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Ryan and Biden — a tale of two Catholics
First Published Aug 16 2012 10:53 am • Last Updated Aug 16 2012 11:39 am

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: Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and newly named Republican running mate Paul Ryan.

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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, Del.

Biden and Ryan 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 such as 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 intra-church squabble.

"It 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.

So Catholic politicians must often choose between church and party orthodoxy, said R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.


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"In our current system, is it possible to have a politician who, along with papal teaching, says no to abortion, no to nuclear proliferation, no to poverty? The answer is no," Appleby said.

Biden has said that "as a Roman Catholic, I am willing to accept the teachings of my church" on abortion. But, he continued in a 2008 "Meet the Press" interview, "for me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society."

Biden, who had already been barred from speaking at Catholic schools in Wilmington because of his stance on abortion, was blasted by bishops.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leading voice in the church who now heads the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, called Biden’s argument "morally exhausted."

"It’s certainly true that we need to acknowledge the views of other people and compromise whenever possible," Chaput said at the time, "but not at the expense of a developing child’s right to life."

Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League, said the hierarchy has made it clear that outlawing abortion and defending traditional marriage are the church’s top political priorities.

"This puts Biden at a decisive disadvantage in making the case that he better represents Catholic teachings," Donohue said.

But conservative Catholic activist Deal Hudson argues that Ryan, too, has a "Catholic problem."

The Wisconsin congressman heads the House Budget Committee and is credited with writing the 2012 and 2013 House Republican budget plans, which call for steep cuts to programs that care for the poor, such as food stamps and Medicaid, while giving tax breaks to the wealthy.

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