The Sisters Crusade

How a group of radical nuns are trying to take Jesus back from the pope and the GOP

The Sisters Crusade
Photos in illustration by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images (Pope Benedict XVI) and Tom Brakefield/Getty Images (St. Peter's Square)
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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.

The Catholic Church's Secret Sex-Crimes Files

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."

At a retreat the previous year, Campbell had been praying about how her calling is a mixture of fighting and radical acceptance – a process she describes as "Push. Push. Push. Deal with it." The image that came to mind when she combined these two seemingly contradictory stances was fire. This led her to think about the burning bush – the sign sent by God to Moses, the bush's resistance to the flames a symbol of the power of faith. As she sat outside Ryan's office waiting to meet with him, Campbell flipped open her Bible to the burning bush passage in Exodus – and then, for the first time in ages, happened to turn the page, where she read Moses' plea to God: "Who am I to go to Pharaoh?"

Campbell cackles in the retelling. "That's exactly what I felt like: Don't send me to Pharaoh!" Shaking her head, she adds, "I should have read that part sooner."

The spectacle of a group of nuns refusing to back down from the Vatican, a literal patriarchy that is 2,000 years old, has undeniable power – especially coming, as it did, on the heels of the GOP's "war on women," a war you pretty much know you've lost when you start losing the nuns. Last winter, the Catholic bishops once again injected themselves into the national debate by loudly protesting an Obamacare provision that mandated all employers – including Catholic hospitals – provide contraceptives as part of their health care benefits. The Obama administration quickly made a technical fix so that (untaxed, publicly subsidized) Catholic institutions wouldn't have to sully their own budgets by underwriting IUDs and Trojan Valu-Paks. Still, the clash reinforced the impression that powerful groups of men, whether U.S. senators or Catholic cardinals, remain bent on controlling uppity, sexually active women.

Such retrograde stances by the church's hierarchy have contributed to a sharp decline in American Catholicism. If "ex-Catholic" were counted as its own denomination, according to national polls, it would be the third-largest religion in the United States. The numbers are just as dire within Catholic religious orders. There were nearly 180,000 American nuns in 1965, the same year The Sound of Music (starring Julie Andrews as a Benedictine postulant) challenged Gone With the Wind as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Today there are only 55,000 nuns, and their average age is 74.

I attended Catholic school from kindergarten until I finished high school in the late Eighties. Even back then, there weren't many nuns around. The ones who wore habits tended to be stern: Sister Marlene told us, in all seriousness, that our fingers would "burn in Purgatory" if we wrote in our textbooks and once savagely slapped a boy whose last name was Templeton (and whom she always referred to as "Simpleton") across the face in the middle of class, sending him from the room in tears. The habitless nuns, true to form, had a mellower vibe: Sister Sylvia, our beloved third-grade homeroom teacher, read us all seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia series without once pointing out the obvious Christian allegory. The schism between the old, obedient sisterhood and the new, more liberal order was well under way. Sister Campbell recalls Catholic functions, early in her career, when sisters in habits refused to eat at the same table as sisters from her own, less formal order. "They didn't think we were real nuns," she says.

The roots of that schism, like so many of our ongoing culture wars, date back to the Sixties, when the Second Vatican Council produced the church's most radical period of modern liberalization. Vatican II, as it was known, allowed for Masses to be celebrated in languages other than Latin and decentralized the power of the Vatican, awarding more leadership roles to lay members. Nuns, once cloistered in their own religious communities, were now encouraged to shed their habits and go forth into the world to pursue social justice ministries. Before you knew it, priests were espousing liberation theology – a radical interpretation of Christianity as a revolutionary doctrine – and musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were furthering the Jesus-as-Original-Hippie vibe of the era. At my church in suburban Detroit, a mass was added on Saturdays, where the big organ went silent and a folk group played hymns on acoustic guitars.

Sister Desautels, the Chicago activist, recalls the years just after Vatican II as a sort of golden age for progressive-minded Catholics, a time when "the social teachings of the church were really being promulgated, even from the pulpit." Vatican II, she notes, had mandated that all religious communities, including nuns, update and renew themselves. "So in some ways, all of the changes came because we were totally obedient," she says with a puckish smile. "The pope told us to do it!"

Spry and elfin at 74, Desautels is a staff member at the 8th Day Center for Justice, a progressive nonprofit founded by six Catholic congregations in 1974. Last year, the group received a stern letter from the cardinal of Chicago after it hosted a screening of Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, a documentary that supports the ordination of female priests. Desautels epitomizes the kind of nun the Vatican has set out to silence: In 2002, she served six months in federal prison for trespassing at the School of the Americas, the U.S. military academy in Georgia that trained Latin American death squads, and she traveled to Iraq to protest the Gulf War. After Vatican II, she says, nuns were "encouraged to do all kinds of work, to be a part of the ritual of the Mass. You could invite a moral theologian to church to talk about contraceptives or gays, and they'd say, 'Here's what the church teaches, but this is what other theologians say.' It was a wonderful time. You couldn't ever have that now."

The backlash began in 1978, with the ascension of Pope John Paul II, a staunch anti-Communist bent on effecting a cultural rollback. John Paul's influential predecessor, the liberal Pope Paul VI, came to power during Vatican II and popularized its reforms, but the new pope appointed a host of conservative bishops who would crack down on dissidents. During John Paul's reign, the man who would become his successor, the even more conservative Pope Benedict XVI, headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the same investigative body that censured the American nuns last spring. Benedict "led what was known as a Kulturekampf, or cultural war, against dissident theologians," according to a 2005 profile in The Los Angeles Times. "He shaped church opposition to homosexuality, Latin American 'liberation theology,' secularism, globalization, women in the priesthood, contraception and religious plurality." Today, those in the church hierarchy who supported Vatican II, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, are all but gone. "We always say, there's a few good men," Desautels says. "But they're dying out."

One logical response to the child sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church over the past two decades would have been to initiate even bolder, more radical reforms – a Vatican III. But Pope Benedict, whose investigatory zeal earned him the nickname Panzerkardinal, has led the charge in the opposite direction, insisting that the Holy See should not compromise its values in order to appeal to a 21st-century laity. As pope, he has famously embraced calls for a "smaller, purer" church, one that places a rigid, hard-line doctrine above all else. "A church which seeks above all to be attractive," he has declared, "is already on the wrong path."

On a recent fall morning, I meet Sister Campbell at New York's Penn Station, where she has arrived to speak at an interfaith conference on corporate responsibility. Though she'll be spending the night, she has stuffed everything she needs – including her New Jerusalem Bible, the type with a leathery zippered slipcover – into the kind of bag a rich lady might use to carry a tiny dog. She's staying at a hotel that overlooks Ground Zero, now a bustling tourist destination. Staring up at the soaring new tower, only partially built, Campbell shakes her head and says she wishes they had left the entire space as a memorial. "But with these guys, it always has to be bigger," she sighs. "And they are guys." Then she jaywalks in front of a truck, which slams on its brakes.

Little in Campbell's upbringing suggested that she would take the vows of a nun, let alone openly defy the pope. She grew up in suburban Long Beach, California, the daughter of an aerospace engineer. Her family was Catholic, but not excessively so; when other Catholics in the neighborhood started a "block rosary" – dedicating one night a week to praying at someone's house – the Campbells stayed home and watched their new TV. Simone and her younger sister, Katie, idolized John F. Kennedy, the handsome Catholic senator. In 1960, when their parents took them to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, they hoped to catch a glimpse of their hero. Instead, as they stood near the elevators at the Biltmore Hotel, out walked Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's rival – "the enemy," in Simone's words. When LBJ bent down to give 13-year-old Katie a kiss, she raised her arm to counter with a handshake and wound up bopping him on the nose.

Eight years later, when she was a junior in college, Katie died of Hodgkin's disease. Campbell was devastated. She had already joined the Sisters of Social Service, an order founded in Budapest in the 1920s by the first woman ever elected to the Hungarian parliament. Like many of the sisters I meet, Campbell can't point to a single epiphany that led her to become a nun, but rather describes the process as a slow evolution, with fits and starts and moments of doubt. She first considered the idea in high school, after attending a Catholic summer camp run by nuns. She loved the sense of community at the camp, and how the girls, who came from all over Southern California – Mexican girls from the barrio, rich girls from Bel-Air, crossing all social lines – basically ran the place. "I liked being in charge," she recalls.

Campbell had never exactly been a normal teenager. She tutored in Watts and became involved in the civil-rights movement, all of which led her in the direction of the church. One day, while taking part in a sit-in for integration, she came to the realization that she did not simply want to share in the end goals of the movement – she wanted to share in the underlying reason for those goals. "And for me," she recalls, "it always was about the Gospel."

Still, it took nine years of prayer and counseling before she was deemed ready to make her lifelong commitment to her order. "You have to have a crisis before your final vows," she says drily. "It's required." In her case, the crisis came when she found herself spending more and more time with a "really nice" Presbyterian minister named John. The courtship carried on for several months, before Campbell finally told John she was going with the Other Guy. Then, just before making her final vows in her midtwenties, while working as a community organizer in Portland, she entered an intense period of darkness. "I'm very imaginative and very intuitive, so this will sound weird," she says, "but my sense was that the devil was laughing at me for making this choice."

She eventually got through her moment of doubt and came out the other side feeling bathed in an "amazing light and understanding." She says now that making her vows was the best choice she's ever made. When I ask if she has ever felt out of step with her peers – she chose a life of celibacy just as the sexual revolution was exploding – Campbell doesn't hesitate. "It seemed like all the drugs and hedonism was more about being lost than being found," she explains. "And this felt like being found."

But when I bring up the Vatican's war with the reformist elements within the church, Campbell sounds every bit the Sixties radical. "You've got to realize that any crowd that took 350 years to figure out Galileo might be right is not noted for rapid change," she says. "The sadness is that the bishops are coming at it from the perspective of rules, and spiritual leadership is soooo much deeper than that. We work too much with the poor? We don't pick up their particular pet political issues? Give me a break! This is about a cultural clash between monarchy, in which the monarch is always right, and democracy, where everybody has equal dignity, responsibility and opportunity – women and men. The whole idea that we live in a pluralistic society is news to these guys."

For Campbell, there's not much difference between the bishops, most of whom have had extremely limited pastoral experience, and politicians like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney. "Their lives are very simplified," she says of the bishops. "They've been in academics, they've been in Rome, but they've never had to walk with people with horrible struggles." Romney, she says, is "a lost human being. He has never had experience with people outside of the one percent. He can't be expected to know what it's like for other people. But if he wants to lead this nation, he ought to know."

The "smaller" part of Pope Benedict's "smaller, purer" church is already coming to pass. According to a study by Georgetown University, both the liberal Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the more orthodox Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious – which toes the Vatican line on issues like abortion and contraception and whose members tend to wear habits – are having trouble attracting young nuns. In 2009, each group reported only 500 new entrants.

It's hard to picture any modern young American, male or female, thoroughly rejecting everything our culture aggressively promotes – money, sex, material possessions. For nuns, it's an even thornier proposition, as they're doing so in the service of an institution with an age-old emphasis on putting women in their place. Then, in Chicago, I meet Sister Sarah Martz, a 32-year-old nun from Iowa who works at a Catholic charity that provides free meals, medical care and after-school programs to the poor. The charity is located in a rough neighborhood called Back of the Yards, referring to the meatpacking stockyards made infamous by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. There's a church parking lot surrounded by barbed wire in the neighborhood, not far from the headquarters of the Rebel Knights Motorcycle Club. After waving sweetly to one of the teenagers in her after-school program, Martz tells me, "He's a fourth-generation gang member."

