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Born To Be Wild: Catholic Nuns Hit The Road


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you know the line, Luke, I am your father, but what if Darth Vader was the purveyor of evil in the galaxy and trying to raise his four-year-old son at the same time? As we get ready for Father's Day next week, we'll take a look at this very funny graphic novel with that premise in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And today, we want to turn our attention to a group of Catholic nuns who will hit the road by bus this month. They want to draw attention to government budget cuts to programs that help the poor and they're taking this fight to the streets.

The bus tour comes at a critical time for sisters in this country. In April, the Vatican released a scathing critique of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. That's a group of 1,500 members that represent the vast majority of U.S. nuns. The Vatican said the group has, quote, "serious doctrinal problems," unquote, and that the sisters focus too much on poverty issues, are silent on things like abortion and same-sex marriage and are promoting radical feminist ideas.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called one of the sisters, Sister Simone Campbell. She heads Network, the Catholic social justice lobby group, which was one of the organizations noted in the Vatican's report.

Sister, thanks so much for joining us.

SIMONE CAMPBELL: It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: We'll get to the issues with the Vatican in a minute, but we just wanted to talk about the bus tour. Why did you choose this method to address the federal budget cuts?

CAMPBELL: All over our nation, Catholic sisters are working at the margins of our society to serve people who are struggling in this economy, people who are hungry, people who are left out of the economy, people who have lost their jobs or people working at low wage jobs.

We thought the best way to bring an education to our nation about what's happening here in Washington is if we went on the road and lifted up their work and the consequences they would face if this Republican House budget goes through.

MARTIN: One of the leaders on the House budget side, Representative Paul Ryan, cited his Catholic faith to justify the cuts that he proposed and I wondered whether that statement was, in part, a motivation for this, that you wanted to lift up a different vision of what you feel Catholic faith calls people to do.

CAMPBELL: Oh, you're absolutely right. I think, if Congressman Ryan hadn't mentioned his faith, I don't know if we would come up with this idea, but the fact that he was claiming - it's an outrageous claim in my view that the Catholic faith, that is all about serving the poor, validates his budget, which does nothing but decimate services to the poor, provides further tax cuts for the wealthy and then he claims that this is going to help balance our budget when it actually makes it worse.

That combination of misstatements was an outrage to us and we thought, we need to illustrate the problem because people outside the beltway don't know.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Sister Simone Campbell. She and about a dozen other nuns are going on a bus tour to focus on poverty. She heads Network. It's a social justice lobby.

But the tour, Sister, also comes at a time when the criticism of the Vatican is that the sisters are placing too much emphasis on poverty and, in their view, not providing enough of a commentary on issues such as abortion. And it also comes at a time when the bishops are strongly opposing a component of the Obama Administration's health care initiative, that component which requires most institutions to provide contraception as part of their health care coverage. And so the two are being, sort of, seen as in opposition to each other. Do you see it that way, or as kind of a - as a rebuke to that or to stand in contrast to that? Do you see it that way?

CAMPBELL: Well, we're not doing it in an oppositional fashion. The fact is, here in Washington, we're a political organization. We apply our faith to politics and the fact is the budget process is going forward and we've got to get the word out, so there's a fair amount of urgency here to educate the United States people about what's happening.

It does coincide with work that the bishops are doing in their campaign. And it's actually interesting because their campaign is based around religious liberty and the beauty of the bus trip is that we're exercising our religious liberty. So, in that way, we're in sync, lifting up the liberty that we have in this amazing country.

MARTIN: How do you respond to the Vatican's critique of your group and a number of other groups within the leadership conference? Do you feel that the sisters are being singled out, as some do, or how do you respond to it?

CAMPBELL: Well, for me, the comments from the Vatican were shocking, were surprising. I was totally stunned and I realize now I was kind of numb after I first heard them. But what I realize now is that being criticized for taking too much care for the poor is like a badge of honor.

