CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In April, a statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted its criticism of budget proposals from House Republicans and Congressman Paul
Ryan as failing to protect the poor and vulnerable.
The next day, the Vatican announced disciplinary action against a group of American nuns for offenses including sponsoring conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
So, asks Sister Simone Campbell, who heads the censured social justice group NETWORK, which got the most attention? The way she sees it, her “Nuns on the Bus” tour to spotlight issues of social justice — across nine states, including Ryan’s Wisconsin — is perfectly in line with Catholic teaching. “We’re sticking with the bishops on this one.’’
The tour just happens to coincide with the “Fortnight for Freedom,” the bishop’s pushback against the Obama administration’s contraceptive health-care plan.
The more-than-capacity crowd of 200-plus at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Charlotte gathered Saturday to hear Campbell, executive
director of NETWORK, a Washington-based social-justice lobby.
Her group made the Vatican’s list for allegedly placing too much emphasis on issues of economic inequality and not enough on abortion and same-sex marriage. During a break in the three-hour discussion at St. Peter’s, she told me that while “shocking and painful,” she looks on the publicity as “a gift.”
How’s that? “Our mission is known in a way that was never noted before,” she said. “I’ve had a public platform to speak of the needs of all people and to lift up the work of sisters.” She calls it “missionary work.” She said she’s next scheduled to take her message to fellow Catholic Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report.”
Though she supported the Affordable Care Act, Campbell, like the bishops, disagreed with the original rule on contraception coverage as proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services. “And the way they announced it was really problematic, because they made it feel like you just had to have a brain transplant in a year” before the changes took effect.
But the administration’s accommodation is “elegant,” she said. “It’s not a compromise — that’s really important to know — a compromise indicates that we would meet our values halfway. The elegance of the accommodation is that everybody’s conscience is respected, employers as well as the employees.”
“It just tears at my heart, when you look at the broad spectrum of issues, how the Obama administration has strived in really adverse circumstances to promote the common good and define compromise and a middle ground. And to continuously have that common ground eroded is extremely painful.”
Campbell said it’s “a small cadre of bishops who are determined or feel called to politicizing our faith in a way that’s extremely partisan and narrow.”
She quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on ethics and the economy, “Charity in Truth” – a reminder of the Catholic commitment to justice — and said that finding that common ground means reclaiming the full spectrum of life issues to include hunger, homelessness, racism, immigration, capital punishment, war and more. “I am pro-life, all of life.”
Campbell could be assured of a warm welcome at St. Peter’s, which she first visited in 2006. Its pastor, the Rev. Pat Earl, said he hoped the Jesuit church is “a good spiritual home” for all. Community outreach efforts include a Respect Life ministry, an El Salvador interest group, a gay/lesbian ministry and work with the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network.
The church has become a destination for what a former parishioner at a more conservative Charlotte parish called “roamin’ Catholics,” in a diocese whose bishop strongly supported the recently passed North Carolina amendment banning same-sex marriage with statements, mailings and videos.
Ann Bourgeois, a member since 1984, said, “St. Peter’s represents the kind of Catholic that I am, open-minded and community-centered.” She said she admired Campbell’s path of service. Bob Cook, at St. Peter’s for 12 years, said, “We have to learn not to self-divide, to engage the folks we disagree with.”
Nicolette Shoop, 37, said she came because “I’m interested in having Catholic conversations about issues, not just listening to directives” from a church hierarchy that often seems “out of touch.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.