Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Roman Catholic… (Harry E. Walker / MCT )
The nun’s short speech got less attention than the rousing address by former President Bill Clinton, or the cutting remarks by Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, but in her own way, Sister Simone Campbell said something remarkable at the Democratic National Convention.
Campbell, one of the so-called Nuns on the Bus who have toured the country this summer, declared that nuns agreed with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The topic was their opposition to a Republican budget plan, and it offered a rare moment of agreement between these two forces in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. To appreciate Campbell’s comments, a little background is in order.
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The nuns and bishops have had frosty interactions in recent years, and the relationship became more strained this past spring when the Vatican said that a group representing the majority of Roman Catholic nuns in the U.S. had deviated from church doctrine and had promoted what the Holy See called “radical feminist themes.”
The Vatican “assessment,” as the review is known, was the product of a three-year investigation and took a critical look at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The conference, based in Silver Spring, Md., is an umbrella organization for other groups composed of Catholic nuns.
And who published the Vatican assessment? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But on Thursday night, Campbell stressed their moment of agreement.
“Let me explain why I'm here tonight,” Campbell told the delegates Thursday in Charlotte, N.C. Campbell said she and other sisters went on a 2,700-mile, nine-state bus journey to talk about the budget plan “that Congressman Paul Ryan wrote and Gov. [Mitt] Romney endorsed.”
Noting that Ryan is Catholic, she said, “Paul Ryan claims this budget reflects the principles of our shared faith. But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test because it would harm families living in poverty.
“We agree with our bishops.”
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The Vatican assessment said that although the nuns had been vocal about social-justice issues, they had failed to speak out enough on other church concerns, such as opposition to same-sex marriage. The nuns have also opposed male-only ordination.
The Vatican designated Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee changes in the group “in order to implement a process of review and conformity to the teachings and discipline of the church.”
One member organization of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a group called Network. Campbell is its executive director. Network endorsed the Affordable Care Act, the sweeping healthcare law critics label “Obamacare.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the law.
Campbell touted the healthcare law while telling the story of a woman she met in Ohio during the bus tour. “In Cincinnati, I met Jini, who had just come from her sister's memorial service,” Campbell said. “When Jini's sister Margaret lost her job, she lost her health insurance. She developed cancer and had no access to diagnosis or treatment. She died unnecessarily. That is tragic. And it is wrong.”
Continuing her anecdote about Margaret, she said: “The Affordable Care Act will cover people like Margaret. We all share responsibility to ensure that this vital healthcare reform law is properly implemented and that all governors expand Medicaid coverage so no more Margarets die from lack of care. This is part of my pro-life stance and the right thing to do.”
Those comments contained one line that could be viewed as either an attempt to challenge or appease the Vatican, depending on the point of view. The nuns also were criticized for not speaking out enough against abortion, so Campbell’s use of “pro-life” stood out.