By Gerald Korson
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden as his running mate appears to be a tactical move designed to attract skeptics as well as Catholics and pro-life Christians to the Democratic ticket.
Biden, 65, a six-term senator from Delaware, plugs some of the weak spots in Obama's resumé with his experience in foreign policy and national security. His own brief candidacy for president, which ended in January immediately after his dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses, was marked by scathing attacks on Obama's lack of readiness to serve as president, so his selection also represents a show of partisan unity.
Biden is a self-described practicing Catholic and a family man, a product of a blue-collar household who knows his way around Washington but maintains a relatively ordinary middle-class lifestyle.
That is his upside. On the downside, although his voting record reflects support for many of the Church's social teachings, Biden is largely pro-choice on the abortion issue -- just not quite as egregiously pro-choice as Obama and most other Democratic leaders. On the one hand, he backs legal abortion, human cloning and the expansion of embryonic stem-cell research, and opposes parental-notification laws and health care for aborted babies who are inadvertently born alive; on the other hand, he has voted in favor of a ban on partial-birth abortions and opposes federal funding of abortions.
"Basically, Biden was on everyone's short list of likely picks," said David Walsh, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. "The choice seems to be an admission by the Obama team that the poll numbers are basically accurate in demonstrating the reluctance voters have in regard to him."
Doug Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University and former Reagan administration official who shocked fellow pro-life Catholic conservatives earlier this year by publicly endorsing Obama, believes that Biden strengthens the Democratic ticket despite his problematic views.
Biden gives "the full commitment of a Catholic who does, in fact, live the Jesuit ethic of a 'man for others,'" Kmiec told Our Sunday Visitor.
Although Walsh told OSV that Biden "really does not advance any significant issues," the national Catholic social-justice lobby NETWORK sees it differently. NETWORK has given Biden an 85 percent rating over the past 10 years -- meaning that the senator's voting record on Catholic social issues such as economic justice, peace, health care and fair trade has been consistent with NETWORK's positions 85 percent of the time.
"When looking at a consistent ethic of life, which extends to social justice issues like poverty [and] access to health care, his overall voting record ... seems fairly strong," said Stephanie Niedringhaus, NETWORK's communications coordinator. "Catholics with a strong grounding in Catholic social teaching recognize that we need policies that protect life by supporting women and families. As Catholics, we can't afford to ignore the wide range of issues that promote a culture of life."
Kmiec said Biden "is at least headed for the seamless garment" -- a term used to describe the connection among various issues of respect for life and human dignity -- "even if it is still partially out of reach."
He cites as evidence Biden's desire to reduce abortions by improving a woman's social and economic circumstances, his opposition to the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally disabled, and his stand that issues of "same-sex" marriage should be decided by individual states rather than at the federal level.
Abortion, however, remains not only the pre-eminent life issue, but also the primary concern for many Catholic voters. So, while the "personally opposed" Biden occasionally takes the pro-life side on issues involving unborn human life, it is unclear whether his mitigated position will win much crossover traffic at the ballot box.
Biden's "personal discomfort on abortion, a sentiment that prompted him to break ranks on the rare occasion of voting in favor of the partial-birth abortion bans, is hardly the heroic stance needed to shift any additional Catholic votes," said Walsh.
The vice-presidential candidate, he added, "remains incapable of breaking out of the rhetoric of government neutrality, a subterfuge that slips away once one concedes that neutrality is indistinguishable from endorsement."
Msgr. Joseph Rebman, pastor of St. Joseph of the Brandywine Parish in Wilmington, Del., where Biden attends Mass, told NBC News that Biden "can't guarantee the Catholic vote" because Catholics "don't vote as a bloc anymore."
The former vicar general of the diocese noted that while he and other priests, including former Bishop Michael Saltarelli, have dialogued with Biden about his abortion stance, the bishop has never directed them to refuse him Communion. (Another source observed that Biden has studiously avoided approaching the bishop in the Communion line.)
Bishop Saltarelli resigned in July at age 75 as required by Church law. His successor, Bishop Fran Malooly, formerly an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, will be installed Sept. 8.
What seems clear is that the question of Communion for public figures whose public-policy positions stray from Catholic teachings will be debated once again this election season. It is an issue that the U.S. hierarchy allows individual bishops to decide within their own dioceses.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, one of the nation's most outspoken bishops on Catholic political responsibility, told OSV that all Catholics "who disagree with the beliefs and teachings of their Church on serious sanctity-of-life issues separate themselves from communion with the Church and should not present themselves for receiving the Eucharist."
Biden "has admirable qualities to his public service," the archbishop said.
"But his record of support for so-called abortion 'rights,' while mixed at times, is seriously wrong," Archbishop Chaput said.
Diocese of Wilmington prays <[lb]>Biden will 'always promote life'
Because Sen. Joseph Biden's home diocese is without a bishop until September, it fell upon the diocesan spokesman to give this statement to OSV:
"We join our Delaware friends and fellow citizens in offering heartfelt congratulations to Sen. Biden upon his selection as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.It is a great honor for our small but important state to have one of its own nominated to such a high office.
"We pray for the senator, as we pray for all legislators and all government officials, that he and they be gifted with prudence and wisdom so that their actions and decisions may always promote life as a sacred trust, respect for every individual person, and justice for our nation and the world."
-- Statement from Bob Krebs, communications director and spokesman for the Diocese of Wilmington, Del.
Gerald Korson writes from Indiana. Additional reporting by Valerie Schmalz in California.
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