Political Animal


October 12, 2012 10:16 AM The “Catholic Question” in the Biden/Ryan Debate

By Ed Kilgore

The final question posed in last night’s Veep debate was the most skewed, even if moderator Martha Raddatz rationalized it by noting this was the first time two Catholics had faced off in a presidential-ticket contest. Amy Sullivan explains the “missed opportunity” at TNR today:

[A]s the evening drew to a close and Raddatz posed a question designed to allow each man to talk about his Catholicism, she made the tired mistake of assuming that there is just one “Catholic issue”—abortion.

That was a big gift to Paul Ryan, because more than any recent political figure, he has fueled an intensification of the debate in U.S. Catholic circles between those who view the war on abortion and contraception as of an inherently higher order than any others, and those who are horrified by Ryan’s Randian economic and social views (which he is careful to dress up in vestments by constant if shallow allusions to Catholic social teachings), as expressed in his various budget proposals.

Raddatz’ question implicitly called Biden down to the diocesan headquarters for a chewing-out. Yet he managed to come across much better on this question than Ryan, certainly to non-Catholics who appreciated his refusal to impose his views on them, and probably to Catholics who share his refusal to follow the bishops into a kulturkampf on abortion. And Ryan’s teeth-clenched admission that he was submitting to Mitt Romney’s will in accepting the legality of abortions in cases of rape and incest was very telling to all viewers, especially those who didn’t know he is a genuine Todd Akin ultra on everything to do with reproductive rights issues.

So Joe Biden made the best of a bad and unfairly contextualized question last night, and it makes you wonder how Ryan would hold up in a comprehensive examination of what he owes to his church, and what he owes to St. Ayn Rand and the cult of the Wealth Creators.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Art Hackett on October 12, 2012 10:24 AM:

    And then there was Ryan's pause after he was asked the role of the Supreme Court on the issue.

  • c u n d gulag on October 12, 2012 10:29 AM:

    The ONLY legitimate religious question in any political debate is, "Do you believe in the importance of the seperation of church and state, and if so, please explain your reasoning - and if not, what are the reasons you don't think it's important?"

    All the rest is some sort of MSM nod to the Jesus-freak minority in this country.

    We are far and away the most religious major industrial nation in the world. But thankfully, religion is slowly dying out in this country.

    And by the way, as far as the Evangelicals are concerned, they look at Catholic Ryan as the enemy of my enemy, so I can support him and let him live as long as he's useful.

    And at Catholic Biden as the enemy, a heretic who should be burned at the stake ASAP!

  • Josef K on October 12, 2012 10:37 AM:

    I'm a (very, very) lapsed Catholic who doesn't give two hoots - or even a single hoot - what the Holy See says on a given issue. Were I answering the question, I'd have said that its a matter between myself and God and that it was neither my place nor Rome's to tell anyone else what to say or think.

    But then again I'm not running for office, so its easy enough for me to say without worrying the Bishops or Cardinals will attack me directly.

  • jjm on October 12, 2012 10:44 AM:

    Shame on Raddatz for asking that question.

    But Biden answered PERFECTLY.

  • Marc on October 12, 2012 10:52 AM:

    I don't think it was a bad question - with a Mormon - his church's road to legitimacy if not in their eyes fulfilling god's creation and placing a Mormon at the head of "his" nation - and Ryan's absolutist approach to all things related to conception/contraception/abortion - asking him to defend his stance, and asking Biden to counter it seemed, to me, a perfect topic.

  • T2 on October 12, 2012 10:53 AM:

    The "Catholic" question, along with Raddatz's first question about Libya struck me as squarely aimed at putting Biden on the spot. I wasn't real happy with the Libya answer, although Ryan had nothing but sputter and bluster on it.
    But on the Catholic/abortion question, well everyone should know that being VP in a Dem Administration means being Pro-Choice, and Ryan is, politically, in the same boat as Todd Akin. Nevertheless, Ryan again managed to sputter and wiggle, while Biden gave a very sincere, strong answer. I am not Catholic, but my guess is that Joe Biden articulated the way a large majority of Catholics feel, women especially, about the role of their faith in their lives. We are in 2012, congressman Ryan, not 1220.

  • AndThenThere'sThat on October 12, 2012 10:54 AM:

    Raddatz actually did a decent job as moderator. She pressed Biden on the Libya intelligence failures, but also pressed Ryan on his budget numbers that don't add up. When the debate devolved into a shouting match, she transitioned very well into the next question. So I'll pass on the "skewed question" because it's obvious abortion isn't a topic Ryan feels comfortable talking about anyway, outside a wingnut audience.

    If we want to talk about things "skewed", we should discuss, as one commenter pointed out already, how the media spin is describing Biden's smiles and laughter as aggressive and jeering while last week's grins and smirks by Romney were signs of comfort and confidence.

  • DJ on October 12, 2012 10:55 AM:

    Biden's answer might not sit well with the moral and mental mediocrities in the hierarchy. But it sit perfectly well with the vast majority of the laity, who listen to the hierarchy, nod politely and respectfully, and then do what their informed consciences tell them is right. As they've done for decades.

  • Vicente Fox on October 12, 2012 11:18 AM:

    Why does the 22% of the country who identify as Catholic have such an outsized say in American politics?

