Joe Biden and the Catholic Challenge

By choosing the longtime Senate insider and foreign policy expert, Joe Biden, as his running mate, Barack Obama is also gambling that having a Catholic on the ticket will draw in some of the fence-sitting Catholics whose votes will be key to success in November. Peeling away a few evangelical votes, or hoping for a low turnout by the Christian right, is a prayer. As I wrote here, the white, suburban evangelicals who are the bedrock of the GOP election strategy may respect Obama, at best. But he’s not a member of the tribe, despite his thoroughgoing Christian bona fides, and it seems nothing will convince them otherwise.


Biden, however, is a strong bet in that he could–and should–play well with many Catholics. From abortion to his working-class background, he represents a viewpoint and a culture that resonate with the broad middle of Catholic opinion that finds the assertions of authoritative political opinion from right and left in the church highly dubious.

Consider Biden’s abortion record, as set out here and here. Biden supports Roe v. Wade but backed a federal ban on late-term abortions and opposes public funding of abortion. His record is mixed, which was enough to earn him a NARAL rating (currently at 60 percent) as low as 39 percent in recent years–and NARAL pointedly has not endorsed Biden.  


Moreover, Biden’s compelling personal history–from his hardscrabble upbringing in a Catholic family (he breifly considered becoming a priest, as many Catholic boys of that era did) to the tragedy that claimed his wife and daughter, as well as his own near-death experience–have given him a broad perspective on life and a passionate commitment to fighting injustice. Much of his views, in fact, are grounded in Catholic social justice principles, which Obama seems to share intuitively. But Biden can speak to them much more cogently–and perhaps make up for his penchant for shooting from the lip.

A primary source would be this 2007 Christian Science Monitor profile, “A Frank and Abiding Faith,” as well as this Pew biography and David Brooks’ column from this week, “Hoping it’s Biden.”  


Will the choice convince any of the knee-jerkers in the McCain camp? Of course not. For too many–on both aides–ideology and party loyalty trump deliberation and introspection, especially at this point in the campaign. You can already see the silly ads and dumb commentary all over the Web. Will the selection tip the “average voter”? Not so much. A Washington Post poll shows that three-quarters of voters said picking Biden would not sway their votes one way or the other. And about as many said they would be more apt to support Obama with Biden on the ticket as said the choice would make them less likely to vote Democratic on Election Day (13 to 10 percent).


But Biden’s Catholic, working-class roots, especially in a key region like Scranton in a “keystone” state like Pennsylvania could play well not just there, but in other similar regions in other battleground states, as well as with Catholics as a whole–the true swing vote.

The risky part of Obama’s gamble on Biden is that by picking a Catholic–and it wouldn’t matter who–he risks reigniting the “wafer wars” (an unfortunately commonplace phrase which–this is an update of a previous version–I’ll refrain from promoting further on advice of good counsel) that divide the faithful even more than they are. Given Biden’s background and record, however, the Wafer Warriors will have to go some ways to dirty up Biden on the faith issue. As the Pew bio has it:


When the Diocese of Wilmington’s bishop, Michael Saltarelli, came under pressure in 2004 and 2005 to deny communion to Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, the bishop refused, saying through a diocesan spokesman that he “prefers prayer and active engagement” with politicians who take positions contrary to church doctrine; Biden refused to comment on the issue. Once again running for president, Biden said in April 2007 that his party must demonstrate it is “not afraid to deal with the faith issue.”

On the other hand, Saltarelli’s replacement, Bishop W. Francis Malooly, takes office on Sept 8, and his approach to Biden is unknown. Would he want to start his own term by courting such controversy? Most bishops–and Malooly is considered a deliberate fellow–would want to get to know one of their flock before making any drastic public moves, and that may be tough given Biden’s coming campaign agenda.

Still, it’ll be telling to see what blasts come at Biden from the usual Catholic suspects–and whether they will backfire in a way that would earn Obama-Biden more support than the ticket would have otherwise.  

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posted August 23, 2008 at 1:33 pm

Who would you include in the “usual Catholic suspects”?
Bishops Chaput and Burke? Fr. Benedict Groeschel? Pope
Benedict XVI?
Thomas More would not be proud of the shoddy reasoning
displayed by our Catholic pro-choice politicians.

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posted August 23, 2008 at 2:51 pm

if a new bishop jumps into this presidential campaign as late as September it would be so stupid that it would haunt his ‘reign’ for it’s entire term. No way…..
If anyone realy believes womanizing McCain is realy pro- life I have shares of the Brooklyn bridge I like to sell..

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Charles Cosimano

posted August 23, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Aside from the sneaking suspicion that Biden will say something very embarrassing within two weeks of his nomination and kill the Obama campaign, his opposition to doctrinaire Catholicism does make him more palatable to the overwhelming majority of voters who are not Catholic.