In our organization, Network, the mission is to be an advocate for people who live at the margins and who are left out of our economy. That's our mission and so, if I get criticized for doing it too much, then I think our organization's being very successful.

I think the misunderstanding of the bishops is the misapprehension that all groups should do everything and, quite frankly, their pro-life office doesn't work on economic justice issues, doesn't work on overall health care, doesn't work on immigration reform, doesn't work on a lot of the issues we work on.

And so their single focus and doing intensive work around that issue. They've got way more money than we do to do their work, so we're just a small group trying to raise up the issues of economic justice.

MARTIN: What about - well, their argument, as I understand it, is that abortion and same-sex marriage are essential to Catholic teachings and that it is just unacceptable for the Leadership Conference as the largest organization of U.S. Catholic sisters to be silent on those issues. How do you respond to that?

CAMPBELL: OK. We have a friendship with the Leadership Conference, so I can't speak for the Leadership Conference. But as a Catholic sister, what we know is the gospel is central to our work. And if you read Pope Benedict's encyclical "Charity in Truth," he says that the individual issues around abortion, life issues - those individual issues are equal with social justice. Both are based in love, and that out of love, different people will focus on different issues, but they are equal concerns.

So I think I rely on the bishop's teaching in "Charity in Truth" and I feel perfectly comfortable with what we're doing.

MARTIN: I did want to ask you about something you said earlier. You said that economic justice issues are the stated priority of your organization and you also made the point that, you know, one does not often hear the groups that prioritize, you know, pro-life issues and abortion issues and same-sex marriage issues, lifting up economic justice issues.

That is, in fact, a critique that progressives outside of the Catholic Church have made, and I just wondered if you can add some insight to that.

CAMPBELL: I think we fall victim to the polarization in our society. The way I think that our organization has failed is in that we have not claimed these economic issues as life issues. To feed children is a life issue. That life from conception to natural death is a treasured gift from God that's to be reverent. These are life issues. It's all of life that we need to care for.

MARTIN: What do you think the disconnect is between your understanding of your mission and those who have criticized you? And, in the past, you know, I've seen you quoted as saying that you think that there is not a gap in doctrine, but there's a gap in experience when it comes to the...


MARTIN: ...bishops and the nuns. I just wanted to ask you to tell me more about that.

CAMPBELL: Well, I think the people making the criticisms work in a very high level, insular, male dominated setting without having contact with people who are in poverty. And our work every day is in the streets, in the neighborhoods, with families, in a classroom, in a hospital with people who are dying or seriously ill. So our work takes us to the people. Their work takes them to protecting the institution.

If you protect the institution, that's going to give you one set of views. If you work with the people in a pastoral setting and you're with anguish and struggle and joy and hope every day, then the gospel reads differently to us. And, historically, Catholic sisters have always been a thorn in the bishop's side because we've also been on the edge. We've always been with folks who are suffering.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the Vatican is singling out American sisters for criticism?

CAMPBELL: Well, it seems pretty clear that women, in fact, are being singled out. They haven't criticized any man recently that I know of. But the document itself - the assessment itself - says that they're identifying the sisters in the United States because sisters in other countries look to us for leadership.

And the fact is we've gotten educated. We are engaged in the world. We've followed the invitation of Vatican to renew ourselves. We've followed the encouragement of Pius XII in the '50s to get educated and engage in academia. Therefore, we ask pesky questions. We're used to having dialog about the meaning of things, looking behind simple rules to see the meaning and how they nurture growth - or do they?

And, from that education, we come into dialog as our natural way of engaging. This is not something that the bishops in Rome are used to.

MARTIN: Sister Simone Campbell heads Network, the Catholic social justice lobby group. She and a dozen other sisters plan to hit the road June 18th for their Nuns on the Bus Tour. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Sister, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

CAMPBELL: I'm glad to be with you and people can check out our road trip at www.nunsonthebus.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.