Barack Obama's chosen running mate, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, is a Roman Catholic who would become, if elected, the first Catholic vice-president of the U.S. Like many Catholic elected officials in the US, he runs afoul of church teachings on abortion rights, but cites church teachings on a variety of social justice concerns. His selection is likely to rekindle the debate over whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should receive Communion.
Last year, when Biden himself was running for president, the Christian Science Monitor took an in-depth look at the role Catholicism plays in Biden's life. The story quotes Monsignor William Kerr, executive director of the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University, saying "Joe Biden is one of the most sincere Catholics I've known in my 40 years as a priest." An excerpt:
"'The animating principle of my faith, as taught to me by church and home, was that the cardinal sin was abuse of power,' he (Biden) said in an interview with the Monitor. 'It was not only required as a good Catholic to abhor and avoid abuse of power, but to do something to end that abuse.' The issues that have most engaged Biden in public life draw on those teachings, from halting violence against women to genocide. At a personal level, his faith provides him peace, he says. 'I get comfort from carrying my rosary, going to mass every Sunday. It's my time alone,' he says."The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has posted a religious biography of Biden, which notes that Biden attended Catholic school, considered becoming a priest, attends a parish in Wilmington, Delaware, met with Pope John Paul II four times and attended his funeral.
According to Project Vote Smart, Biden voted with Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America 100 percent of the time in 2006. He differs from the Catholic Church's leaders in other areas as well -- he initially supported the Iraq War (although he has since become a critic), he opposes a federal ban on same-sex marriage (although in 1996 he supported the federal Defense of Marriage Act), he supports the death penalty and he has supported embryonic stem cell research.
But many Catholics, and many Catholic politicians, share Biden's positions, and the Obama campaign is clearly hoping that Biden's passion for his faith and his working-class roots will help woo Catholic voters, who are now evenly divided between Obama and McCain.
Criticism from conservative Catholics is already coming; Fidelis, a Chicago-based group, today issued a statement declaring:
“Now everywhere Biden campaigns, we’ll have this question of whether a pro-abortion Catholic can receive Communion. Senator Biden is an unrepentant supporter of abortion in direct opposition to the Church he claims as his own. Selecting a pro-abortion Catholic is a slap in the face to Catholic voters.”
But, on the other side of the political spectrum, Catholics United today issued its own statement:
“Senator Biden’s well-known commitment to his Catholic faith has inspired his advocacy on issues such as genocide, universal health care, education, workers’ rights, and violence against women. His faith has helped him to find solace during times of tragedy and crisis. We are optimistic that Senator Biden’s history of seeking practical means of addressing abortion will help move our nation beyond the divisive, acrimonious, and unproductive debate that has come to surround the issue. Senator Biden accepts his church’s teachings on human life and can work to advance these teachings in ways that Americans of all political persuasions can support. Catholics United is especially hopeful that operatives on the far right will refrain from using Senator Biden’s faith and the teachings of the Catholic Church as political weapons in the coming campaign. Faith and values should be used to unite Americans behind solutions to the key challenges of this age – war, poverty, lack of health care, and a looming climate crisis – and not as partisan wedges to divide voters.”
UPDATE: James Salt, organizing director of Catholics United, e-mails to say "Biden has always opposed public financing of abortion and late term abortion and...in 2003, NARAL gave him a 36% voting record. For a Catholic Democrat, these are two pretty important positions that go against the grain of his party and point to the influence of Biden’s Catholic faith on his politics."
UPDATE: Catholic Democrats, a Boston-based organization, also weighs in; Dr. Patrick Whelan, the organization's president, says Biden "has lived out the tenets of his Catholic faith throughout his career -- speaking out tirelessly on behalf of the poor and the exploited, encouraging peace and reconstruction in the most despairing corners of the world, and promoting personal responsibility here in the US. He is a public servant who truly believes in the common good."
(Photo, by AP, shows Sens. Biden and Obama on Capitol Hill on April 8, 2008.)