Before there were soccer moms or NASCAR dads, there were Catholics. Once a Democratic bastion, they have been the bellwether voting bloc for the last forty years. As Ross Douthat of The New York Times notes, “Exit polling tells us that in every presidential election since 1972, the candidate who has won Catholics has won the popular vote as well.
Now the religious right is targeting Catholics with a narrow message of what Catholic teachings should mean in the political realm.
The Family Research Council, a socially conservative advocacy organization, has released a “2012 Catholic Vice-Presidential Voter Guide.” This seems especially relevant since both Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) are Catholic and were chosen partly for their putative appeal to Midwestern Catholic voters. FRC defines Catholic issues in a way that is far more congenial to Republicans.
They list nine “Intrinsic Evils,” of which eight favor the Republican position: various manifestations of opposition to abortion, gay rights and stem cell research. The one outlier is torture of foreign prisoners of war, which Vice President Biden, like the Catholic Church, opposes. (FRC could not find a position on torture taken by Ryan.)
Then there are “Prudential Judgments” on which good Catholics may disagree. These include more issues on which Catholic teaching would line up with Democratic values, such as amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Curiously, FRC offers the proportions of Biden’s and Ryan’s income that each gave to charity, but no other mention of helping the poor. It’s as if the few thousand dollars Ryan gave matters more than the trillions he would cut from social programs.
The justifications for how FRC determined what is a Catholic issue and where the candidates stand on them are provided in a “supporting document.”
Given the Catholic Church’s long commitment to aiding the needy, the absence of economic policy seems a bit odd. Ryan, after all, has been criticized by Catholic bishops because his budget would cut funding to essential anti-poverty programs such as Medicaid and food stamps to pay for tax cuts for the rich. In fact, the voter guide would give a Catholic the false impression that Ryan actually supports more aid to the poor than Biden, because he has given more to charity. (Although, as the supporting document unintentionally demonstrates, many of those charities—such as the Boy Scouts and crisis pregnancy centers—have little if anything to do with addressing poverty.)
FRC’s response is that the Catholic Church only holds a vague notion that poverty should be ameliorated, not specific positions on how to do so. “Ryan makes the argument it’s not that you don’t help people in need rise out of poverty, it’s how you do that,” says Tom McCluskey, senior vice president of FRC Action and co-author of the voter guide. “It’s a political difference that has no relevance to Catholic teaching.”
I’m no expert in Catholic teaching, but I beg to differ. The church has repeatedly supported federal anti-poverty programs, such as the expansion of Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, that Biden supports and Ryan opposes. Even taking at face value Ryan’s claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy will grow the economy and thus lift more poor people into jobs, or better-paying ones, there will always be unemployed people, especially the disabled. The fact that Ryan would decimate their essential social services is fundamentally at odds with any concern for the vulnerable.