Both presidential campaigns are calling this election a choice between two starkly different visions of America. At least on that score both are right. The crucial question has to do with the role and scope of government, especially in the economy.

President Barack Obama contends that he wants to rebuild the economy “from the middle out,” rather than from the top down. Like his party, the president believes that the federal government has a limited but indispensable role to play in regulating commerce and the financial industry, protecting the environment, funding education, providing health-care coverage, and maintaining a safety net for the elderly and those who cannot provide for themselves. He would raise taxes on top earners to do this.

Mitt Romney, like his party, would severely limit the role of government in the economy and opposes any expansion of the welfare state. In fact, he wants to shrink it. He thinks the economy is built from the top down, and that the so-called job creators need to be rewarded and encouraged by lowering taxes and curtailing government regulation. He argues that the private sector is better equipped to meet the needs of the poor, and the federal government should play no role in providing health care to those who are currently uninsured. In addition, of course, Romney and Obama have opposing views on abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and critical aspects of foreign policy.

Obama and Romney have chosen running mates who reflect their political philosophies. Curiously, both vice presidential candidates are also Roman Catholics, the first time this has happened in American history. Like Vice President Joe Biden, Congressman Paul Ryan is a regular churchgoer who speaks openly of the role Catholicism has played in his life and in shaping his political convictions. Both men have suffered tragedies that evidently deepened their faith—Ryan was only sixteen when his father died, and Biden’s first wife and infant child were killed in a car accident. Yet despite the obvious sincerity of their Catholic faith, both men’s moral and political views reflect the positions of their political parties more than those of their church. In a venerable Catholic tradition, Biden has been an advocate for the poor, the elderly, and the marginalized, and a strong defender of the role of government in cushioning the harshness of modern economic life generally. Yet he has also been a staunch defender of abortion rights, and recently a champion of same-sex marriage. Ryan is a prolife firebrand who would outlaw abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and a firm opponent of same-sex marriage. Yet his views on the morality of capitalism, influenced by the eccentric philosopher Ayn Rand and the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, are very hard to reconcile with Catholic social teaching. Pursuing one’s self-interest is the first principle of any just moral order, according to Rand and Hayek. Catholicism places our obligations to others foremost in any moral or social calculus.

How can these two ambitious politicians profess the same creed, one that places the poor and the disenfranchised at the center of our concerns but also defends the sanctity of every human life from the moment of conception? This is not an easy question to answer. There is a good deal of mutual incomprehension on the part of Biden’s Catholic supporters and Ryan’s, each side pointing to the log in the other’s eye. What can explain the reasoning of a Catholic who supports abortion on demand or that of a Catholic who thinks that helping the poor undermines their moral agency and weakens their resolve to help themselves? (It goes without saying that both candidates are committed to the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons, something their church rejects completely.)

There are cynical explanations for why Biden and Ryan champion the causes they do, but cynicism is too easy. The presence of these two Catholics on the presidential tickets reminds us of how complicated political choices always are, how often politics involves unpalatable tradeoffs, and how difficult it is to translate religious conviction into law and public policy. It also reveals once again that Catholic social teaching has no natural political home in the United States. Neither party can make room for both Catholicism’s communitarian social teachings and its traditional sexual morality. Ideally, then, Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans should serve as moral leaven in each party, and it is a great shame that neither Biden nor Ryan seem capable of contributing to that effort. The nation faces enormous challenges at home as well as the real danger of yet another war in the Middle East. Something more than posturing and paralysis is needed from Washington. Faith must help deepen our sense of shared purpose, not divide us further.

Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: 
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