September 12, 2012

A Nun on a Mission- But Whose?

Addie Darling
September 12, 2012

On September 5, Sister Simone Campbell addressed the Democratic National Convention
in Charlotte, NC. (Photo credit: Politico)


Last week’s Democratic National Convention highlighted many issues involving the Catholic Church.

Following three days of speeches by Sandra Fluke, Nancy Keenan, and Cecile Richards, among others, that stressed the party’s stances on reproductive issues- including a new position that firmly endorses on-demand abortions, the head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Timothy Cardinal Dolan gave the convention’s closing blessing.

Of course, Cardinal Dolan and the USCCB have come into conflict with President Obama and the modern reproductive orthodoxy due to oft-referenced “HHS Mandate” This mandatory addition to the Affordable Care Act requires all employers to pay for their employees’ preventative care – including the provision of contraceptives, sterilizations, and some abortifacients.[i]  This coverage is mandated for all but a select few institutions deemed religious enough to qualify for an exemption. It has prompted a string of lawsuits filed by various dioceses, schools and charities throughout the country against the mandate.

But there was another Catholic voice speaking for the Church earlier last week: Sister Simone Campbell, best known recently for her “Nuns on the Bus” tour to protest Republican federal budget policies.  A member of the Sisters of Social Service and Executive Director of the lobbying group NETWORK, Sister Simone Campbell and her organizations have presented themselves as an alternative Catholicism to that of the bishops, tradition, and the Church.

Sister Campbell’s celebrity and occasional controversy does not detract from her work as a servant of the poor and the marginalized. Campbell spent the first 18 years of her ministry as a lawyer, working on family law cases for the poor in Southern California. In that time, she also served as the general of her religious order, the Sisters of Social Service, organizing and directing her community’s service in the United States, Mexico, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Later she served as the Executive Director of JERICHO, an advocacy organization for those living in poverty in the state of California, and acted as part of a Catholic Relief Services delegation in 2002 to minister to Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and Syria shortly before the start of the Iraq War.

Campbell’s work through NETWORK radically reinterprets Catholic teaching, reinventing some of its fundamental tenants of charity, obedience, and service. Her revision of Catholic teaching places politics over principle, with the interpretation of doctrine by a magisterium of nuns and popular opinion as the ultimate judge. 

As the Executive Director of NETWORK, Sister Campbell has led the organization in advocating for justice for the poor, conservation of the environment, access to appropriate healthcare, just treatment for immigrants and migrant workers, and rebuilding the Gulf Coast. These goals are admirable, and not in opposition to Catholic teaching.

What is opposed to Catholic teaching, as well as the larger question of what is religion’s proper relationship with politics is NETWORK’s approach. The organization takes a very narrow view of what “Catholic Social Teaching” permits, and puts the weight of Catholic doctrine behind nationalized healthcare, larger government programs, and liberal political policies.

Such a declaration of “Catholic Social Teaching” is disingenuous for several reasons. Firstly, it ignores the impact of such programs and political programs upon fundamental Catholic teachings on life and the integrity of the traditional family. For instance, during her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Sister Campbell supported the affordable care act- including provisions for abortion- “as part of my pro-life stance.”  Yet she has said that it would be “above my pay grade” to say that abortion ought not to be legal or that doctors who perform abortions ought to face penalties.

Secondly, NETWORK presents their interpretation on the prudential matters of the economy, environmental policy, and healthcare as the only legitimate Catholic interpretation of Church teaching. Such pronouncements fly in the face of Church teaching itself. As mentioned in Kieran Raval’s earlier article on this issue, even the Pope acknowledges that “not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.”  And Catholics are free to disagree on matters of prudence, such as how best to support citizen’s health and the economy.

Lastly, Sister Campbell’s narrow view of social justice and obedience mocks the institution of the Church itself. Her views on social justice invoke bishops where it fits her goals, but ignores them when they do not fit her agenda, diminishing the importance of the teachings of the Church and bishops to just another voice in the crowd. The Vatican’s has criticized both NETWORK and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), of which the Sisters of Social Service are members, for their omission of fundamental Church teachings on life, family, and theological matters of women’s ordination.

According to Sister Campbell, this call for reform was naught more than a publicity opportunity. On April 27, she tweeted:

So glad that the Vatican attempt to change our mission is resulting in a higher profile for us @hardball! A joke of the Holy Spirit?

— Sr. Simone Campbell (@sr_simone) April 27, 2012

She continued her marginalization of the Vatican’s critiques on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart during a promotion for her “Nuns on a Bus” tour. During a mocking sketch, the sister stated “the Vatican says we work too much for the needs of people who live in poverty,” and that any commentary on issues integral to the foundations of Catholic social justice itself is “not our mission.”

Seemingly not even her vows of obedience as a religious sister to the Church and Her precepts are safe from a radical re-interpretation. When asked onThe Colbert Report about the Vatican’s assertion that NETWORK and the LCWR are guilty of straying from faithfulness to teaching and vows, Sister Campbell responds, “Actually, what I’ll admit is that we’re faithful to the Gospel.” Again, such a pronouncement places her own interpretation of fidelity and faith above that of the institution she claims to be part of.

Even the matter of the Church’s ability to practice its beliefs freely is mocked by Sister Campbell. On Twitter, she has belittled the USCCB’s reaction to the HHS mandate as “a scandal,” saying in a February 12 tweet that “Catholic bishops don’t understand that EVERYONE’s conscience should be respected not just theirs.”

While the Church in the United States has been embroiled in a battle to preserve its ability to serve the poor and act out the mission it preaches, Sister Campbell has been on a crusade to redefine “life issues” to include policies that include policies that support abortion, to present a liberal interpretation of Catholic social justice as the only legitimate interpretation of Church doctrine- ignoring all teachings to the contrary, and to undermine any teachings of those who are not in line with her narrow set of beliefs-including the teachings of those to whom Sister Simone Campbell has pledged her obedience.

In presenting Sister Campbell as a Catholic voice with equal –if not greater- weight and importance as the head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Democratic National Convention has shown that it only values what religion and religious persons can provide politically.  Virtues such as fidelity, integrity and freedom are passé. In the meantime, Sister Campbell has shown through her actions and words that she serves a church, but it is a congregation of yes-men and radical individual interpretation, not a church of principles and self-sacrifice, and not the Roman Catholic Church. We pray that she, NETWORK and the LCWR return to the faith of their foundations and a fuller understanding of the Church.



[i] Opposition to the HHS Mandate by Cardian Dolan, the USCCB, and the opposition to the mandate by various other politicians and public figures has been dubbed a “War on Women.” However, while the mandate requires coverage for pregnancy prevention, sterilization and abortion, it does not cover 1) heart disease medications or asprin, even though heart disease is the #1 cause of death for women in the USA 2) condoms, which are the only effective means of STD prevention save for abstinence 3) chemopreventative medicines for breast cancer- which is responsible for 1 in 4 cancer deaths in women  4) prenatal screenings. The mandate also requires the coverage of chemical contraceptives even though these artificial hormones place women at a greater risk of certain cancers- including breast cancer- blood clots, heart disease, and stroke- particularly if these drugs are taken long-term.

These oversights in preventative care place women’s fertility in a whole separate class of health care, and this preference for so-called “women’s health” over prevention of the two most fatal diseases for women as well as pre-natal screenings leads to an implicit message from the administration that the unique trait of women’s fertility is something to be controlled and medicated against instead of embraced and supported. In other words: women’s natural fertility is a plague worse than death.

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