Sister Activist: Nuns on the Bus for Social and Economic Justice

Thanks to Pope Benedict, Sister Simone Campbell has become famous. On April 18, on orders from the Pope, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (popularly known as the Holy Inquisition) ordered that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (an association of American nuns) be reformed. An archbishop from Seattle was given five years to change the nun’s heretical habits, specifically their failure to join the Church’s crusades against abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage.

One particular concern of the inquisitors was the LCWR’s close relationship with Network, a national organization of nuns who lobby for policies and legislation that promote economic and social justice. As Network’s executive director, Sister Simone Campbell (a lawyer by training) was called on by the media to defend her group’s social gospel ministry.

So Campbell decided to put her infamy to the service of God. She launched the Nuns on the Bus tour and set off across the country—2,700 miles in two weeks—raising public awareness about the evils of the The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal, aka the Ryan budget.
In These Times spoke to Campbell as she was preparing her remarks to the Democratic National Convention on September 5. In that address she brought down the house with the line: “An immoral budget that hurts already struggling families does not reflect our nation’s values. We are better than that.”

You’ve spent the summer traveling across the country to highlight the moral failings of the Ryan budget. How did you react to Mitt Romney’s decision to choose Paul Ryan as his running mate?

I was totally surprised that he was picked. He does a lot of smoke and mirrors and smooth talk, but he’s wrong. He is so far from caring for all of our nation. We’re going to try to continue to show that his budget would devastate our nation. It’s not who we are as a people.

Paul Ryan has been citing Catholic social teaching’s principles of subsidiarity and solidarity to justify cuts to social services, saying that individual charity and churches can pick up the tab from government. What do you see as the meaning of solidarity in today’s society?

It is true that we all need to be individually responsible, and he’s partially right that subsidiarity involves decision-making being made at the lowest possible levels. But he totally misunderstands what solidarity is. He thinks that solidarity is some sort of largesse on the part of the wealthy, but as Pope Benedict says, you cannot have charity until you have justice, and justice includes being able to eat, have a roof over your head and being able to support your family through your work. Those are the very things that the Ryan budget would undercut. So he has a very misinformed view of what Catholic social teaching is on these issues.

And a growing number of Catholic conservatives are challenging the traditional applications of Catholic social teaching. What is going on?

They are caught in the U.S. culture of individualism and the protection of moneyed interests. The whole point of Catholic social teaching is to call our culture to conversion. The challenge of solidarity is to realize that we in the first world are the source of much of the suffering in the third world, and that we need to change our behaviors. It’s a moral issue and it’s very challenging, very difficult to do that conversion work. Yet on the other hand, it is the only way forward as a globe if we’re going to survive. Global warming is probably one of the clearest examples of this. Moneyed interests would rather not say there is such a thing, but the fact is we’re suffering because of it. So how do we change our behavior? It’s hard to figure it out, and it’s also urgently important as an issue of faith.

In the 1970s and 1980s, liberation theology was ascendant and the Church was connected to movements for social justice. What do you think has changed?

I’ve seen a visceral change. There is now a litmus test within the Church, and you get described as being “true Catholic” or not. It’s a problem. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s just painful.

You are getting ready to speak at the DNC. Do you see yourself as maintaining pressure on the Democrats around these issues?

We’re equal opportunity annoyers. I agreed to speak at the DNC to put pressure on the party to get on the ball. I understand that, politically, they want to talk about the middle class. But the fact is that the working poor are slipping into poverty and are not able to care for their families on the wages they earn. The wealthy keep getting wealthier. It’s about time we shifted priorities. Everyone would be better off if there were less wealth disparity. It’s about the 100%.

What do you think of the Vatican’s criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious? What role does the Nuns on the Bus tour play in this discussion?

Network isn’t in LCWR, but we were mentioned in the Vatican’s critique. So we gained this notoriety, and I wondered, “How can we use this for a mission?” The result was the bus tour. Nuns don’t go looking for the spotlight, but we’re always on a mission.
Network was founded 40 years ago in response to the Vatican’s teachings on economic justice. That’s our mission and that’s all we do. We’re just being faithful and using our notoriety for the sake of this work.

Many progressive women ask why nuns remain in the Church, given its stance on women’s issues and exclusion of women from the clergy. Why do you remain?

Politically, women have always been at the margins of the Church. Part of our mission is to annoy the center and call for the conversion of all of us. The reason we stay? The deepest core of me is a spiritual being. You know, we can fight through politics, but the deeper truth is still beyond it.

Do you see your work with the bus tour as related to promoting reform within the Church?

I have enough trouble with the federal government. I mean, the thing that people get mixed up is that faith and the institution are really not the same. The institution is a way of facilitating faith, and sometimes it can become challenging. But as Catholic sisters, we’re rooted in the Gospel, which is deeper—it’s led us to be advocates for people in poverty, and we’ll continue on with that.

Catholic voters are expected to play an important role in this year’s election. What message do you hope to get out to them?

This election is about the soul of our nation. Will we be individualistic, closed up in our gated communities, fearful of each other; or will we reach out and choose, as I think Jesus would, to have each other’s back? We’re not usually partisan, but the Ryan budget has made the choice very stark. These issues are all pro-life issues—that people have healthcare, that people can feed their families, that we protect life at all stages.

Network has also been a strong defender of the Affordable Care Act. What do you see as the next steps for healthcare reform?

The first step is to get this thing fully implemented. Our big project is getting sisters to lobby their governors to insist on full expansion of Medicaid so that the maximum number of people can get coverage. Once we get it at the state and local level, we need to take the next step and make sure folks who are left out now get included. For that, we need a “Medicare for all” provision. Not the voucherized Medicare that Ryan wants, but a real Medicare. That will not be achievable easily, so we have to take it in incremental bites and keep on expanding coverage. It’s ridiculous that the richest nation on earth cannot take care of its sick people.

Some conservatives have criticized the work that you’re doing as being inappropriate for your position. How does your contemplative life inform your political engagement?

My faith has always included civil engagement. It’s just part of who I am. And my religious community was founded in 1923 by the first woman in Parliament in Hungary, so we’ve always been political. I’m really rooted in the social gospel, and I can’t imagine seeing my work as disconnected from government.

Rebecca Burns, an In These Times staff writer, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.