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Biden-Ryan debate highlights nation’s Catholic political divide

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 9:44 a.m. CDT

DUBUQUE, Iowa (MCT) — Dr. Jack Dolehide remembers the trinity on display in his boyhood home in Chicago in the 1960s: There, in the center, was an iconic image of Jesus. On one side, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the city’s legendary Democratic boss. On the other, President John F. Kennedy.

Then one day around 1969 or ’70, the unthinkable occurred. Dolehide’s father took down the politicians’ portraits, ripped them into pieces and threw them away. He had become a Republican.

Today, Jack Dolehide, 57, is a well-established physician in Dubuque and among many Catholics who plan to vote for Mitt Romney for president. Like the nation at large, Catholics — once strongly associated with the Democratic Party — are almost evenly divided between Romney and President Barack Obama.

That divide will be in sharp focus Thursday when the two vice presidential candidates, Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and his challenger, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, meet in Danville, Ky., for their only debate of the fall campaign. When they step onto the stage, it will spotlight a first in American history: Never before have both major party tickets for the White House featured a Roman Catholic.

It would be hard to find better representatives of the two poles of American Catholicism. Both men are deeply steeped in their faith, yet they disagree on issues of critical importance to the church and to society: abortion, health care, the government’s role in caring for the poor.

“Joe Biden might not be the perfect liberal Catholic, but boy, he comes pretty close,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who specializes in religious influences in politics. “Paul Ryan might be a tad more libertarian than your average conservative Catholic, but he’s not far off.”

Dubuque, with its scenic perch on the Mississippi River, has been called “Little Rome” for its many hills and its heavy Catholic population. Thin brick steeples notch the skyline. When Ryan spoke here recently, it was to a crowd at Loras College, one of the city’s two Catholic colleges. Biden, campaigning here in June, slipped away at the end of the day to bring ice cream to the nuns at the Sisters of St. Francis. It was not his first visit.

In a largely Protestant swing state, Catholics still make up an important voting group, much as they do nationwide. A recent poll showed Iowa Catholics, like their counterparts nationally, mirroring the state split, which at the time (before the first presidential debate) had Obama leading Romney, 49 percent to 45 percent.

In conversation, Catholic voters here demonstrate why it is said that there is no Catholic voting bloc in the United States anymore. Views on the election span the spectrum, from those who say they could never vote for Obama and Biden because of their pro-choice stance on abortion to those who question the morality of Romney’s and Ryan’s budget choices.

Somewhere in between are many who say they don’t mix faith and politics, and are making their decision based on which candidate would be the best steward of the economy.

“It’s a big church,” said the Rev. Gabriel Anderson, the priest at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, as he took a break from serving roast beef to his parishioners at an after-Mass festival Sunday. “We have a lot of diversity. We have a lot of cultural reference points.”

He pointed out, however, that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been unusually outspoken this year as it battles the Obama administration over a health care mandate that would guarantee insurance coverage of contraceptive services for employees of church-affiliated institutions. Included would be “morning after” pills that the church considers equivalent to abortion.

“The bishops, of course, are really calling for a strong pro-life vote, and they’re really stressing that this year,” Anderson said. “And that’s kind of a game-changer.”

He introduced two parishioners, Tom and Margaret Schaefer, who fully support the bishops’ campaign.

“We’re 100 percent pro-life,” said Tom, “and I will be voting for Romney and Ryan.”

“As will I,” Margaret added.

The couple — he is a semiretired police investigator; she is a former elementary school teacher now working as a substitute — have other reasons to support the Republican ticket. Both are critical of Obama’s handling of the economy and foreign policy. Both believe Romney can do better. But abortion “is just foremost,” Tom said.

“And Vice President Biden — for all that man should know from his experiences, his comments are ill thought-out, and quite frankly, I don’t think he’s very intelligent,” he added. “And if he professes to be a Catholic and stands on a platform supporting abortion, then as far as I’m concerned, he’s a Catholic in name only.”

That is not an uncommon view among conservative Catholics. The next evening, at a Bible study group in a stately, white clapboard house a few blocks from the church, there was general agreement that there would be only one true Catholic on stage in Kentucky: Ryan, who modified his no-exceptions abortion stance when he joined the ticket with Romney, but still says he would ban abortion in all cases except for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.

Biden “is not living his Catholic faith,” said Connie Hardie, a retired nurse and health care consultant who was hosting the group.

It is just as easy, however, to find Catholics in Dubuque who believe that Ryan is more out of step with Catholic teaching.

“Joe Biden — to me, he has the moral fiber of every Democratic politician put together,” said Anne Gindorff Heinz, who hosted a fundraiser for him in her modest backyard in 2008, when he was running in his party’s primary for president.

Like many liberal Catholics, she believes that “life” must be seen in a broader context than just abortion. Ryan’s budget, she said, would slash funding for the poor, and she believes that both he and Romney would be harder on the environment.

“So if you compare them,” she said of Ryan and Biden, “I don’t know — they might both be Catholic, but are they both moral?”

Up on a hill on the north side of town, Sister Dorothy Schwendinger lives in the large brick “motherhouse,” or headquarters, of the Sisters of St. Francis, the place that Biden visited in June. Sitting in a conference room, she took a similar position to Heinz.

“He certainly is a Catholic,” she said of Biden. “He just has that very solid Catholic affection for the church.” She believes that both Biden and Obama oppose abortion personally, even if they support leaving the decision up to individuals. And she said that Biden is a strong supporter of using government to improve “the common good.”

“I really think that Sen. Biden is much more infused with that philosophy and theology than Rep. Ryan is,” she said, referring to Biden by his former title. In a sort of coup de grace, she noted that Ryan has long been a fan of the libertarian writer Ayn Rand, who was a staunch atheist.

“I do think that may be deeper in him than Catholic teaching,” she said.

While conservative Catholics cite the church’s many statements about the sanctity of life, liberals are more likely to cite its doctrines about social justice. Last year, the Vatican issued a statement on the global economy that sharply criticized the institutions of capitalism and called for “a fair distribution of world wealth.”

That same statement, however, fretted about how diversity can become “an instrument for division.”

“In humanity,” it said, “there is a real risk that peoples will end up not understanding each other and that cultural diversities will lead to irremediable oppositions.”

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