Holy Strategist

5 minute read
John Cloud

Nuns have played many roles in Catholic history, from convent monastics to street activists, but it’s difficult to think of another nun like Sister Simone Campbell. A registered lobbyist and political strategist, she has exercised quiet but important influence in advancing liberal Catholic causes in Washington. And now, with U.S. nuns taking the brunt of a Vatican backlash against decades of liberal church practices, Campbell is mounting a counterattack.

From behind sensible eyewear and unfailing politeness, Campbell is using the shrewd tools of political campaigns–from a social-media blitz to an appearance on The Colbert Report–to outflank the church hierarchy. Her boldest move yet: on June 18, Campbell and the lobbying group she runs, Network, launched the Nuns on the Bus tour, which is taking groups of sisters to congressional districts in nine states to argue against proposed cuts in social spending. “It is an immoral budget in what it does to people who struggle,” she says.

The tour, set to end July 2, is designed to capitalize on public sympathy for Catholic sisters after the Vatican criticized the largest association of U.S. nuns–the Leadership Conference of Women Religious–for allowing “radical feminist themes” to permeate its meetings. The Holy See said the leadership conference had hosted speakers whose “rejection of faith” and “silence” on abortion had become “a serious source of scandal.” The Vatican appointed three bishops to supervise the leadership conference, essentially pitting Rome–and the bishops who represent the see in the U.S.–against nuns like Sister Campbell.

Campbell has been up against bishops before. In 2010, Network angered many church leaders when it fought for President Obama’s health care bill. Campbell and the sisters she represents–many of whom have spent most of their lives working with the poor–saw the bill’s passage as crucial to helping people overwhelmed by medical costs. Obama hugged Campbell at the law’s signing ceremony and, she says, told her that nuns’ support of health care reform was a “tipping point” in getting the law passed. Now the Nuns on the Bus tour is robbing attention from the Fortnight for Freedom, a series of special events long planned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to oppose an Obama Administration rule requiring some Catholic charities to cover contraception in their health plans.

Born in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1945, Campbell absorbed liberal values in the 1960s before taking her vows in 1967. She was part of a wave of nuns who responded to the Second Vatican Council’s call for religious orders to undertake aggiornamento, updating of the faith. After that call, Campbell and thousands of other sisters pursued academic degrees; Campbell’s is in law.

Before joining Network in 2006, Campbell spent 18 years representing poor people at a community law center in Oakland, Calif. The number of those seeking help was crushing, and the job left Campbell with a curious but effective mixture of practicality and outrage. She and the eight other members of Network’s staff raised $150,000 and organized the nine-state bus tour in just four weeks. Already it has helped generate sympathetic coverage of the sisters’ efforts to block cuts in social programs.

At times Nuns on the Bus can seem like Campbell’s personal act of retaliation against the Vatican for its virtual takeover of the nuns’ leadership conference and its rebuke of Network. “I’ve been a faithful woman religious for over 40 years,” she says, with some heat. “And some guy who’s never talked to me says we’re a problem? Ooh, that hurts.”

Now the bishops are hurting. At a June 14 meeting of U.S. church officials in Atlanta, Cardinal Sen O’Malley of Boston said the furor over the Vatican criticism of nuns had turned into a p.r. “debacle.” In a bit of understatement, he said the church, “both in the States and at the Holy See, does not do a good job of communicating around controversial topics. We need more help and sophistication in our messaging.” The bishops announced at the meeting that they would launch an effort to improve their image–and may even start a social-media site.

The Vatican seems unlikely to help. Even after it suffered criticism for its harsh assessment of the nuns’ leadership conference, the see decided to issue, on June 4, a public denunciation of a six-year-old book on sexuality by Sister Margaret Farley. Farley is a 77-year-old professor emerita at Yale, and although her book Just Love offers jarringly graphic descriptions of sex acts, the Vatican could have chosen to ignore it.

Nuns on the Bus is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting for Campbell. Like any other strategist in the eye of a campaign, she has had trouble sleeping more than three hours at a stretch. But Campbell is cheered by the idea that her activism is being noticed not only in liberal circles but in the wider media. She even has some hope that her efforts will remind bishops that they too have expressed opposition to cuts in social spending. “We’re both being annoying to each other,” she says. “But we can lift up another voice.”

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