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Biden's Catholic faith offers risks, rewards

Sunday, August 24, 2008

By ERIC GORSKI, AP Religion Writer

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DENVER — 

When Joe Biden underwent brain surgery for a life-threatening aneurysm in 1988, he asked doctors whether he could tuck his rosary beads under his pillow. The six-term Democratic senator from Delaware also has offered to shove his rosary down the throat of the next Republican who tells him he isn't religious.

Barack Obama's running mate is the son of working-class Irish Catholics, a career politician educated at a Catholic prep school who briefly considered the priesthood.

He has turned to his faith to weather personal tragedy _ including the deaths of his wife and young daughter in a 1972 traffic accident _ and shape his political worldview. Biden attends Mass weekly and didn't miss it on Sunday, either, attending services and taking Communion at St. Joseph on the Brandywine near his home in Greenville, Del.

Biden's selection as Obama's running mate immediately touched off new scrutiny of his support for abortion rights, a position in conflict with a fundamental teaching of his church.

One outspoken prelate, Denver Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput, said in statement to The Associated Press that Biden should refrain from taking Communion because of his stance.

Four years ago, Chaput and a few other U.S. bishops drew notice for suggesting Democrat John Kerry should either be denied the Catholic sacrament or not present himself for Communion because of his abortion-rights stance, triggering what came to be known as the "wafer watch."

By selecting a Pennsylvania-born Catholic as his No. 2, Obama is betting the potential rewards _ including swaying elusive lunch-pail Catholics in the Midwest _ outweigh the risks.

Catholics have been a swing vote for almost 40 years. Polls show white Catholics, who account for nearly one in five U.S. voters, evenly divided between Obama and Republican John McCain. McCain is leading among Catholics in battleground states Ohio and Florida.

"Having Biden on the ticket covers the Catholic base," said David Gibson, a Catholic journalist and author. "But anytime you pick a Catholic, it's also courting controversy."

Douglas Kmiec, a former Reagan administration official and a Catholic who is supporting Obama, portrayed Biden as a Catholic not just by belief but by culture, someone who can connect with people at a gut level.

"You can't find a more regular guy than Joe Biden," said Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University. "He would be the kind of guy you would expect to find in the parish hall, in the neighborhood. That kind of personality, when combined with the kind of reflective Christianity Barack Obama has demonstrated, is a winning combination."

Kmiec argues the Obama campaign is "ultimately premised upon Catholic social teaching" like care for working families and the poor and foreign policy premised on peace over war. Democratic efforts to tackle social and economic factors that contribute to abortion hold more promise, Kmiec said, than Republican efforts to criminalize it.

Biden has said that while he is "prepared to accept" Catholic church teaching that life begins at conception, the Roe v. Wade court decision legalizing abortion "is as close to we're going to be able to get as a society" to respecting different religious views on the issue.

Biden has said he strongly supports Roe v. Wade but also voted in favor of a bill to ban late-term abortions, prompting abortion rights groups to downgrade him on their report cards.

"My views are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine," Biden said in a 2007 interview with the Christian Science Monitor. "There are elements within the church who say that if you are at odds with any of the teachings of the church, you are at odds with the church. I think the church is bigger than that."

Chaput, one of the nation's most outspoken bishops on Catholic political responsibility, said Catholics who disagree with the church on "serious, sanctity of life issues" separate themselves from communion with the church and should not present themselves for the Eucharist.

Biden "has admirable qualities to his public service," Chaput said in his statement. "But his record of support for so-called abortion 'rights,' while mixed at times, is seriously wrong. I certainly presume his good will and integrity _ and I presume that his integrity will lead him to refrain from presenting himself for Communion, if he supports a false 'right' to abortion."

Chaput added that he looks forward to speaking with Biden privately.

Other Catholics were even more forceful in their criticism. The Catholic advocacy group Fidelis called the choice of Biden a "slap in the face" to Catholic voters and predicted the Communion question will hover over Biden at each campaign stop.

George Weigel, a Pope John Paul II biographer and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said: "I don't think it's a happy day for Catholics when a man who is literally dead wrong on what the Catholic leadership of the United States has said for over three decades is the most important issue of social justice in our country is named to a national ticket and attempts to present himself as an intellectually serious and coherent Catholic."

Biden is well suited to fight back, said Mara Vanderslice, Kerry's former director of religious outreach. Biden made that clear in 2005 when, quoted in the Cincinnati Enquirer, he said: "The next Republican that tells me I'm not religious, I'm going to shove my rosary beads down their throat."

"He's this scrappy Irish Catholic and he has a long and powerful record of speaking his mind," said Vanderslice, who now heads a political action committee that has aired pro-Obama ads on Christian radio. "I don't think he's going to take any attacks sitting down."

At the same time, abortion has failed to register on voters' radar screens compared with the economy and energy. A Pew poll released last week showed 39 percent of Americans said abortion was "very important" to their vote, second to last among a dozen issues. The numbers didn't even budge much among weekly Catholic Mass attenders, who tend to be more conservative: 44 percent said abortion was very important.

The Obama-Biden ticket also may benefit from support from a handful of fledgling Democrat-friendly Catholic advocacy groups emphasizing a range of Catholic teaching beyond abortion.

One such group, Catholics United, praised Biden's advocacy on issues such as genocide, universal health care and education and expressed hope that "operatives on the far right" will not use Biden's faith and Catholic teachings as "political weapons."

Steven Waldman, editor of the faith-themed Web site Beliefnet.com, said Biden was probably Obama's best vice presidential choice in terms of religious politics because he's a cultural match with working-class Catholics and more centrist on abortion than most Democrats.

With Biden on the ticket, a Catholic Democrat's choices are again under scrutiny, just as they were four years ago with Kerry and nearly 50 years ago when John F. Kennedy assured voters he wouldn't take orders from Rome.

"We are once again going to have a debate," Waldman said, "about what it means to be a good or bad Catholic as a politician."

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