Why didn’t Catholic bishops call Biden out by name?

I’m on the road right now, in Montana, and haven’t had a chance to catch Saturday Night Live yet but apparently in the comedy show’s skit on the Vice Presidential debate, the Joe Biden character said:

“I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. But then, like most Catholics, I ignore them and do what I want.”

Hardy har har. The joke was in reference to a portion of the debate where the moderator treated abortion as a question of faith and then asked both candidates to explain — as Catholics — their position on abortion. During the answer to that question, Republican candidate Paul Ryan brought up the threats to religious liberty posed by the Health and Human Services mandate requiring individuals and organizations to provide health insurance coverage that may violate the teachings of their faith.

In response, Biden said something most interesting (according to this Washington Post transcript):

With regard to the assault on the Catholic church, let me make it absolutely clear, no religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital, none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.

Well, like almost everything uttered by politicians, that’s not a fact. And a few hours later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called him out. Religion News Service had a story that some people brought to our attention:

In a rare public rebuke, Catholic bishops chided Vice President Joe Biden for saying during Thursday’s vice-presidential debate that Catholic hospitals and institutions will not be forced to provide contraception coverage to employees.

Without mentioning Biden by name, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the “inaccurate” statement “made during the Vice Presidential debate” was “not a fact.”

I think some people thought RNS was having fun with scare quotes again. But this is just quote-quoting it. What’s really interesting about this statement from the bishops isn’t just that they called Biden out for lying. They did it without using his name and in a quite passive manner. The quote mechanism used above conveys that.

There was a bit of a problem with inconsistency in using such an approach later in the story, however:

The White House later offered a complex compromise that would allow insurance companies, rather than employers, to pay for the contraceptive coverage. Critics — including the bishops — say it doesn’t go far enough.

“They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries,” the bishops’ conference said.

It’s true that the White House claims that its compromise is not a shell game but rather a totally legit way to keep employers from being too involved in paying for things they oppose. Claims should be put forth as just that, however. It’s easy to say that “The White House later offered a change that it says would ….” There’s no reason to adopt the White House talking point. Just say what it is. Obviously people opposed to this mandate think it’s no compromise at all and that the claim is laughable — that the underlying issue is unchanged. So just let them make their case, too — as this story does above.

Anyway, a good story that lays out the bishops’ view and the curious way they made the statement. That might even be worth more coverage — why did the bishops play the passive game of saying some mysterious person at the debate erred? Why did they not call out Biden by name? Religion reporters definitely noticed this. Perhaps there’s some coverage of this I haven’t seen yet. Of course, I also haven’t seen mainstream coverage of another Biden claim on abortion. Many Catholic sites and individuals have lambasted his claim that the basis for Catholic opposition to abortion is de fide. There’s no reason that this interesting debate — along with those about whether the Catholic religion requires particular legislative approaches when it comes to care for the poor — can’t get more mainstream coverage. It really lies at the heart of these important political differences on how society can best protect the lives of the unborn and how society can best take care of the weakest among us.

Yes, you can ask tough questions of pro-choice candidates

Last night was the only Vice Presidential debate we’ll get in this cycle. Almost all of that debate and attendant media coverage is outside the purview of this blog. But right there at the end, the moderator got into religion. Although the answers the candidates gave were interesting, let’s focus simply on the questions from journalist Martha Raddatz:

RADDATZ: I want to — we’re — we’re almost out of time here.

RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.

Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country…

RADDATZ: … please talk personally about this, if you could.

Congressman Ryan?

RADDATZ: Vice President Biden?

RADDATZ: Congressman Ryan.

RADDATZ: I want to go back to the abortion question here. If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?

RADDATZ: I’m — I’m going to move on to this closing question because we are running out of time.

You will note that the pointed follow-up question went to Ryan, not Biden. And I’m all for follow-up questions. But why just to Ryan?

Journalists just have remarkable trouble asking pointed follow-up questions of politicians who support abortion rights — no matter how extreme their views might be on the matter.

Now, perhaps Raddatz doesn’t know enough to know that people would disagree whether Biden understands Roman Catholic teaching on abortion, much less accepts it. Perhaps that’s not where she should direct a tough follow-up question.

But how about asking him whether he could envision any limitations on abortion at all, whatsoever? How about asking him if he thinks it should be legal to kill an unborn child simply because that child is a female? How about asking him if he thinks that there is anything wrong with terminating a pregnancy because the fetus has Down syndrome?

And should a question about abortion be tied to both men’s religious views? Ryan answered that religion and science inform his views on protection of unborn life. Biden said his religion only requires him to be personally opposed to abortion and that he can’t force Muslims to also oppose abortion. But is there too much religion — and too little science — in how Raddatz framed this question? In how journalists treat opposition to abortion in general?

Obviously religion plays a huge role in many people’s commitment to the abortion issue. We’re big fans of media coverage that explores that role. But is the particular approach journalists take to religion and abortion accurately conveying the reasoning behind the various sides here?

Imagine of woman having trouble coming up with questions via Shutterstock.


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