  • Frank Wilhoit on October 12, 2012 11:34 AM:

    The core proposition here is that the Church must, of right, be above the Law. It is shocking, just hard shocking, that no one is calling this out. It is the most disruptive challenge of its kind that has been put forward since the English Civil War.

    I've given you the phrase that precisely describes this: "faith-based nullification". Use it.

  • golack on October 12, 2012 11:50 AM:

    Biden did a good job answering that question, and could have gone a bit further. The flip side of not using the state to force women to bear children against their will is that you can use the state to help women who choose to have their children, to help families struggling financially, to see that all have good health care even prior to the pregnancy, to see that their is affordable child care. Tie in Lilly Ledbetter and call it a night.

  • tom on October 12, 2012 1:45 PM:

    Raddatz' Libya question was doing her job -- which is to be a foreign/military affairs reporter. She had a chance to ask the VP a probing question about what the government knew and didn't know about the LIbya attacks. If it had been a press conference, it would have been entirely appropriate.

    But in a debate, it just gave Ryan an easy shot at Biden.

  • yellowdog on October 12, 2012 3:41 PM:

    I haven't looked at transcript today and my memory is not great, but did Biden mention that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops repudiated the Ryan Budget earlier this year? It was this budget that would cut programs that help the unemployed, the vulnerable, and the sick. Bishops said it was immoral--and many other religious groups agreed. Ryan may fit some Catholic views on abortion, but he departs from social teachings drastically apart from that issue. Neither candidate is ideal for the bishops, though for different reasons.

    The question on abortion was important--and Ryan flubbed it. He and Romney simply are not on the same page. Romney is a CEO who would be delighted never to hear the word abortion again. Ryan is a hard-liner, and he wants lots of federal legislation and litmus tests for judges. Ryan shows his true radical colors on this issue. Romney shows his character on it as well--and he is wind-socky weak. Consider that he told an Iowa paper the other day that he foresaw no legislation on abortion. At the same time, his campaign was calling pro-lifers like Perkins assuring them that he did not mean what he said. Does anybody really know which of the 50 different statements on abortion Romney really believes? (He is not 'moderating' his view. He himself really does not know what his view is.) Now Ryan is saying Congress ought to overturn Roe. The more time Romney and Ryan spend on this issue, the more radical and Akin-like Ryan looks and the more craven Romney looks.

  • Tom Dibble on October 12, 2012 5:15 PM:

    @yellowdog - "I haven't looked at transcript today and my memory is not great, but did Biden mention that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops repudiated the Ryan Budget earlier this year?"

    Sort of. If I recall correctly, during the exchange Biden made his point about the Catholic bishops, and Ryan said he wasn't in line with the Catholic Bishops (or something like that ... not what he was intending to say), and Biden replied that of course the Bishops disagree with Ryan's budget, but Ryan cut him off and restated that he was disagreeing with Biden's characterization of the Bishops, not with the Bishops.

    I think that was, unfortunately, the only mention. But, I missed much of the early bit of the debate.

  • Anonymous on October 12, 2012 9:24 PM:

    Biden said that he didn't feel he should impose his beliefs on others. Yet, he is willing to mandate that all Americans pay for the abortions for some other Americans through government subsidies. How is that different from imposing your beliefs on others? I'm morally against abortion. When Congress or the Supreme Court decide to use my tax money to subsidize the abortion of others against my personal beliefs, how is that not imposing its moral beliefs on me and others like me? If you use Biden's logic to look at the issue from the other point of view, it doesn't hold water.

    I think the best approach is to keep the federal government out of abortion. Do not use taxpayer money to fund or subsidize it. Bring the issue back to the states where it belongs. Let the states battle it out with their citizens and keep the federal courts and government out of it.

  • Jane Wester on October 13, 2012 7:56 AM:

    I'm sorry, but what does religion have to do with politics?!? Enough already on the abortion issue. You're talking about two MEN answering this very personal question. Two MEN who have no damn business telling a WOMAN what she should do with her body, and should have absolutely no input on a very personal matter, unless the individual they are discussing this with, is their lover. When we start talking about the government controlling masturbation, then let's please return to this subject matter. Abortion is complex, and deserves much more than 5 minutes of dialogue.

  • Stacey on October 13, 2012 2:56 PM:

    So to sum it up, Ryan is a Catholic who follows the teachings of the church. Biden is a Catholic who rejects the teachings of the church. If you reject the teachings, why be Catholic? What is really disturbing is that Biden said he believes life begins at conception, but he is pro-choice. That is like saying I'm against slavery, but won't tell others they can't own slaves. This isn't the first time in our history where we have defined people as property. Ryan's answer was credible, reasonable and consistent. That is why (per recent Gallup poll) more Americans consider themselves pro-life vs. pro-choice (50%-41%). God bless.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. on October 13, 2012 3:23 PM:

    The question was a gotcha question, and the responses were both poor. A small quarter of Americans are Catholic (I am one.) Would the question seem odd, if reversed," since this debate is the 243 th debate between Protestants, I ask......... abortion." There are infinities of moral issues within, and without the Catholic church. Abortion is one. Contrary to Biden's non answer, there are many Americans, in court today, allied with Catholic institutions, litigating the government demand that self insured religious institutions fund abortion. It is a Catholic issue but not exclusively. The current issue is a government demand to fund something which a majority of Americans abhor. The mandatory funding is a violation of our First Amendment right of religious freedom.

    The debate simply confused the issue.