When Sister Simone Campbell stepped off the tour bus in 2012 in Des Moines, Iowa, she received a rock star's welcome. The Roman Catholic religious sister had come across some newfound fame — a weird concept for nuns, who relinquish the spotlight with their vows of obedience and poverty — in rebellious fashion: Campbell defied the American bishops by endorsing the Affordable Care Act, a law the church's male hierarchy famously opposed. "The girls played the boys, and for once, the girls won and the boys were pissed," Campbell tells writer Jo Piazza in Piazza's new book, If Nuns Ruled The World.
In that respect, perhaps Campbell and her fellow sisters are rock stars. Instead of trashing hotel rooms and holding all-night ragers, their mischief is shedding their habits, taking to the streets and advocating for reforms rejected by the bishops. And it all got them coverage in Rolling Stone.
Last week, Nuns on the Bus kicked off their third road trip, once again in Des Moines. But for Campbell, the stardom began back in 2010, when she penned a letter urging Congress to pass the ACA. Nearly 60 members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — a coalition representing more than 80 percent of American nuns — co-signed the letter, calling the ACA true Catholic reform. Members of the LCWR, including Catholic Health Association President Sister Carol Keehan, a very ardent (and vocal) supporter of the ACA, were even invited to President Obama's signing of the law; they were proudly photographed by his side, while the bishops seethed off-camera.
Then came the Vatican. In April 2012, the Vatican released its doctrinal assessment of the LCWR following a three-year-long investigation.
The assessment was shocking: The Vatican claimed the nuns were promoting "radical feminism;" ignoring the Church's anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-sexuality dogma; and hosting conferences with speakers who had views incompatible with the church's teachings. NETWORK, a progressive Catholic lobby independent of the Vatican that Campbell oversees, was one of two organizations cited for essentially spending too much time on social justice:
While there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. ... Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.
With the Vatican investigation looming over her head, Campbell pressed on. In June 2012, she launched Nuns on the Bus, a cross-country campaign against Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan that would've made substantial cuts to Medicaid and SNAP funding for the poor.
Following the wild success of their first campaign, the traveling nuns kept up their good work. For the Nuns on the Bus tour that kicked off last week, Vice President Joe Biden, the "good Catholic kid," was even in attendance. This year's theme, "We the People, We the Voters," focuses on voter engagement. They want the people — the 100 percent — to determine elections, not the millionaires who sit in the pockets of politicians.
As Sister Jan Cebula, one of the current nuns on the bus, explained in her travelogue:
As more and more money is being poured into the process, the voices and needs of people are being drowned out. People are being left behind. Our country becomes more divided.
40 YEARS OF "NUNSENSE"
Piazza's book may be titled If Nuns Ruled The World, but for the religious sisters who still find themselves under the hawk-eye of the Vatican, it's not about supremacy — something they've been up against all their lives. A more fitting title would be If Nuns Had A Seat At The Altar.
It's easy for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to rally behind these embattled nuns, paint their stand-off with the hierarchy as a modern-day David and Goliath. After all, how could anyone get mad at our common perception of a nun: meek and polite, draped in habits and clutching rosary beads? Conversely, how can you not love the image of the badass nun, waving her habit in the air as she stares excommunication in the eye?
The context here, as Piazza shows, is actually more subtle. The 10 extraordinary religious sisters she profiles fall somewhere between rabble rouser and Maria Von Trapp. Despite the pro-abortion, pro-gay, radical feminist claims, rule-breaking is not at the heart of the Vatican
investigation. Rather, it's the decades-long push-and-pull between an iron-fisted hierarchy and women who know their spiritual worth in
this material world.
THE FACE OF THE "RADICAL" NUN
Piazza takes an affable approach as she highlights religious sisters who, in one way or another, have defied the Catholic Church. In addition to Campbell, there's gay rights advocate Sister Jeannine Gramick; abortion clinic escort Sister Donna Quinn; victims of human trafficking caregiver Sister Joan Dawber; and peace activist Sister Megan Rice, who's the basis for Orange Is The New Black character Sister Laura Ingalls (as much as Ingalls is my favorite OITNB character, I have to say: Rice is much more colorful than her fictional counterpart).
Although she doesn't have the rock-star status of Campbell, Sister Jeannine Gramick is the most intriguing religious sister out of the bunch — and the one whose story best exemplifies the contemporary divide between the cloistered hierarchy and the women on the ground.
In 1977, Gramick, who Piazza describes as a bonafide Philly girl, co-founded New Ways Ministry, the first organization for LGBT Catholics and their allies. New Ways stemmed from Gramick's intimate work with gay and lesbian Catholics in her own community as a young, sheltered sister.
She tells Piazza:
When we first began, my role was tenuous. No one in the Catholic community had been assigned to gay ministry before. It wasn't even a thing. People were anxious about any sexual issues, much less homosexual ones. ...Lesbian and gay people have been marginalized because of their orientation. They are denied basic human dignity. It is a clear affront to the social-justice teachings of the Church.
Working from a modest house in suburban Maryland, Gramick and Father Bob Nugent built a nationwide network of gay and lesbian Catholics. From almost day one, their subversive ministry was under scrutiny of the Vatican, including one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI.
Gramick and Nugent were repeatedly ordered to halt their ministry and sign a "proclamation of human sexuality," acknowledging that gay relationships were immoral. They were faced with excommunication, with Nugent eventually succumbing under the pressure. However, Gramick and the sisters of her order stood their ground. Her sisters refused to dismiss her, backing her work in solidarity and causing quite the headache for the male hierarchy.
"The Vatican tried to silence me and it just didn't work," she tells Piazza.
THE NUNS TRAVEL ON
To be sure, not every American nun is as subversive as these 10 women. Piazza only briefly explores the subtext of the Vatican investigation: The "good" nuns remain quiet and cloistered in their walled-off orders, and that's where the hierarchy wants these "bad" sisters to return.
As the Vatican attempts to limit the sisters’ control over their own organizations, the women of the church are fighting to maintain their unique role in Catholic life. At this point, the nuns aren’t necessarily winning the battle — but they’re not ready to back down just yet.