The students in a Saint Vincent College class on Catholic political thought weren't poring over campaign fact sheets last week, but discussing how ancient Greek philosophers might help them analyze current issues.
One student said pagan philosophy could help them frame arguments against abortion that would engage secular voters. "Appeals to reason are where politics and faith have to intersect," he said. "The Greek philosophers' methods are helpful for showing that our stand on this isn't based on [religious] revelation."
Michael Krom, a philosophy professor who teaches the class with his political science counterpart Jerome Foss, pointed out that the philosophers had no qualms about infanticide, which was common in ancient Greece. "Do I have to be a Christian to see that infanticide is wrong?" he asked. "Could it be that some of you are arguing that Christianity helps us to see more clearly the dignity of the human person?"
In Catholic theology, human dignity is at the center of public policy questions, and this is the first presidential election in which both parties have had a Catholic on the ticket. But both men, Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan, have taken scorching criticism from Catholic circles over whether their policies are moral. Issues from gay marriage to health care have been part of that debate, but abortion and poverty have generated the most heat.
Professors Krom and Foss point their students to "Faithful Citizenship," a document on political decision-making from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But that document itself has been blasted by some liberal Catholics for giving highest priority to opposing abortion and by some conservative Catholics for also insisting that concerns of the poor, immigrants and the environment can't be dismissed.
"There isn't any one Catholic party," Mr. Krom said. "Each party holds some positions that are incompatible with the Catholic approach to politics."
"Faithful Citizenship" calls for developing "a well-formed conscience." That, it says, is done through a sincere, prayerful search for the truth that includes study of the Bible, Catholic theology and the issue at hand.
"A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter's intent is to support that position," it said. However "there may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons."
Angela Marvin of Bethel Park, who teaches at Brookline Regional Catholic School, has volunteered for both Republican and Democratic candidates. She's been an activist against abortion, against the death penalty, against genocide in Darfur and for school nutrition programs.
She will vote for Mr. Romney based on her study of "Faithful Citizenship." She concluded that abortion is the worst moral evil because it deliberately destroys an innocent human life, while other evils are either less intentional or less severe in their impact. She believes that other Catholics who study the issues would also choose Mr. Romney.
"Many sincere, practicing Catholics are uninformed," she said. "Sadly, the mass media often covers just the controversy of the election cycles and doesn't really dig into the meat of the real issues."
Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law, studied the same documents and emerged as the national co-chairman of Catholics for Obama. He opposes the Democratic Party's stand for abortion rights, but believes proposed Republican budget cuts would so weaken the social safety net that thousands more women would seek abortions.
"If I thought that voting for President Obama would increase the number of abortions in America, I wouldn't vote for him," said Mr. Cafardi, editor of the Paulist Press book "Voting and Holiness."
According to surveys of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Catholic voters lean toward Mr. Obama 54-39 percent. The margin is smaller among those who attend Mass weekly, with Obama over Romney 50-44. If black and Hispanic Catholics are removed, white Catholics who attend Mass weekly prefer Mr. Romney 53-42.
Catholic Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said the church, like the civil law, has a hierarchy of ethics in which killing is worse than stealing. No Catholic can condone either, but the way they address them can vary.
"We have to be very, very, very careful about judging other people's motives," he said. "The role of the church isn't to tell people who to vote for. The role of the church is to speak from the perspective of moral truth. Then it's a question of how you make a decision with your conscience."
Mr. Biden and Mr. Ryan are both Mass-going Catholics who say the church influenced their approach to public duties. Yet they differ on issues that the church considers critically important.
Mr. Biden's record of support for legal abortion has brought strong criticism from the bishops. He was banned from speaking at Catholic venues in his home diocese.
He drew fire for a 2008 interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" when he described abortion as a matter of private faith. He said he accepted church teaching but "for me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society."
The bishops responded that his moral reasoning was wrong if a life was at stake. Archbishop Charles Chaput, now of Philadelphia, replied that the humanity of a fetus is established by science. "Resistance to abortion is a matter of human rights, not religious opinion," he wrote.