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posted August 24, 2008 at 5:40 am

Senate insider and foreign policy expert
passionately committed to fighting injustice
committed to social justice issues
working class background, not rich elitest
not divorced and remarried, not a womanizer or an adulterer
ah, but lest we forget, none of these is important
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
the abortion issue is all that matters
gets old after a while, doesnt it

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Douglas Johnson

posted August 24, 2008 at 6:04 am

NARAL is a lot more enthusiastic about Biden than one might conclude from reading the posting above. You can read their characterization of his record, released the same day he was named to Obama’s ticket, here:
I’m the legislative director for National Right to Life. I have observed Sen. Biden in action on the issues that concern us, and I have had interactions with him, beginning as early as 1981. He is a strong supporter of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, which mandated abortion on demand. He has played a leading role in blocking or trying to block the nominees to the Supreme Court who were opposed by pro-abortion advocacy groups, such as Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito. Biden has not
voted on the pro-life side on any roll call vote scored by National Right to Life since 2003.
However, Biden’s record on certain pro-life issues is contrary to the positions that Obama has taken — which is to say, while Obama has always embraced the most expansively pro-abortion policy option of those placed before him, there are several specific issues on which Biden has not done that. These divergences actually illustrate some of the extremes of Obama’s record. For example:
Obama vs. Biden on Partial-Birth Abortion
The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was enacted in 2003, with Senator Biden’s support, and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in April, 2007. (For more about the content and significance of this legislation, go here:
At that time, Barack Obama sharply criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for its ruling, saying, “I strongly disagree with today’s Supreme Court ruling . . .” As to Biden: “I voted for the partial-birth abortion ban,” said [Sen. Joe]
Biden while answering a woman’s question at a conference sponsored by the National Jewish Democratic Council. “I think it’s an extraordinary circumstance, I make no apologies for it.”, April 24, 2007.
Obama vs. Biden on tax-funded abortions
Barack Obama advocates federal funding of abortion, and while in the Illinois legislature he voted against legislation to restrict state funding of abortion on demand. That is consistent with the policy advocated in the proposed 2008 Democratic Party platform, which says, “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay . . .” In short, Obama and the platform favor repeal of the Hyde Amendment and the other laws that prevent funding of abortion in federal programs such as Medicaid. But Senator Biden has been voting for many of those laws for decades. Biden has written, “I might also add that I find it difficult to understand how those who refuse to limit the right of abortion in this country can at the same time support the expansion of the government’s financial involvement in providing for abortions. That is why I have been a consistent supporter of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of Medicaid funds to finance abortions. I believe that it is not the government’s business to be promoting abortion in any way.” (Letter, June 16, 1983)
Obama v. Biden on Born-Alive Infants Protection legislation
On 2001, Biden voted for the language of the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act (BAIPA), which recognizes babies who are born alive during abortions as legally protected persons, while we recently released documents proving that Obama killed a virtually identical bill in the Illinois State Senate in 2003. For more information on Obama’s documented record on the live-born abortion survivors issue — as contrasted with his claims — go here:
Douglas Johnson
Legislative Director
National Right to Life Committee

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james curtis

posted August 24, 2008 at 12:39 pm

Wake up and smell the coffee. Abortion is legal due to Roe V. Wade. Res Judicata, Stare Decisis Baby. No Politician can change that. Listening to the Republicans say they are against abortion means nothing, The Supreme Court made the law, only a constitutional amendment can re-criminalize the act. Neocons only like the Supreme Court when they rule their way. Patriots love the supreme court as much as the founding fathers did, they are part of the balance of power. 7 of the last 10 presidents were Republican, they did nothing but talk and make the Religious right feel warm and fuzzy. Mrs. Barbara Bush, Mrs. Gerald Ford, and other first ladies were for a woman’s right to choose and the others keep their mouths shut.
But, all keep buying the line, and vote for the Party that sanctions torture, strips away our rights, spits on the Constitution, starts pre-emptive wars we cannot afford, hands out billions to Iraqis while Americans starve and have no health care. Anyone vote for the Republican Platform gets what they deserve…more of the same.
Personally, I am against abortion and think the babies should be adopted. But do not expect the Republicans to do more for religious fundamentalist than pay lip service to their demands.

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posted August 24, 2008 at 2:27 pm

James, it is interesting to note that you do not believe a politician can change a man-made law protecting the right to kill babies in their Mother’s Womb but the same politician can hold the belief that Divine Law, which is absolute, can be changed according to one’s own personal opinion.

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posted August 24, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Since the Catholic Church is not nor has it ever been pro-choice, I would hope that Sen.Joe Biden, who professes to be Catholic, will work towards changing the Democratic Platform to one that is Pro-Life.

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posted August 24, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Biden is Catholic in name only. The Church leadership has stated that a Catholic can not support abortion or vote for those who support abortion. He has placed his soul in grave danger. He commits mortal sin anytime he takes Communion.

