Joe Biden and the Cafeteria Catholics

August 25, 2008

Although Joe Biden’s elevation by Barack Obama to the number two spot on the Democratic ticket was in large part because of his foreign policy and national security expertise, there is also the Delaware senator’s Catholicism. Biden has mentioned that he carries a rosary in his pocket at all times and prays it regularly. He is a faithful church attender and enjoys cordial relations with the hierarchy, unlike John Kerry who became the object of excommunication talk by conservative bishops because of his pro-choice position. 

But Biden like Kerry is what is commonly called a ” cafeteria Catholic”, as he picks and chooses which of the dictates of the Church he will support. Now that he is the # 2 guy, Biden may yet face the fury of conservative cardinals and bishops who can’t understand why a Catholic politician can support abortion rights, gay rights and stem cell research and still claim to be in good graces with the Church. Another public dust-up between Biden and the Church hierarchy could be just enough to shift the Catholic vote even further over into the Republican camp.

The Democrats can’t afford to lose any more Catholic voters to the Republicans. In 2004 Bush got 52% of the Catholic vote to Kerry’s 47% ( whereas Gore, a Protestant got 50% of the Catholic vote to Bush’s 47%). A repeat or extension of that plus 5% pick-up could spell doom for Obama-Biden. Count on Biden targeting Catholic enclaves in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri as he tries to convince supporters of Church doctrine on the hot button issues of abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research that he is a Catholic just like them.

Biden may be bolstered by a Democratic party platform that accents life over abortion and a gradual acceptance by mainstream Catholics of gays and stem cell research. But Catholics, whether rigid doctrinaires or cafeteria types, are also increasingly members of the middle and professional class. Unlike their working class parents, they are interested in taxes, spending, economic prosperity and big government intervention. Many of those Reagan Democrats are disaffected Catholics who bought into the conservative philosophy. Biden thus has his work cut out for him; not only must he bring back the doctrinaires with his mix of religious faith and ferver, but he must also get those wealthier Reagan Catholic Democrats to return home to the party of their parents. He may be praying the rosary more often than usual during the campaign.