In last week's vice presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked the two Roman Catholic politicians "to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion."
"I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith," confessed Ryan. "Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life." But he went on to make it clear that his views on abortion are based as much on "reason and science" as they are on his Catholicism.
Then it was Biden's turn. He stopped laughing long enough to explain: "My religion defines who I am, and I've been a practicing Catholic my whole life.… [Catholicism] has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who — who can't take care of themselves."
Biden says he personally accepts his church's "de fide doctrine" that "life begins at conception.… I accept that in my personal life." But he refuses to impose it on others who don't share his faith. Unfortunately, given his pious bravado, Biden badly garbled church teaching: Catholic opposition to abortion isn't in fact theological dogma (de fide) but a scientific and moral conclusion, much as Ryan suggested.
Reaction to the exchange has been predictable. Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker, for instance, was outraged — at Ryan. To say that faith informs everything you do is "disturbing and scary," Gopnik insisted. "That's a shocking answer — a mullah's answer, what those scary Iranian 'Ayatollahs' he kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well."
And Biden. Biden freely admits that his faith informs his "social doctrine." And social doctrine is a euphemism for political worldview. It's just that on abortion, his liberalism is more important.
Indeed, this has been the standard liberal Catholic Democrat argument ever since Mario Cuomo's 1984 address at the University of Notre Dame. Cuomo argued that one could support the church's abortion position personally while refusing to impose it on others. Cuomo's argument impressed secular liberals but not the church itself.
In 2004, Catholic Democratic Sen. John Kerry declared in a presidential debate that his faith was "why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this Earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith." One of Ayatollah Kerry's favorite rhetorical flourishes was to note that a Christian must "demonstrate faith with deeds" — and the deeds Kerry had in mind were the liberal policies he always supported. Abortion, of course, was the one great exception to his effort to impose his faith on Americans.
Let's be clear: Anti-poverty programs, environmental regulations and tax increases are impositions too. Refuse to abide with any of them and the government will either force you to comply or put you in jail. If your Catholic (or Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or pagan) faith drives you to pass regulations that shut down a coal mine, you'll have imposed a lot of people right out of a job.
I strongly doubt that Gopnik and the rest of the faith-fearing liberals mind when progressive figures insist their policies are motivated by religion. President Obama routinely waxes biblical in his view of government: "I am my brother's keeper," he has said repeatedly. It is, to be sure, an odd recasting of the Bible, since Cain's question to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?," was simply an attempt to dodge a murder rap. But he is invoking his faith nonetheless. And Nancy Pelosi says her Catholic faith "compels" her to support gay marriage. Really.
It might be that secular liberals aren't offended by all this because they think Democrats are simply lying. That's probably true in some cases, but it's surely unfair in others. Biden seems sincere when he says he's a faithful liberal Catholic. And that's forgivable so long as he remembers that the "liberal" comes first in "liberal Catholic."