Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Who will claim the Catholic vote?

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
August 17, 2012 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
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
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT