One afternoon last July, sister Simone Campbell, a 67-year-old Catholic nun, arrived for a meeting with Rep. Paul Ryan at his office in Washington, D.C. Ryan had not yet been chosen as Mitt Romney's running mate, but he'd already become the boyish face of the Republican Party, having crafted a radical budget – endorsed almost unanimously by his GOP colleagues, as well as the Republican presidential candidates – that would slash spending on the poor, gut Medicare and lower taxes even further on the wealthy. As executive director of a group of progressive Catholic nuns called Network, Campbell had become Ryan's sworn nemesis – though being a nun, of course, she wouldn't formulate it quite that way. She had arrived in Washington on a nine-state barnstorming campaign designed to highlight the immorality of Ryan's budget and rain shame upon its author. Her tour bus was emblazoned with the words nuns on the bus; her driver had also driven Elvis on his final tour. Not surprisingly, Ryan did his best to scuttle the meeting, rescheduling it several times and setting a "no staff" ground rule, only to have his staff on hand when he finally sat down with Campbell.
Campbell is one of the leaders of a growing movement of American nuns who are not only gleefully antagonizing right-wing politicians like Ryan but refusing to back down from the Catholic Church itself, up to and including the pope. On issues ranging from gay rights to abortion, the nuns are either openly contradicting church dogma or quietly undermining it with their silence, choosing instead to embrace a radical notion of missionary work that wouldn't be out of place at an Occupy Wall Street rally: income inequality, universal health care, corporate responsibility, immigration reform. It's a vision of Christianity laid out, incidentally, by Christ himself, who famously tossed the moneylenders out of the temple and informed the one percent they had a better shot at threading a needle with a camel than making it into heaven.
Forget Sister Act – think Pussy Riot. Sister Margaret Farley, a Yale Divinity School professor, has drawn the ire of the Vatican by making theological arguments in favor of homosexuality, remarriage after divorce, and female "self-pleasuring." Sister Donna Quinn, a feminist nun in Chicago who is opposed to the church's stance on reproductive rights, has personally escorted women into abortion clinics. A group called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which includes former nuns, ordains women as priests and holds female-led masses. In 2010, after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops publicly opposed Obamacare because of its allegedly "pro-abortion agenda," Sister Campbell wrote an open letter to Congress urging (note the deliciously Vatican-inciting language here) a "life-affirming 'yes' vote" on the bill. The letter was signed by 59 sisters, including the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group representing 80 percent of all nuns in the United States. After the health care bill passed, President Obama personally thanked Campbell at the signing ceremony and later awarded her a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic convention.
It's impossible to overstate how threatened the church's conservative male hierarchy feels by this display of sisterly opposition. Last April, the Vatican took the extraordinary step of issuing a "doctrinal assessment" that sternly condemned LCWR for "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." The assessment, the result of a multiyear investigation, was conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the same organization within the church that was responsible for the Inquisition. Bill Donohue, president of the right-wing Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, launched his own assault, blasting Network as a "dissident Catholic organization" and complaining that the group had never "put out a single statement regarding life in the womb." Sister Campbell, he sneered, is a "hero to these people who don't generally like Catholics."
Never mind that the overwhelming majority of Catholics support many of the views espoused by the nuns, and yearn for a far-ranging reformation of the church. (A recent study found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women in the U.S. have used some form of contraception.) The attempt to silence the nuns was a clear warning shot fired by the Vatican – and to many Catholics, it signaled a battle for the future of the church itself. "This absolutely isn't just about the nuns," says Sister Kathleen Desautels, an activist nun based in Chicago. "They can come after us because we're organized, and that's why they did it. But the lay folks saw that this is about them, too. Because they could start to say, 'Hey, this is our church.'"
The term "liberal nun" might sound like an oxymoron if you're stuck on the stereotype of wimpled Nurse Ratcheds terrorizing school kids with the flat ends of their rulers. But ever since the 1960s, nuns like Sister Campbell, relatively powerless within the confines of the male-dominated church, have tended to thrive at the grassroots level, where they have room to shape their own ministries. "Nuns are on the streets, working in homeless shelters, food kitchens, battered women's shelters – that's what they're about," says Dennis Coday, the editor of the National Catholic Reporter. "It's got nothing to do with the sort of church doctrine the assessment writes about, and everything to do with the Gospel in action." His readers, he adds, were "dumbfounded" by the Vatican assessment, and overwhelmingly favor the nuns.
Sister Campbell and her fellow nuns hardly look like a threat to the established order. At a recent rally on Staten Island sponsored by Network, there was such a swell of women in their seventies with trim gray hair, pantsuits and practical sneakers that I felt like I'd been hit on the head and woken up at an Indigo Girls concert in the year 2040. Still, Campbell – who wears a gold band on her wedding-ring finger signifying her perpetual vows – responded to the Vatican's criticism in a very un-nunlike way: She appeared on The Colbert Report, where she noted that the Ryan budget "undermines the whole fabric of our society" and called on Americans to "push back against highjacking our nation." Then she and a dozen of her fellow sisters embarked on the "Nuns on the Bus" tour.
Campbell holds a law degree from UC-Davis, and spent 18 years practicing family law in the Bay Area – representing the very poor and dispossessed targeted by Ryan's budget. When she sat down with Ryan in Washington, she brought up citizens she'd met on the bus trip who would be hurt by his callous accounting methods. Ryan was "totally uninterested" in such stories, Campbell recalls. "He just kept telling me that the Congressional Budget Office had scored his budget really well." At one point, Ryan trotted out one of his stock lines, boasting how he doesn't rent an apartment in Washington, preferring to maintain his anti-establishment bona fides by sleeping on a cot in his House office. "Is that good for you or your family?" Campbell asked. "That doesn't seem healthy." Ryan changed the subject.
Campbell left feeling that she had been subjected to a one-sided lecture. "He wanted to convince me he's really bright, and to prove he's right. This was not a relational meeting. None of my efforts to worm my way under the wall were successful."
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