Two Catholic vice-presidential candidates sparred on a debate stage for the first time in American history, on the 50th anniversary of the convening of Vatican II and the 20th anniversary of the issuance of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Catholic Democrats had organized house parties across the country that brought together progressive Catholics to share the experience and discuss the issues. They were all linked by a national conference call before the debate that featured Sr. Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, a tireless advocate for the poor in America; Professor Nick Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former law school dean who is a member of the Obama Campaign national Catholic outreach team; and Professor David O'Brien, emeritus professor of Catholic Church history at the College of the Holy Cross.
Sr Simone offered a moving summary of her experience with the Nuns on the Bus tour last summer, highlighting conversations she had with people across the country who had experienced loss of their healthcare in dire circumstances, and others suffering from the economic meltdown that confronted President Obama when he took office. Professor Cafardi talked about the primacy of the Catholic conscience, and the importance of studying all the issues to ask whether one candidate or the other better embraced the full meaning of "pro-life" from conception to natural death. Professor O'Brien spoke about the historical role of the US Bishops' Conference in speaking out on issues of war & peace and on the economy (1982's Economic Justice for All), and about the richness of the Catholic social tradition in grappling with the full-range of issues. A number of callers told stories about their parishes being taken over at Sunday Mass by ideologues who attacked President Obama and made communicants feel unwelcome in their own churches.
If the Catholic faith is mostly about seeking the truth, the debate itself was a dramatic illustration of two starkly different visions for Catholicism in America. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) repeatedly criticized the administration on foreign and domestic policy, but offered virtually no specifics on what he and Governor Mitt Romney would do differently--with regard to Israel, the war in Syria, the nuclear problem in Iran, resolving the war in Afghanistan or the provision of healthcare to the uninsured. He complained about lack of security for American diplomats in Libya, but had no response when confronted with the fact that his budget had sought $300 million in cuts for State Department security. He said Republicans wouldn't lower overall taxes on wealthy people, but refused to say how he and Gov Romney could square their math after giving the wealthiest 120,000 families an average income tax cut above $200,000 per year. He criticized VP Biden for provisions in the ACA removing $700 billion in waste from the Medicare Advantage program, but failed to mention that he had also advocated for elimination of that money in his own budget. He said he wouldn't increase taxes on middle class Americans, but wouldn't say whether he planned to reduce or eliminate the mortgage interest deduction that keeps most Americans in their own homes.
Rep. Ryan spoke repeatedly about bipartisanship, but failed to acknowledge his own role in refusing to compromise on bill after bill in the House, from the budget to the health care reform law to job creation legislation. He failed to acknowledge that he helped lead the most obstructionist Republican caucus in history, which sought to torpedo the American economy to serve its own political interests. Then with a straight face he criticized President Obama for not talking the Republicans out of doing so.
Vice-President Biden could hardly contain his laughter at the ridiculousness of it all. At a human level, Rep. Ryan was honest in putting himself on the side of those who would use strategic nuclear weapons to resolve the conflict with Iran; on the side of eliminating programs that help the poor; and on the side of those who would fuel "job creation" with more tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals.
Moderator Martha Raddatz did a superb job of guiding the discussion, and toward the end she said, "This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country, and please talk personally about this, if you could."
After 75 minutes of emphasizing how much he would downsize the social safety net and on how much more money the Republican candidates intended to spend on the military, Rep. Ryan said somewhat incongruously, "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life."
He then addressed his beliefs with regard to abortion. "Now I understand this is a difficult issue," he said, "and I respect people who don't agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother." He then launched into a repetition of the nebulous and flawed argument that providing health insurance to millions more people through the Affordable Care Act was "assaulting the religious liberties of this country. They're infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals."
He intimated that he approved of President Clinton's formulation of working to make abortion "safe, legal and rare." But then he falsely stated that the current administration "support it without restriction and with taxpayer funding." No mention of President Obama's executive order maintaining the status quo with regard to federal funding of abortion; no acknowledgement of President Obama's repeated insistence that he supports current legal restrictions on late-term abortions; no acknowledgement of the new funding incorporated in the Affordable Care Act for abortion reduction.
Vice-President Biden spoke similarly about his faith, saying, "My religion defines who I am, and I've been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And (my faith) has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who can't take care of themselves, people who need help." He indicated that he shares the Catholic belief that life begins at conception, "but I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others." He pointed out that the ACA regulations on contraception had been modified so that no religious institution would have to pay extra to provide their employees with contraception.
After the debate, a number of commentators, including Republican Steve Schmidt, pointed out that wider use of contraception was likely to result in fewer abortions, and they worried that the apparent antipathy of many Republicans to the use of contraceptives could actually worsen efforts to decrease abortion. Rep. Ryan was clearly uncomfortable with Gov. Romney's acceptance of abortion for women who had been assaulted, who were victims of incest, or who's life was in jeopardy from their pregnancy. There was also some discussion among the commentariat about Gov. Romney's history of supporting Roe-vs-Wade when he ran against Senator Ted Kennedy for the Senate in 1994, then his conversion to abortion opponent when he ran for president in 2008, and then his statements the past week saying he didn't intend to pursue any legislation limiting abortion.
Ms. Raddatz' final question was about personal character, and Rep. Ryan offered a curious response. After spending nearly 90 minutes refusing to offer any details about the specifics of their tax cuts or approach to foreign policy, he congratulated himself and Gov. Romney on being "people who, when they say they're going to do something, they go do it. What you need are, when people see problems, they offer solutions to fix those problems." He then talked about a return to the Bush economic agenda under Gov. Romney, and called them "proven, pro- growth policies that we know works to get people back to work." He then congratulated himself on being someone who would work in a bipartisan manner once he left the Congress he helped to divide so bitterly.
Vice-president Biden closed the debate by saying, "The fact is that we're in a situation where we inherited a god-awful circumstance. People are in real trouble. We acted to move to bring relief to the people who need the most help now. And, in case you haven't noticed, we have strong disagreements, but you probably detected my frustration with their attitude about the American people. My friend says that 30% of the American people are takers. Romney points out 47% of the people won't take responsibility. He's talking about my mother and father. He's talking about the places I grew up in, my neighbors in Scranton and Claymont, and he's talking about the people that have built this country." He concluded, "The president and I are not going to rest until that playing field is leveled, that (most Americans) in fact have a clear shot, and they have peace of mind, until they can turn to their kid and say with a degree of confidence, "Honey, it's going to be OK. It's going to be OK." That's what this is all about."