Just a Few More Questions: America talks with the Catholic Candidates

 

The 2012 election marks the first time in history that both vice presidential candidates are Catholic. In an effort to learn more about the candidates’ thoughts on matters of faith, and public life, we reached out to the campaigns and asked each man to answer the same five questions. Their answers, sent by e-mail, are printed below, edited only for punctuation and house style. In the spirit of the live debates, we flipped a coin to determine which interview would appear first, below.

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Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

America: In what circumstances is war morally justifiable?

Vice President Biden: War is morally justified when it is necessary to protect the safety of innocents from an aggressive act. The threat must be grave and certain. Every effort must be made to peacefully avoid conflict.

AM: Political ideologies carry assumptions about what is best for “the poor.” Describe a personal experience with people who live in poverty and how this helped shape your political ideology.

JRB: First, I would say not all political ideologies carry the assumption of what’s best for the poor. But in my view, any legitimate political ideology must consider this fundamental question.

My experience with people who live in poverty spans the globe, from Darfur and Chad to India, to Latin America. But most profoundly, I have witnessed poverty here at home, whether it’s in parts of Appalachia that I have visited or in my home state of Delaware. When I was a kid, my dad would never walk by a beggar on the street, even if someone said to him, “You know Joe, all he’s going to do is go buy liquor.” My dad would say, “Do you think if he had a real choice, he’d be standing here?”?In understanding how to alleviate poverty, I start with the assumption that given a legitimate opportunity, people will strive to take responsibility for their own lives. Given the chance, and the mental capacity, people will respond to incentives. That’s why I was able to support the welfare-to-work legislation when I was a senator. That’s why I have supported nutrition and health care programs for children. A mother may choose not to take responsibility, but her young son or daughter has no such capacity. The president and I support an African food security initiative that is aimed not only at alleviating hunger, but also at bringing stability to African nations. These are all our children. They are the kite strings that lift our national ambitions aloft.

AM: If you had five minutes with the pope, what would you say to him?

JRB: I had the great honor last year of visiting with Pope Benedict at the Vatican, and we had a wide-ranging discussion on many matters. It would be inappropriate of me to discuss that private conversation. But I was impressed by his openness and insights. If we had a chance to meet again, I’d like to hear more about his recent trip to Lebanon, his thoughts about the Arab Spring and his concerns about religious intolerance. In addition to matters of war and peace, I’d like the chance to discuss some of the issues confronting our church around the world and in America.

AM: Do you think there’s such a thing as a political vocation? How is it expressed in your life?

JRB: I think there are different types of vocations. Like many Catholic boys, when I was young, I contemplated entering religious life. I was raised in a household where there was absolute convergence between the values my parents taught me and the values my faith taught me. Those values concluded that you do have an obligation to reach out to your brothers and your sisters in need, that you have an obligation to stand up when you see injustice and that you have an obligation to speak out when you think you can make things better. My political awareness as a high school student and young college student was shaped by the presidency of John F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King. President Kennedy made me believe that being engaged in politics is a noble profession, and Dr. King made me realize that it was a means to change the world for the better.

But it can take many forms, as it has in my family. My wife is a dedicated educator. My daughter is a social worker. One of my sons is deeply engaged in dealing with poverty and hunger worldwide as chairman of World Food Program USA. My other son is absolutely committed to ending the abuse against women and children as attorney general of his state of Delaware. There are many ways to be engaged. But as I was taught in my family, you must be engaged.

AM: What in your life as a U.S. politician has caused the greatest conflict for you as a Catholic? How have you resolved that conflict?

JRB : In my life, raised by a devout Irish Catholic mother, schooled by nuns and priests, and practicing my faith all these years, my faith has not caused me conflict, but has given me grounding.

It has informed my politics in a way that nothing else has. Catholic social doctrine has been the principle that has guided the votes and positions I have taken throughout my career, on issues from anti-poverty programs to violence against women, to the criminal justice system, to international relations.

Congressman Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisc.

America: In what circumstances is war morally justifiable?

Congressman Ryan: American foreign policy needs moral clarity and firmness of purpose. Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome. That is how we keep problems abroad from becoming crises. That is what keeps the peace.

Mitt Romney has said that he would only send troops into combat in very specific circumstances. Number one, there needs to be a vital American interest at stake. Number two, there needs to be a clear definition of our mission. Number three, a clear definition of how we’ll know when our mission is complete. Number four, providing overwhelming resources to make sure that we can carry out that mission effectively. And finally, a clear understanding of what will be left after we leave. All of those would have to be in place before Mitt Romney would deploy American military might in any foreign place.

AM: Political ideologies carry assumptions about what is best for “the poor.” Describe a personal experience with people who live in poverty and how this helped shape your political ideology.

PR: I volunteered at soup kitchens when I was younger. Today, I take my own kids to help serve meals at a Catholic nursing home in Janesville. A lesson I share with my children is that to begin to understand the human suffering involved, it is important to look at those you serve in the eye. We must recognize the dignity of every one of God’s children.

Policymakers have a responsibility to tackle the root drivers of poverty, not merely treat the symptoms of this tragic reality. My Catholic faith champions a preferential option for the poor. This does not translate into a preferential option for bigger government.

A Romney-Ryan administration will advance solutions that maximize growth and opportunity, upward mobility and economic security. We reject a failed approach of an ever-expansive federal government which displaces the institutions of meaning—families, civic organizations and faith communities—where we truly do look out for one another. Yes, a government safety net is needed to help those who have no other means of support. But I believe the church’s command requires more rigorous action than support alone—it calls for action to break the entire cycle of poverty, and this requires a fundamentally different approach than the one taken by President Obama, whose economic record has resulted in the highest poverty rate in a generation.

AM: If you had five minutes with the pope, what would you say to him?

PR: I would humbly ask him for his prayers for the well-being of the people of our nation without exception.

AM: Do you think there is such a thing as a political vocation? How is it expressed in your life?

PR: My first vocation is to be a good husband and father. One of the requests that I made when I joined the campaign is that I come home to Janesville, Wis,. on Sundays to go to Mass with my family. I’m home most Sundays, and when I’m on the road, I’m always able to find a church service to attend.

The church holds that all Catholics have an obligation to be active citizens, but there is also a political vocation for some who are so called. I believe public servants are called to help create economic opportunity and the conditions for a wholesome and strong family life. I believe in the power of helping individuals, living in solidarity with each other in our communities. I also believe that government which is closest to the governed governs best. We don’t believe in what Blessed Pope John Paul II called a social assistance state, or an all-encompassing welfare state, which has been criticized by Pope Benedict XVI. We think the traditional family is the nucleus of our society, and that the individual dignity of the human person should be expressed in a free economy.

America’s political representatives have a moral and constitutional duty to protect the First Amendment right to religious liberty. We are very concerned about the assault on religious liberty from the Obama administration. We should not require churches, charities and hospitals to do things that violate their religious freedom and their conscience. Our government has now put our churches and colleges in a position where they must sue our government to protect their First Amendment right to religious freedom.

AM: What in your life as a U.S. politician has caused the greatest conflict for you as a Catholic? How have you resolved that conflict?

PR: Frankly, I have never had a serious conflict of conscience as a Catholic in politics. The reason for this is that I have come to recognize that my obligations as a Catholic are in agreement with my political obligations under our Constitution. It can sometimes be frustrating when certain policies or laws are inconsistent with moral truth as well as I can understand it. But the greatest reason America remains an exceptional country is that we the people still govern ourselves in freedom—which means that policies in conflict with our moral principles can be changed through the election process, as we are about to witness once again on Nov. 6.

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