With the number of U.S. nuns plummeting in recent decades, many people have never seen one in person. Even fewer have seen a nun do something that appears as defiant as Campbell’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour, which rolls into the D.C. area this weekend in its full-size, advertisement-wrapped, spokeswoman-staffed bus.
The two-week trip, which began June 18, is an attempt to motivate opposition to a House budget that would sharply reduce spending on social services. But it is also a response of sorts to a Vatican report in April raising alarm about “radical feminism” among top American nuns and singling out Network, the D.C.-based social-justice lobbying group Campbell heads.
The report said many nun leaders are focusing too much on social-justice issues and too little on same-sex marriage and abortion. Further, the bishops said some of the ideas that liberal nuns such as Campbell are discussing publicly — among them, female priests — border on heresy.
You might think that such a critical papal spotlight would send all nuns deep underground. But that’s certainly not the case for Campbell, who is an unusual combination of hard-hitting political strategist and poetry-writing spiritual figure.
Instead, Campbell met with her political allies on the Hill and prayed hard. Then the light bulb came on: a road tour!
The tour’s unspoken, but nonetheless loud, message: The nuns’ moral compass is working just fine, thank you. “Their big mistake was naming us,” Campbell said. “With all this attention, we had to use it for our mission.”
Campbell’s tour also overlaps almost exactly with the two weeks the nation’s Catholic bishops have devoted to the idea that religious freedom is under assault in the United States. The bishops’ key target is the Obama administration’s health-care plan, which mandates contraception coverage and for which Campbell prominently lobbied.
Not a single bishop has taken Campbell up on her offer to meet since the tour began.
“Sister, you and your fellow nuns have clearly gone rogue!” Colbert deadpanned to Campbell, a petite woman who favors jangly earrings and theatrical eye-rolling. “I think your nuns should be intimidated a little bit more. The pope and the Vatican said, ‘Knock it off with the social liberalism.’ ”
The national attention being focused on a bus tooling across the Midwest with five nuns aboard says everything about the United States’ charged political climate. It wraps up gender, partisanship, religion and health care, all things that make a sexy story inside the Beltway these days.