Catholics have voted for the winner of the popular vote in each of the last nine presidential elections. As Catholic voters go, so goes the electorate as a whole.
But while Catholic voters tend to unite behind presidential victors, there is a deep political rift that divides them. That divide will be on display this Thursday during the first and only vice presidential debate.
Both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are mass-going Catholics. But they personify the fundamental divide in the church regarding how Catholic teaching ought to guide Catholic politicians??? actions in the public square.
On fiscal issues, Ryan has been attacked by liberal Catholics for budget proposals that prioritize fiscal restraint.
Liberals have portrayed Ryan as uncaring toward the poor. But his approach to fighting poverty and helping the less fortunate is based firmly in the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity means that groups and associations that are closest to the people are usually best able to meet the needs of the people. Subsidiarity stresses non-governmental institutions???families, churches, charities, neighborhood associations and the rest of civil society???as the best groups to help the poor. It also emphasizes that in order for these groups to flourish in a just society they must be free from government interference.
???We put our trust in people, not in government,??? Ryan has said. ???Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families and to communities.???
Ryan has also said, ???The preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don???t keep people poor, don???t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life; help people out of poverty, out into a life of independence.???
Ryan???s budget is the first serious plan to tackle the national deficit and debt and to restore fiscal discipline. But it wouldn???t devastate the needy, as its liberal detractors suggest.
His plan only slightly alters eligibility for food stamps and other welfare programs. It accelerates the phase out of a stimulus program that raised benefits for all food stamp beneficiaries. His plan is more about closing loopholes and cutting redundant programs.
Although I am not Catholic, I have learned through my Catholic friends that social issues are where the biggest divide exists among Catholics. Joe Biden dissents from Catholic teaching on life and marriage. He supports same-sex marriage. And the only time as vice president that he???s stood up for life is in his private opposition to Obamacare???s contraceptive and abortifacient mandate.
Otherwise, his positions are indistinguishable from those of his boss and the abortion rights lobby.
During four of his last five years in the U.S. Senate, Biden received a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. He supports taxpayer funding of abortion. And he even expressed understanding for China???s brutal one-child policy of forced abortion during a 2011 visit there.
Biden has gotten himself in trouble trying to reconcile his support for abortion with his Catholic beliefs. In January he told a newspaper that he considers himself a practicing Catholic and falsely claimed that when it comes to the morality of abortion ???there???s a gradation.???
Biden has also claimed that the definition of human life is a ???personal and private??? matter that shouldn???t bear on public policy. Biden???s various musings on human life have been consistently swatted down by Catholic bishops and theologians.
Biden gets himself in trouble because he often prefaces his support for abortion with remarks about how he is prepared ???as a matter of faith??? to accept the church???s beliefs. Biden has replaced the oft-used and cowardly ???personally opposed but?????? argument with the even more cowardly ???My church is personally opposed but??????
Paul Ryan, in contrast, adheres fully to Catholic teaching on life and marriage. Ryan has described himself as ???as pro-life as a person gets.??? He???s 59 for 59 on pro-life votes in the House, where he sponsored the federal personhood amendment.
Ryan has said his pro-life view is a reflection of Pope John Paul II???s teachings on the dignity of the human person. He has called politicians ???who divorce themselves from their faith??? ???hypocrites.???
And where Biden ties himself in verbal knots trying to justify separating his faith from his political positions, Ryan says, ???I just can???t see how one can separate themselves from your religious principles and the laws we vote on, especially with respect to life.???
Biden and Ryan agree that it is essential to help the poor. They merely disagree on the best way to do so. And the Catholic Church teaches that how the poor are assisted is a matter of prudential judgment.
But the Catholic Church teaches that abortion and same-sex marriage are intrinsic evils and thus are non-negotiable issues. This means that Catholics must always and everywhere oppose direct attacks on human life and the institution of marriage.
Polls show that the more seriously Catholics take their faith, the more likely they are to adhere to Paul Ryan???s brand of Catholicism and politics and the less likely they are to abide Biden???s.
Polls also suggest that the final Catholic vote count will be nearly evenly split between Obama and Romney. This split is a reflection of the divide that exists between the candidates??? running mates, between the Biden Catholics and the Ryan Catholics.
Election Day will offer voters a stark choice between competing visions for America???s future. It will also offer Catholic voters a clear choice between competing visions of the role of faith in politics.