With her jeans and Converse sneakers, Sister Martz could easily pass for a civilian. Like Sister Campbell, she didn't come from an inordinately devout family. She started secretly thinking about becoming a nun when she was 10, after a priest and a nun came to a career day at her school. By her senior year of high school she was named "Most Likely to Become a Nun," even though she hadn't told anyone of her considerations. She had a serious boyfriend in college, but ultimately decided to take her vows. She used to live in her own apartment; now she shares a home with one other nun. The generational gap, Martz concedes, can pose a challenge: Her roommate, who is 78, often politely asks Martz to turn down her CD player if she's playing Adele too loudly.

But that night, when I meet up with Martz and several of her fellow sisters at a casual falafel place where you order at the counter, they all look like regular women their age. They get hit on. They go to bars for drinks. They say things like "nundar" and "sister bling." There's Sister Jessi Beck, a 31-year-old nun who teaches second grade in a poor Hispanic school, and who participated in the Nuns on the Bus movement. (Beck, too, bemoans the generation gap: "In my community, the next-youngest person is 40. And she lives in Bolivia.") There's Sister Xiomara Méndez-Hernández, a 36-year-old Adrian Dominican nun who once dreamed of being the next Oscar de la Renta. ("Many of the sisters, they dress very awful," she says with a sigh. "The combination of a straight skirt with flowers and tennis shoes? Ahh!") And there's Sister Sarah Kohles, 32, who grew up in Texas and knew at age 11 she wanted to be a nun; when she confessed to her parents and friends, she says, it felt like coming out. (Kohles is the one who brings up nundar. "There's definitely a vibe," she says. "Simple haircut, little to no makeup, no jewelry.")

Young Catholics like these sisters represent one possible future for the church – a future that would embrace the realities of today's women and encourage them to celebrate their devotion, as the nuns in Chicago do, through daily action on behalf of the neediest. But these young nuns are all members of the LCWR, which does not seem to be part of the Vatican's plans, unless the group falls back into unquestioning obedience. "I see people who have been very faithful their whole lives starting to feel pushed out of the church," Sister Kohles says. "I see them asking questions like, 'Is there any room here for me?' That's alarming. In my mind, we're kind of an oasis. Like, how can we be there with people, as we are with the Nuns on the Bus?"

The Vatican, for its part, remains intent on getting the nuns off the bus. To "reform" the LCWR, it has appointed a group of bishops led by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle. Sartain, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, is seen as a conciliatory figure within the church – but if the LCWR refuses to bend to Rome's will, the Vatican has the power to strip it of its status and refuse to sanction it as the official representative of American nuns. Yet many nuns seem to welcome the coming showdown and the change it portends. "To tell you the truth – rather than scare us, I think this has emboldened and energized us," says Sister Desautels. "We feel like: We must be doing something right."

Sister Campbell agrees. The group she leads, Network, is looking for ways to capitalize on its newfound notoriety. Before the Vatican issued its denunciation, the organization was nearly broke. But by the time the Nuns on the Bus trip was announced, about six weeks later, they were able to raise $150,000 in 10 days. "Network will never be the same," Campbell says. "We've blown up our organization."

As for the doctrinal assessment, Campbell is blunt. "I'm afraid our bishops don't have a clue about spiritual leadership," she says. There's a difference, she stresses, between military obedience and religious obedience. Her vows were of the latter variety, and she believes that they involve obedience not to an institution like the Vatican but rather "a deep listening to where the Spirit is moving."

In the end, she suggests, the war over Catholicism comes down to the same fight being waged all over the world – a battle of diversity and equality versus authoritarian rule. "In a democratic culture like the U.S., that European model of monarchy" – the Vatican's model – "just doesn't fit," she says. "But unfortunately, our leadership is holding on tight."

This story is from the November 22nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1170: November 22, 2012
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