When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney selected Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to be his running mate, Catholics passed a milestone. For the first time in history, both vice presidential candidates, Ryan and Vice President Biden, are Catholic.
But if Biden and Ryan share the same faith, they couldn't be further apart in their cultural and political worldviews. On issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, taxes and Medicaid, they are miles apart.
How can that be?
Reflecting 'The Old And The New'
Catholicism is complicated, says Deal Hudson, a Catholic strategist for the Republican Party. It can't be pigeonholed as conservative or liberal. He says that, increasingly, the divisions within the Catholic faithful are sharpening — and this race reflects that.
"These two vice presidential candidates represent the old and the new in the Catholic church in the United States," Hudson says.
Biden comes from a more traditional generation of Catholics, says Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at Catholic University of America.
"This is the Catholicism of our old ethnic neighborhoods, and our union halls, and St. Christopher medals on the dashboard sort of thing," Stephen says.
It is a working-class Catholicism, he says, where the Mass and the rosary are part of the warp and woof of daily life in places such as Scranton, Pa., Biden's boyhood town. As Biden said when he visited Scranton in 2008, "This is where my family values and my faith melded."
Those values — of the cop, the fireman, the union leader — placed Catholics solidly in the Democratic camp for decades. Schneck, who co-chairs Catholics for Obama, says these Catholics tend to have a positive attitude toward government.
"Think about John Kennedy's famous 'ask not' lines here," Schneck says. "For that generation of Catholics, it's a recognition that government and civil society have a profoundly positive role to play."
But that generation now has moved on, says Robert George, a conservative Catholic and professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.
"We have a younger generation of Catholics who are more conservative, especially on moral and cultural issues," he says.
George says these younger Catholics — who are sometimes called "intentional Catholics" — tend to be more committed to conservative parts of Catholic doctrine. Many, like Ryan, 42, came of age during the papacy of John Paul II. They see themselves in Ryan, who opposes same-sex marriage and abortion except when the mother's life is in danger. In fact, Ryan sponsored a "personhood bill" that would define a fertilized egg as a human being.
Hudson says he "can't think of a better pick." He says Ryan is already mobilizing the conservative Catholic base.
Conflict Over Role Of Government
"I think he strengthens the ticket from the point of view of the grass-roots, pro-life Catholics, who frankly do a lot of work in the campaign," he says.
Many of these Ryan-esque Catholics, political scientists say, are more affluent and more likely to work in the executive suite than the factory floor. For example, Ryan's father was an attorney, and his family owns a paving company in Wisconsin. Like Ryan, many of these new Catholics take a dimmer view of taxes and social welfare policies. This might not seem like a religious issue, but Ryan made it one this spring. He told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network that he found justification for his budget plan — which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor — in Catholic social teaching.
"The preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means: Don't keep people poor; don't make people dependent on government so they stay stuck in their station in life," Ryan told CBN. "Help people get out of poverty [and] on to a life of independence."
The reaction from some Catholic theologians was swift and brutal.
"That's not the Jesus I know," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "Jesus said we should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked."
Reese agrees that the Catholic principle of "subsidiarity" does favor the smaller units, such as families, churches or charities, solving problems. But it also sees a role for government — especially now, when so many people are out of work.
"A budget that cuts food stamps, that cuts Medicaid, can't be called a budget that follows Catholic social teaching of the Gospels," Reese says.
Some influential Catholic bishops agreed, and publicly rebuked Ryan and his budget plan. Hudson says that put a big target on Ryan's back.
"The Catholic left was rubbing their hands with delight," he says, "because they knew they had an attack line — that is, the bishops' criticism of the Ryan budget — an attack line they could use over and over again between now and November."
In fact, the Obama campaign has already made Ryan's budget a centerpiece of its advertising campaign, airing ads about cutting benefits to veterans, loans to needy students and programs for the elderly, particularly Medicare.
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, says Catholics have never been so polarized. The divisions between liberal and conservative Catholics have been growing for decades, but this election has thrown it into sharp relief.
But he says there are millions of Catholics who don't really fit into either camp: the swing Catholics. For them, religious and social issues take a back seat.
"Those moderate Catholics tend to respond to the economic situation much more so than more conservative Catholics or liberal Catholics who tend to be strong partisans," Green says
These Catholics are concentrated in some swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and parts of Florida. Now, they must choose between radically different views of governance — which both vice presidential candidates say are inspired by their faith.