While Mr. Ryan credited the atheist writer Ayn Rand with firing his teenage interest in public policy, he has claimed Catholic orthodoxy as an adult. After the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops questioned the morality of cuts to social safety net programs in the proposed 2013 budget that he designed, he sent a lengthy defense to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
He cited the Catholic principle of subsidiarity -- meaning that policy should be decided as close as possible to the grass roots. The budget plan, he said, empowered local decisions by converting some social programs to block grants for states.
"The budget better targets assistance to those in need, repairs the social safety net and fulfills the mission of health and retirement security for all Americans," he wrote. "The budget reforms welfare for those who need it -- the poor, sick and vulnerable; it ends welfare for those who don't -- entrenched corporations, the wealthiest Americans."
Mr. Cafardi, who stresses that he's not speaking for Duquesne, doesn't believe that budget -- which died in the Senate -- would have done what Mr. Ryan claimed. Of those who believe they must vote for Mr. Romney because of his stand on abortion, he said, "We aren't arguing about what the church teaches here but about the political means to achieve an end."
He said he works to create respect for abortion opponents within the Democratic Party. He was unhappy with convention speeches by abortion-rights leaders, but "failure doesn't mean that we stop trying," he said.
His study of global policies led him to conclude that social support for pregnant women and new parents prevents more abortions than does a legal ban on them.
He cited WIC, the Women Infants and Children nutrition program that provides healthy food and nutrition education to pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children. It's mandated in the Obama health reform act, but would suffer huge cuts under the Ryan budget, he said.
"If the Republicans are determined to cut those programs, we will see more abortions," he said.
Earlier this year the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops raised moral questions about the Ryan budget. Bread for the World, a group with which they were allied, estimated that if the cuts to food programs passed, every church -- including tiny congregations that can't afford a full-time pastor -- would need to raise an extra $50,000 a year to make up the difference.
In an April 17 statement, Bishop Stephen Blaire, who heads the bishops' committee on domestic justice, said the Ryan budget "fails to meet [Catholic] moral criteria" of protecting human life and dignity and promoting the common good.
Other Catholic groups endorsed an alternative "Faithful Budget." When Mr. Ryan spoke at Georgetown University, 80 faculty members, including Catholic theologians, accused him of twisting the idea of subsidiarity.
"Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices," they wrote.
Mr. Ryan insisted he wasn't abandoning the poor but trying to avert the economic crisis that unsustainable spending led to in Greece. "Those unwilling to lift the debt are complicit in our acceleration toward a debt crisis, in which the poor would be hurt the first and the worst," he said.
His plan would convert some federal poverty programs into block grants for states to tailor. It would eventually give senior citizens money to purchase a health insurance policy of their choice.
"I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government," he said.
The "option for the poor" is a Catholic principle that policy must be based, first and foremost, on how it affects the poor.
"Ryan's critics assume that the Catholic preferential option for the poor has to be exercised through government programs. That charge flatly contradicts Catholic social doctrine, which always prefers private sector solutions or a private-public sector mix," said papal biographer George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Some liberals accused Mr. Ryan of promoting an "inhuman" form of capitalism that popes have denounced for putting profit ahead of people. It's a complaint that Mr. Weigel finds baseless.
"Market economies throughout the western world are more regulated than they've ever been in history, short of wartime. It's ludicrous to think that capitalism is unbridled," he said.
The church endorses "the kind of regulation that keeps the market within the boundaries of law and that directs the activities of free economies to the common good. There's a lot of room for healthy debate about what that kind of regulation amounts to."
What isn't healthy is a caricature of Mr. Ryan as someone who believes government has no duty to assist the poor, he said.
"Libertarianism is not a Catholic option, and Paul Ryan is no libertarian. Most conservative Catholics I know are quite serious about the church's teaching on poverty and follow that teaching," he said.
At St. Vincent, the Catholic Political Thought instructors are encouraged by a plan for the campus Republicans and Democrats to watch presidential debates together. They want the students to discuss the issues, not reinforce their own stereotypes.
Asked if there is a Catholic way to vote, Mr. Krom replied: "With prayer and fasting."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org