in protest of Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal. Ryan’s proposed budget would have major cuts on food stamps and other government sponsored assistance programs. The poor and the elderly would face the biggest repercussion. 

In April of this year, Ryan’s visit to Georgetown University, a Catholic and Jesuit institution, prompted a faculty and staff supported letter in opposition to Ryan’s proposed budget. During his visit Ryan defended his proposal morally saying, “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it …What I have to say about the social doctrine of the Church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding of the problems of the day.” The letter to Rep. Ryan signed by a number of Jesuit priest at Georgetown read, “While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on ‘subsidiarity’ as a rational for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways.” 

The same institution every so often welcomes the same-sex supporting, Obamacare advocating, Catholic Vice-President Joe Biden for Sunday mass. That said, other Catholic institutions have received backlash for their engagement with the Obama administration, as was the case when President Obama delivered a commencement speech in 2009 at the University of Notre Dame. 

As to whether Ryan or Biden would make a more appealing Catholic Vice-President will depend on the type of Catholics they cater to. There may be as many Catholics in support of the nuns, same-sex marriage, and Obamacare as there are Catholics in support of the American Bishop’s religious freedom camping, and anti-abortion. Both sides have left no middle ground—you are either with them or against them. The true determining factor will then be which side can collect the most non-Catholic supporters. In which case, Joe Biden might be the easier Catholic to handle for most Americans.