VP Debate

How the VP Debate Emphasized ‘Single-Issue’ Catholicism

Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Vice President Joe Biden and candidate Paul Ryan at the VP Debate. Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Catholicism’s social justice teachings have often been called the church’s “best-kept secret,” and after the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan – the first such showdown between the first two Catholics to oppose each other on a national ticket – that may still be the case.

While moderator Martha Raddatz earned kudos for her performance, her only question about the candidates’ shared Catholic faith came near the end of the 90-minute debate, and she framed it solely as a question of how their faith affects their policies on abortion rights.

That was seen as a victory for Catholic conservatives and Republicans who want to reinforce the image of the church as a “single-issue” religion – that issue being abortion – and a setback for liberal Democrats and others who have struggled to highlight the church’s teachings on the common good as central to Catholicism’s witness in the public square.

“What a lost opportunity!” wrote Michael O’Loughlin at the blog of America magazine, a national Jesuit weekly. “If the moderator planned to discuss faith, and I’m glad she did, why limit the discussion to one issue, however important, when the full spectrum of Catholic social teaching is ripe for an expansive and thought provoking conversation?”

Biden-Ryan Debate: Battle of the Catholics

RNS photo by Gage Skidmore / courtesy Flickr, Jason and Bonnie Grower / Shutters

Rep. Paul Ryan (left) RNS photo by Gage Skidmore/courtesy Flickr, VP Joe Biden,Jason and Bonnie Grower / Shutterstock.com

When Joe Biden and Paul Ryan face off in the vice-presidential debate Thursday night, it will mark the first showdown of its kind between the first Catholics ever to oppose each other on the major party tickets.

A “Catholic Thrilla in Manila” as a Washington Post headline put it, recalling the famous 1975 Ali-Frazier heavyweight bout in the Philippines. Store window signs in the host city of Danville, Ky., prefer the “Thrill in the Ville.”

Whatever it is called, expectations among Catholics are as high as the stakes for both campaigns.

Joseph Cella, who leads Catholic outreach for the Romney-Ryan campaign in Michigan, where the GOP ticket has nearly closed a 10-point gap, said the campaign is organizing debate-watching parties nationwide.

“I don¹t see how Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan could avoid discussing principles of importance to Catholics,” said Cella, a veteran conservative activist.