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posted August 24, 2008 at 7:06 pm

Mr. Gibson, what do you mean by “knee-jerkers in the McCain camp”? Cannot one be a strong supporter of McCain’s after “deliberation and introspection”? Cannot one conclude that, even given Biden’s strong points, McCain is still the better choice over Obama? Or, in light of Biden’s selection, must every right-thinking person support Obama lest he be considered a “knee-jerk” McCain supporter?

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tom bombadil

posted August 24, 2008 at 10:51 pm

Joe Biden is not Catholic if he supports Roe VS. Wade. Period.

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posted August 25, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Joe Biden is not a Catholic. He is a politician who calls himself a Catholic simply to win votes from people who don’t know what he stands for. Truly, the Democratic Party has become the party of death. Years ago I thought that a “liberal” was one who valued life. You would think so, wouldn’t you? All a liberal values is his or her own selfish interests. How can a liberal raise a hew and cry against capital punishment or war when we have a holocaust in our country with the murder of innocent children in the womb, and even out of it if Barack Obama has his way. Mr. Obama says his is “my brother’s keeper”, except for the little ones. And, perhaps except for his own half-brother who is surviving on less than a dollar a day in Africa.

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posted August 26, 2008 at 2:56 pm

Taking communion while condoning the death of unborn children is like nailing our Lord to the cross over and over.The ones who are blind to this
will be judged,but not by me.I think there is a lot of hypocrisy in who is allowed to take communion and who is forbidden.

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posted September 1, 2008 at 7:04 pm

February 27, 2008
In last night’s debate between Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, MSNBC moderator Tim Russert asked both presidential candidates whether there was “any word or vote that you’d like to take back” in your “careers in public service.” Senator Obama cited his role in a unanimous decision by the U.S. Senate regarding the Terri Schiavo case. He said it was “a mistake” for the Congress “to interject itself into that decision-making process of the families” to settle her fate.
Catholic League president Bill Donohue addressed this issue today:
“So now we know that Obama thinks it was a mistake—the biggest mistake he’s ever made in public life—to allow Schiavo’s parents the right to petition a federal court over the withdrawal of food and medical services necessary to save her life. Never mind that the vote was merely procedural: it simply allowed the patient’s parents the right to ask for federal review, never guaranteeing a particular outcome. Moreover, the bill was case specific—it had no bearing on any case other than Schiavo’s, and it explicitly said that ‘nothing in this Act shall constitute a precedent with respect to future legislation.’ Yet Obama now says his vote ‘was not something I was comfortable with, but it was not something that I stood on the floor and stopped.’ How revealing.
“Just as important as what Obama said is what he didn’t say: He could have taken the opportunity to say that the biggest blunder of his career in public life was his vote to kill a bill in the Illinois legislature that would have provided medical care for infants who survive abortions. In 2003, while chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee of the Illinois Senate, he led the fight to oppose a bill that would have mandated health care for a baby who survived an abortion, and he did so even though the bill explicitly said it would not imperil Roe v. Wade.
“In conclusion, Senator Obama thinks it is none of the federal government’s business to allow doctors to intentionally starve a person to death, nor is it the law’s business to require doctors to attend to the health care of a fully born baby who has survived an abortion. All this from the Minister of Hope.”
They say that Christians should not get into politics but, when it infringes on faith and morals, it is up to Christians to speak up and defend the sanctity of God’s laws.

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John Sloan

posted September 6, 2008 at 3:20 pm

Biden is a continuing number of people who call themsevles Catholic and then violate the most basic of Christian beliefs about abortion. If life is not the core issue—what is. Joe is against life. And remember his boss Obama said that if his daughter ever got pregnant—they would be an immediate abortion. They cleverly talk about abortion being rare and then go to NARAL and collect money from them. Which is it Joe, Obama, rare abortions or NARAL. Both Mrs. Clinton and Obama’s wife attended a recent NARAL meeting to learn how to use language and other subterfuge that might persuade others they are serious about “life.”
Maybe their own but not the babies of this world.

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posted September 6, 2008 at 7:37 pm

Obama and Biden believe in a woman’s right to choose… a right that shouldn’t be controlled by ANY church…the RCC or others, nor should it be controlled by the government. Both men are not mixing religion and politics, separation of church and state is being upheld by them. The decision is personal and no one elses business except the woman and those she wishes to include, if anyone. IMO,Biden isn’t breaking any RCC rules. The right to terminate safely and privately should always exist. To deny that to any woman is a “sin.” No one is forced to have an abortion, but in some cases… rape, incest and medical reasons, are just some that might have to be considered in deciding whether to continue a unplanned pregnancy.

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posted September 14, 2008 at 5:23 pm

I would never vote for Obama and Biden. I don’t care what they call themselves, but anyone who believes in the killing of children who are not born yet is not a “God fearing man” in my book. The fact they they go under the pretense of Christianity only makes it worse. Plus as one of my friends said: “Obama is going to get elected, he’ll pull us out of Iraq, the terrorists will see their chance and we’re all going to die.”

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posted September 17, 2008 at 1:12 pm

I wish we had more Bishop’s like Michael Saltarelli.

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