Last night's spirited Vice-Presidential debate was billed, in some quarters, as a "Catholic smackdown." The debate moderator, Martha Raddatz, made specific note of that reality, when she called the debate "historic," as it was the first time that both candidates for vice president were -- in case you've been living under a secular rock -- Catholic.
As our blogger Michael O'Loughlin noted, however, Raddatz' "Catholic question" focused mainly on abortion. To me, it was not a surprising pivot, as many journalists tend to reduce all of Catholicism to a single issue. For his part, Congressman Ryan identify himself as strongly pro-life (though his reference to his daughter as "Bean" seemed oddly labored), dilated on what he perceived as threats to religious liberty and elaborated on the Romney administration's opposition to abortion, with Gov. Romney's (somewhat surprising to many pro-lifers) exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother. Vice President Biden, in turn, stated that his religion "defines who I am," and spoke about his love of Catholic social teaching, his personal opposition to abortion and his unwillingness to "impose" that belief on others (though I've always found that odd, too -- we regularly "impose" our beliefs on others whenever we legislate.)
By the way, listeners may have been flummoxed by the Vice President's offhand reference to de fide doctrines of the church, which simply refers to the most basic Catholic beliefs, which cannot be denied by any Catholic in good standing. (Think, for example, of what is contained in the Creed.) Ironically, this was such an abstruse theological reference that the official transcripton CNN simply wrote "inaudible." (If they've changed it already, that means that they read this blog.)
Next week's issue of America will feature an exclusive interview with both vice-presidential candidates on a variety of questions, including their Catholic beliefs. But it would be a mistake to try to vote for the "better Catholic." Both Ryan and Biden are obviously serious about their Catholicism. Can anyone doubt that? They also offer a kind of Rorschach test for U.S. Catholic voters. Ryan is a Catholic who is clearly opposed to abortion and not so clearly in support of programs that would directly help the poor. Biden is not so clearly opposed to abortion and clearly in support of programs that would directly help the poor. They represent, in a sense, two distinct types of "Catholicisms" alive in our country today. It's a big church, as an elderly Jesuit I know likes to say.
Their commentary last night (and beforehand) also points out that no one party fully embraces the entirety of Catholic teaching. And for those of you who would say that abortion is the only "intrinsic evil" that is at issue in this campaign, I would point you to Blessed John Paul II's great encyclical Vertitatis Splendor, in which he speaks of a great many intrinsic evils, many of them often overlooked today, including "whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit."
My point here, though, is not to wade into the murky waters of politics, which I try to avoid, and leave to people more knowledgeable than me. Rather, it's to point out the impossibility of ascertaining who is the "better Catholic," based on public pronouncements.
Yes, vote for the candidate(s) whose policies and viewpoints and voting record are in conformity with the Gospels, in accord with Christian values and in concert with Catholic church teaching. But it is impossible to look within a person's soul and judge who is the "better Catholic," simply based on what a person says during a campaign, much less a heated debate.
As St. Ignatius Loyola noted, "Love shows itself more in deeds than words." And while voting records are an important indicator of a person's convictions and are in fact a "deed," they do not, by themselves, make for a "good Catholic." There are other deeds and even words that will always remain hidden from public view. You could be the most ardent pro-lifer and still be unkind to your family, uncharitable to the poor, mean-spirited to co-workers and harbor a hateful attitude towards humankind. Is that a "good Catholic"? You could be the most ardent advocate for the poor, and still be mendacious, thieving, dishonest and deceitful. Needless to say, I'm not talking about any candidate here!
That's why when a Catholic candidate speaks about his or her faith, it's more important for voters to concentrate on their policies, rather than trying to worm their way into the person's soul. Only God can determine who is the "good Catholic," and no matter how many personal stories a person may tell about a conversion experience, going to daily Mass as a child, or the effect of an inspirational priest or plucky sister in their lives, the question of who is the "better Catholic" cannot be determined by any voter, any Catholic pundit or any priest, sister or bishop -- but by God alone.
This column first appeared in America Magazine.