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 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT