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The VP Debate’s Biggest Missed Opportunity

Oh, Martha Raddatz. You were doing so well. Throughout most of the vice presidential debate on Thursday night, the ABC foreign affairs correspondent was a masterful moderator, pressing Joe Biden to explain the military surge and withdrawal in Afghanistan, and repeatedly asking Paul Ryan to provide specifics for his ticket’s tax plan. But as the evening drew to a close and Raddatz posed a question designed to allow each man to talk about his Catholicism, she made the tired mistake of assuming that there is just one “Catholic issue”—abortion.

Raddatz asked both Biden and Ryan to “tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.” Not immigration or healthcare or the economy. The formulation of her question was problematic enough and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first let’s consider the enormous missed opportunity here to have a real debate between two very different kinds of Catholics, a debate that would mirror the larger rift taking place in the American Catholic church.

For decades, American Catholics were split between an “abortion-first” camp that held every other issue to be a lower priority and a “whole-life” camp that argued for equal focus on issues of economic and social justice. Today that divide is even bigger, with many in the former camp downplaying or even disputing Church teaching on the economy and poverty, while some Catholics in the latter camp trumpet Catholic social teaching and say little about making abortion rare. When Mitt Romney selected Ryan—a card-carrying member of the “abortion-first” camp—as his running mate, an internal debate became very public.

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As a result, several high-ranking Catholic leaders have spoken out to defend Ryan’s budget that slashes social programs and foreign assistance, arguing that the question of whether government should take care of the poor is one of “prudential judgment.” Two weeks ago, in a rare public broadside, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan took aim at that position in a statement that proclaimed: “Government programs provide enormous support to poor Americans” and that the work of charities, including Catholic charities, “is not enough….The government must continue to play its part as well.”

This week, on the eve of the debate, a collection of Catholic theologians and academics—including several conservative academics—released an open letter calling on Church leaders to be as vocal in criticizing Ryan’s economic ideas as they have been in opposing the Obama administration health law:

We fear the Church’s legitimate disagreement with the inadequate exemptions in the Obama administration’s contraceptive insurance mandate will lead some bishops to avoid giving due scrutiny to Ryan’s disagreements with or misunderstandings of the Church’s social teaching. This would be a tragic failure of episcopal oversight. Presidential campaigns have enormous power to legitimate their messages. If Congressman Ryan’s Randian vision is allowed to be promoted as Catholic, many believers will be confused and our nation will be deprived of the Church’s full wisdom.

But instead of getting into how their religious beliefs inform their positions on addressing poverty or making tough budget decisions in a struggling economy, Raddatz asked the vice presidential candidates to talk about their personal views on abortion. To their credit, both men correctly pointed out that their personal views aren’t relevant; their policies on abortion are. So Ryan explained that even though he believes life begins at conception, he supports the banning of abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake. He did not comment—nor did Raddatz ask him—about Romney’s constantly shifting abortion policies.

But Biden didn’t miss the chance to remind female voters that Moderate Mitt represents an extreme party on abortion. He brought up Ryan’s past support of legislation that distinguished between “rape” and “forcible rape,” as well as the congressman’s previous opposition to exceptions in cases of rape and incest. And even though Raddatz didn’t ask, Biden volunteered his support for “Catholic social doctrine.”

For his part, Ryan used the opportunity to go after the Obama administration for “assaulting the religious liberties of this country” and hit the Democratic Party for removing the words “safe, legal, and rare” from the abortion plank of its platform.

None of this will matter. The Catholic hierarchy has been pushing the importance of the religious liberty issue for over a year now, with a two-week education campaign this summer and with instructions for priests to preach on the issue from every pulpit, and Obama’s lead among Catholic voters has only increased. In June, Obama held a slim advantage, 49 to 47 percent over Romney among Catholics. By September, that lead had grown to 54 to 39 percent. That’s the same percentage of Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008, not because he appealed to them as Catholics but because the economy was their first and only issue. That hasn’t changed.