Catholicism, American style

AP This combo made from file photos shows Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. … Continued


This combo made from file photos shows Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

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.

Mathew N. Schmalz is a professor and director of the College Honors Program at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • mikestech

    Ryan danced a tight line. He does personally oppose abortion in all circumstances (the right policy, if you ask me), but has to defer to his running mate at the top of the ticket on policy. That’s why he didn’t say he believes in exceptions for rape and incest, he said that would be the “policy of a Romney-Ryan administration.”

  • krloker

    I think it’s important to clarify that Ryan said that it was the Romney administration that would allow for exceptions, not necessarily Ryan. The way he set up that answer was very nuanced– he still sounded very much pro-life in all capacity (speaking passionately about that first), and then answered more specifically in a way consistent with the campaign’s position (already existing before he got there.)

    It’s still dealing with politics of being an American Catholic, absolutely– but the way he got around it still believe his previously recorded statement that he would always vote pro-life. It’s still far more in accordance (or on the right track) to what the Church teaches as truth. Even if it “seems” like Ryan’s position is now different, Biden’s is still very much the same. You can judge that by actions of the administration he is a part of (which goes hand-in-hand with the outright denial of the impact of the HHS mandate, which deserves more coverage.)

  • philbutrin

    it is not true that “Within the Democratic Party, there is little room for those who oppose abortion”. opposing abortion and opposing the right to choose are two entirely different things, as biden stated.

    what is true is that within the Democratic Party there is little room for people — like paul ryan — who think it is right to impose their personally chosen religious beliefs upon everyone else by making them law.

  • NY Ana

    This is an outrageous and uninformed comment. Sr. Carol Keenen revised her original reaction to the HHS mandate “accommodation” when she realized that the US bishop’s were correct, and that there will be no real conscience protection for the self-insured (which most of the charities and hospitals are).
    As a Catholic woman who is deeply committed to Catholic Charities I have grave concerns about how devastating the effects of the HHS mandate will be on these charities, and the people they serve.
    If you remove your partisan glasses you will see that conscience protection and religious liberty are at serious risk, and the people you claim to care about will be hurt the most.

  • arts.reno

    I am a first time voter. Disappointing with Obama. But Romney isn’t the right one for president. He doesn’t have the heart to take care of this country. besides put money over sea, his wife IRA is over 100 million dollars. The is the wonder of earth. I don’t understand when people judged a debate by style, not facts. Well if you enjoy the show, go with Romney.
    I don’t want to insult fellow Americans. Many people can’t do math to figure out Romney’s “vision” or “framework” to reduce debt, but same time cutting tax rate 20%. Behind 20% tax cut, 7% is the real tax cut for the rich people, and middle class got <= 5%. It should be other way around.
    Also, I don't see why capital gain should be tax at lower rate. There are noise that to eliminate capital gain completely. They argue that investment create jobs. I understand to investment in IPO does fund the start company for creating jobs. But after IPO has completed, stock transaction on that stock is pure "gamble". I don't see a smart investor who bought AAPLE stock at $10, and sold APPLE stock at $600 could contribute money for APPLE to create jobs.
    My colleagues and friends are middle. I never heard them make money from stock transactions. All the story I heard that they quit from any stock transaction. The only investment they have is 401K, almost forced by the tax system. People benefit from capital gain, majority of them are very very rich people. They could be executives or professional stock traders. The money they ear is so damn easy. Why on earth they are tax less than income.

  • MacDonald1
  • MacDonald1

    Religious Republican zombies are coming out of the woodwork — descending on America! Scary or what?
    Romney; would be the equivalent to the Taliban — in his treatment to the gay community — with his extreme cultist attitude … if ever elected!
    Religion; is the biggest bully on the block!
    IRS codes prohibit churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates!
    The IRS … should immediately tax churches — that break that rule!
    Churches — are opposing gay rights — based on a cult! Tax them or shut them down!
    Roman Catholic; Baptist & Mormon churches who were involved in Proposition 8; against the gay community – should be shut down immediately and/or have their tax exemption status revoked!
    Church manses; mansions; corporate jets and Christian college campuses … should face taxes or be shut down — based on corruption and/or being involved in cultism!

    Mormons are nothing more than homophobic bigots and lustful religious lunatics; who harvested women … attempting to scrutinize themselves; into eternity – without success!
    Romney as President; would mean the darkest & meanest period in the United States of America’s history. Homophobic — witchcraft would rule the government from Rome & Salt Lake City …!

  • MacDonald1

    The Tripoli Treaty of 1797 between the US and the Barbary States, unanimously approved by the US Senate on June 10, 1797, specifically states that the US is NOT a Christian nation. At that time, the US government was still dominated by those who are referred to today as the “Founding Fathers”. ARTICLE 11: As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion…!
    John F. Kennedy September 12, 1960, address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
    Separation of church and state was enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
    What the religious radicals don’t tell people, and what, tragically, many Americans apparently don’t know, is that when it comes to determining what the laws of the United States mean, the only document that matters is the Constitution. The Constitution, a completely secular document, contains no references to God, Jesus or Christianity.

  • MacDonald1

    The pope is running a bigger fraud than Madoff’s $50 billion ripoff.

    Romney as President; would mean the darkest & meanest period in the United States of America’s history. Homophobic — witchcraft would rule the government from Rome & Salt Lake City …!

  • MacDonald1

    Being black, left-handed or being gay is just as natural. It is a sometimes rare occurrence to fall in Love and to hold that person in your heart and be loved in return … it is something that should be celebrated! If it’s between two guys or two girls — all the better. It takes even more courage to defend that LOVE!

    The evil writings in Leviticus 18:22 … against gays – depict: “P” … “priestly rules” & expanded by the pope; homophobes and religious frauds … to attack the gay community and never meant to apply to the public — but to priests. Leviticus was written long after Moses — 600BC.

    There is no scientific evidence to prove any of the cross related bogus elements of christianity and other religions. Our early human ancestors; on this earth … go back more than 6 million years … 5,996,000 years before the Greeks, Romans and the Jews. Christianity is basically a 2012 year old fictional cult.
    In the year 300 AD when Emperor Constantine, who to some was the first pope; went on to fabricate & market Christianity!
    Christianity is a fantasy; which turned out to be one of the most hateful & evil concoctions ever perpetrated on the world.

    It is written; so therefore it shall be? We are the chosen people? Such a wicked fantasy. To see the religious lunatics manipulate government and our lives is shameful.

    The pope and churches fully aware that Leviticus 18:22 applies to priests only … refuse to remove this stigma … maliciously persecuting gays. Kids are being bullied into suicide …!

  • General_Davis

    Republicans can always be counted on the force people to adhere to their narrow, Taliban-like views. No real American will ever vote for them again.

  • JWx2

    chris hayes…who is rachel maddows sister…and chris hayes calls rachel her brother..were discussing this on msnbc…but the whine and distortions of their liberal agenda was boring….as usual.

  • amelia45

    Oh, pooh!, Mathew Schmatz. I usually don’t like your commentaries. But, then, you pull one like this that is really very good.

    I suspect my struggle with American style Catholicism is more a struggle with my Catholicism than my “Americanism” and yours is the opposite. But, I will live in the struggle rather than give up either one.

  • DavidJ9

    If Ryan has his way, we will have to have an inquest for every abortion, natural (miscarriage) or induced. I wonder how he justifies forcing women to bear the child of rape, why does he reward rapists?