In last month’s vice presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) were asked about how their Catholicism impacted their decisions on political issues like abortion and contraceptives. The candidates’ answers were relatively evasive and not very substantive — a surprise to no one who followed the campaigns this election cycle.

But despite the predictable responses, this “who-is-more-Catholic?” showdown was a highlight of the campaign for many American Catholics. Never before have several minutes of a nationally televised debate for a presidential election been dedicated specifically to Catholic faith and public service. Attention to Catholicism at the debate reflects the historic aspects of today’s election: For the first time in American history, both major political parties are featuring Roman Catholic candidates on their ticket.

But the vice-president showdown also demonstrates the difficulties of voting for many Catholics, who are forced to compromise between two seriously imperfect parties. In our view, contemporary partisan politics have failed to align entirely with Catholic beliefs. Neither of the vice presidential candidates, nor their running mates, nor their collective party platforms effectively embody the complexity of Catholic social teaching, with its central call for all people to respect the dignity of life, from conception to natural death.

Examples of this abound. Ryan supports a government ban on abortions; Biden does not. Ryan supports cutting government funding to social programs aimed at helping the poor and marginalized; Biden does not. The list goes on — from drones to contraceptives to the death penalty, the two parties are split in such a way that no dedicated Catholic can vote for either ticket.

So Catholics are forced to compromise, and their difficult decisions are reflected in their voting behavior. In a late-October poll conducted by the Pew Center for People and the Press, support was split. President Obama held an unconvincing two-point lead, with 48 percent of the vote compared toGov. Romney’s 46.

American Catholics are not a coherent voting bloc and have not been for some time. Perhaps now more than ever, they take different approaches to their faith and sometimes bring only the most fundamental common ground to political debates. No longer living exclusively in working-class ethnic enclaves in the Northeast and select Midwestern cities, Catholics are present in all ethnic, political and socioeconomic classes, from poor immigrants in California to wealthy businesspeople in the Northeast. They bring different parts of the American experience to their decisions, and they vote for different candidates and hold allegiances to different parties.

But individual Catholics’ compromises don’t reflect whether these people are “good” or “bad” followers, as some observers might claim. In our view, reasonable, faithful Catholics can in good conscience vote for either party, not only this year but in most, if not all, elections. Catholic voters’ choices come down to what parts of the rich Catholic tradition they choose to weigh most in their decisions. Voters who emphasize the importance of abortion — and, more specifically, the idea that abortion must be illegal — may vote Republican, and their choice would be justified. But some Catholics also emphasize care for the marginalized and poor and for women and members of racial groups that face institutional disadvantages. They may vote Democratic, and their vote, too, would be sufficiently in line with Catholic teaching. How ironic that, even in an election year that gave tremendous validation to the Catholic faith and its adherents, Catholic voters will split their votes almost exactly down the middle.

But just as pundits should avoid talking about “Catholic voters” as a voting bloc, Catholic observers shouln’t base their judgments about other Catholics on their brothers’ and sisters’ voting decisions. Unless American partisan politics undergoes a major makeover in the near future, dedicated Catholics will continue to split their votes. Hopefully, the resulting discussions among disagreeing Catholics — about the relative importance of the illegalization of abortion, subsidiarity and the death penalty — will be more informative and fruitful than the vice presidential candidates’ fluffy answers in mid-October.

Alex Honjiyo and Pat Gavin are seniors in the School of Foreign Service and College, respectively. AGGIORNAMENTO appears every other Tuesday.

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