As expected, the vice-presidential debate tonight included a question on what being Catholic means to each of the candidates.  What I did not expect was that the question as asked would tie Catholic faith so exclusively to abortion.  Martha Raddatz asked: How does being Catholic “affect your views on abortion?”

Asking the question in that way made it really easy to talk about Catholicism, because abortion holds so clear a line in church teaching.

But I fear that asking the question in that way also made it all too easy to talk about Catholicism, and therefore to dismiss Catholicism.  When Catholicism=anti-abortion to the exclusion of anything else, then the Church becomes reduced to an “issue” in American politics.  (Note: I am not here saying that abortion is a mere “issue” for the church, but I am saying that in American politics, abortion is nothing but a talking point aimed at getting people to vote for political parties, rather than parties actually doing anything about it.)  So, political issues get to be just tossed around and used for the sole purpose of garnering political votes.

What that means for the Church is that Catholicism becomes nothing more than a mere prop to be brought out at appropriately staged scenes.  It was my worry about the way the Church is getting used in politics that prompted me to help draft and sign the “On All Our Shoulders” document that has been signed by numerous other Catholic theologians and economists.

The thing is, and to both their credits, I think you could see that both candidates in their own ways strained against the view of the Church proposed by the question.  Paul Ryan said:

I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life, from their faith.

And Joe Biden suggested likewise that his faith affects everything he thinks, and made an attempt to broaden his answer to be about Catholic social teaching as well as abortion.

Catholic social doctrine talks about those who can’t take care of themselves…

That said, both candidates also answered the question in the parameters of the question asked – with the precise outcomes that we have come to expect given the US’s political architecture.  Biden wants to make private his views on abortion, which thrills his base.  He doesn’t think that his church’s views on abortion should be imposed on others.  He doesn’t seem to catch the irony in his statement, however, in that his view toward helping the poor (which is part of his understanding of Catholic teaching) is “imposed” on others in a public way.   With the one issue, it is okay to be private; with the other issue, it is necessary to bring the faith to the public square.  By contrast, Ryan followed Romney’s lead to give an account against abortion that is not quite in line with church teachings.  (Due to the way the question was asked, he did not have to answer the question some Catholics wonder about: how he understands his economic views vis a vis Catholic social teaching.)

What all this means is that both candidates discuss Catholicism and abortion in ways that effectively clip Catholicism.  We knew this would happen.  This was mere lip service to what it means to be “Catholic” while all the while putting forth particular political parties’ own views.  Catholicism becomes merely an issue, and a one-dimensional issue at that.

How interesting it is that on this day when the vice-presidential debate truncates Catholic faith in its question on Catholicism, Catholics worldwide begin observing a Year of Faith.  In his motu proprio on the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI notes strongly that:

Profession of faith is an act both personal and communitarian.

And moreover, faith should lead to “public testimony and commitment” as well as “social responsibility for what one believes.” Most importantly, faith is “no theory, but an encounter with a Person” (Jesus).  Our faith cannot be made into a singular issue, nor can it be private.

By faith, across the centuries, men and women of all ages, whose names are written in the Book of Life (cf. Rev 7:9, 13:8), have confessed the beauty of following the Lord Jesus wherever they were called to bear witness to the fact that they were Christian: in the family, in the workplace, in public life, in the exercise of the charisms and ministries to which they were called.

Christianity is a whole way of life, begun in faith and renewed by faith.  This year, we are called to seek our faith more deeply and in its entirely.  Let us not allow our faith as Catholics to be reduced to a mere thing.  It is in faith that we know: no political scheme, however enticing, prevents God from being with us.