Campbell’s style of engagement on the Hill is part Zen master, part political tactician. One minute this is how she describes the tension between liberal nuns and church authorities: “I know we are one body. I know God hums my existence at every second, and yours, too.”
The next, she determines the Vatican report is payback for the nuns’ political effectiveness during the health-care debate. “They got bad political advice and are blaming us,” she snaps.
A legal aid lawyer for the poor in her home state of California for decades, Campbell was raised in a home in which being Catholic meant pragmatic action, said her sister, Toni Potter, a federal contractor who lives in Vienna.
“Talking about Catholic spirituality was not part of our DNA. It was like: ‘We’re Catholics, we get it, now let’s get something done,’ ” Potter said.
But Campbell worked to become more spiritual, she said, after the sisters in her order criticized her for being too focused on policy. In 2004, she became executive director of Network. Staffed exclusively by sisters when it was founded in 1972, Network is seen as having outsize impact for its modest, $800,000-a-year budget, in good part because of the moral weight of the sisters.
Campbell and Sister Carol Keehan, head of the huge Catholic Health Association, were considered key to the White House passing the health-care law; their approval helped balance bishops’ concern that the plan could provide federal funding for abortions.
“When that happened, many [Catholic] House members felt: ‘If the sisters feel that way, we shouldn’t be worried.’ And it wound up helping to break the deadlock,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a group advocating for affordable health care.
Campbell also bucked the bishops on their efforts to overturn a part of the new law that requires employers — including faith-based ones — to provide access to contraception coverage for their employees. Campbell “trusts the word of the administration” that the details will be worked out, her spokeswoman said.
Campbell’s critics say the bus tour is the epitome of disrespect.
The bus tour is “literally the only thing they have left: a dwindling group of hold-over pantsuit activists from the 1970’s,”conservative blogger Tom Peters wrote Tuesday as the bus tour rolled through Cleveland. “The Catholic Left: A Bus to Nowhere,” he titled his piece.
Campbell herself can be tart. She puts on the same whiny, mocking voice whether she’s making fun of herself or, for example, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Catholic congressman from Wisconsin who wrote the budget proposal that the tour targets.
“This nonsense about shifting more money to the top and devastating poor people — that’s wrong! And calling it Catholic social teaching in keeping with [his] conscience,” she said, putting on her drippy voice. “Bull! In keeping with his campaign donors.”