Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Who will claim the Catholic vote?

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Fri August 17, 2012
Joe Biden's brand of Catholicism is rooted in Vatican II's participation and social justice, says Paul Stanley. Paul Ryan's is more centered in conservative theology.
Joe Biden's brand of Catholicism is rooted in Vatican II's participation and social justice, says Paul Stanley. Paul Ryan's is more centered in conservative theology.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: The VP candidates reflect divide between liberal and conservative Catholicism
  • He says Biden is a post-Vatican II Catholic aimed at social justice and accessible faith
  • He says Ryan hews to traditional Catholicism; record is anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage
  • Stanley: Ryan will have to show social compassion with fiscal conservatism

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- This year has provided something of a bumper crop of Catholic candidates. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the Republican primaries, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan in the general election. Given the endless cycle of sin and guilt that we have to live with, sometimes it feels like it's easier for a Catholic to get elected president than it is to get into heaven.

But political strength doesn't necessarily mean political unity. Today's Catholic vote is divided by intensity of faith. According to Gallup, the "very religious" lean toward Romney and the "nonreligious" prefer Obama, by significant margins. This reflects an internal story of conflict between liberal and conservative perspectives on what it means to be a Catholic. Biden and Ryan stand on either side of that debate, and their selections as running mates signal vastly different approaches to winning the Catholic vote.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Joe Biden is part of the Vatican II generation of Catholics, reared on the lofty ambitions of the 1960s. After the Vatican II council, the church reformed its liturgy to encourage greater participation of the laity and make the Mass more accessible. For many Catholics, evangelization and catechism became less important than charity and social activism. Some, like Biden, have even accepted homosexuality and abortion as part of society's slow evolution toward justice for all.

"The animating principle of my faith," he said in 2008, "as taught to me by church and home, was that the cardinal sin was abuse of power." This commitment to egalitarian democracy could even make him a critic of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Although he carries his rosary everywhere and attends Mass on Sunday, Biden struggles with the concept of obedience. "There are elements within the church who say that if you are at odds with any of the teachings of the church, you are at odds with the church," he told an interviewer. "I think the church is bigger than that."

On the campaign trail, Biden's Catholicism expresses itself in public attendance at ethnic Catholic events like the St Patrick's Day parade in Pittsburgh. But he also recently took time out to eat ice cream with the nuns of Dubuque. Some interpreted this as a private "thank you" for the support many sisters have shown for Obamacare, contradicting the public position of their bishops. It's also notable that Biden's Catholicism was invoked by many commentators after his embrace of same-sex marriage, as if he spoke for a generation of Catholics who have come to terms with social change. When it comes to the culture war, Biden enjoys a certain amount of soft power.

Belief: Paul Ryan will provoke a debate on Catholic politics

By contrast, Paul Ryan's engagement with the Catholic power is all hard power. His rhetoric is steeped in conservative historicism and theology. He explained his legislative philosophy to Townhall Magazine this way, "As a congressman and Catholic layman, I really feel that Catholic social truths are in accord with the 'self-evident truths' our Founders bequeathed to us at our nation's founding: independence, limited government and the dignity and freedom of every human person." Ergo, his budget proposals aren't just good bookkeeping, he says. They are both American and Christian.

Rep. Ryan faces Catholic backlash
Rep. Ryan: Obama threatened by my budget

When Paul Ryan was growing up, the charismatic, anti-communist John Paul II was Pope. His traditionalist ethos has been continued and expanded under Benedict XVI, who has talked seriously of the church becoming smaller but purer. In this context, Republicanism and Catholicism find synergy -- and Ryan is its embodiment. He has a large family, boasts a 100% percent prolife voting record, and supported the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Ryan also is happy to lend his Catholic moral theology credentials to his new boss, who sometimes struggles to strike a chord with religious voters.

Belief: GOP's non-Protestant ticket changes meaning of 'values'

During his Norfolk speech accepting Mitt Romney's nod, Ryan got big applause for his promise to help "save the American dream." But he got much bigger applause for this statement: "Our rights come from nature and God, not government." It's a neat appropriation of the Catholic belief that dignity is a gift from God, for the sake of rallying conservatives of all backgrounds. For those who like their state small, it suggests contempt for the civil rights-guaranteeing federal leviathan. For those who want it just large enough to outlaw same-sex marriage and abortion, it promises a Christian approach to governance.

Whereas Biden meets privately with nuns and emphasizes a private faithfulness, Ryan puts his Catholicism right out in the open -- and he attracts some evangelical support for doing it.

Does any of this matter? In a tight election, perhaps. In 2004, George W. Bush made a big play for churchgoing Catholics, hitting themes of sexual and social conservatism. The result was that a) the Catholic vote was just as important in deciding the election as the evangelical vote and b) Catholic voting split along lines of church attendance. Overall, Bush won the Catholic vote 52% to 47%, a vital factor in a relatively close election.

So Biden and Ryan present opportunities and challenges for their tickets. Biden will appeal to those Catholics (some say, a silent majority) who define themselves as faithful but who are also tolerant of cultural difference. But precisely because his appeal isn't strictly religious, it may fail to stir excitement on the campaign trail.

For Ryan, the visibility of his faith won't be a problem. But he will have to find a way of expanding its appeal beyond social conservatives. As former Bush strategist Deal Hudson writes, he still has to find a way of reconciling his fiscal conservatism to Catholicism's empathy for the powerless and poor. If he sticks to purely moral themes, while also pushing for budget cuts, his brand of Catholic fervor may come across as all fire and brimstone and no heart. In an age of recession, that may not generate the votes that he and Romney need to win.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tim Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 12:17 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT