In Person: Sister Activist

By Rebecca Burns
October 1, 2012

"Politically, women have always been at the margins of
the Church. Part of our mission is to annoy the center."

Thanks to Pope Benedict, Sister Simone Campbell has
become famous. On April 18, on orders from the Pope, the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (popularly
known as the Holy Inquisition) ordered that the
Leadership Conference of Women Religious (an association
of American nuns) be reformed. An archbishop from
Seattle was given five years to change the nun’s
heretical habits, specifically their failure to join the
Church’s crusades against abortion, euthanasia and gay

One particular concern of the inquisitors was the LCWR’s
close relationship with Network, a national organization
of nuns who lobby for policies and legislation that
promote economic and social justice. As Network’s
executive director, Sister Simone Campbell (a lawyer by
training) was called on by the media to defend her
group’s social gospel ministry.

So Campbell decided to put her infamy to the service of
God. She launched the Nuns on the Bus tour and set off
across the country—2,700 miles in two weeks—raising
public awareness about the evils of the The Path to
Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal, aka the
Ryan budget.

In These Times spoke to Campbell as she was preparing
her remarks to the Democratic National Convention on
September 5. In that address she brought down the house
with the line: “An immoral budget that hurts already
struggling families does not reflect our nation’s
values. We are better than that.”

REBECCA BURNS: You’ve spent the summer traveling across
the country to highlight the moral failings of the Ryan
budget. How did you react to Mitt Romney’s decision to
choose Paul Ryan as his running mate?

SISTER CHAPMAN: I was totally surprised that he was
picked. He does a lot of smoke and mirrors and smooth
talk, but he’s wrong. He is so far from caring for all
of our nation. We’re going to try to continue to show
that his budget would devastate our nation. It’s not who
we are as a people.

REBECCA BURNS: Paul Ryan has been citing Catholic social
teaching’s principles of subsidiarity and solidarity to
justify cuts to social services, saying that individual
charity and churches can pick up the tab from
government. What do you see as the meaning of solidarity
in today’s society?

SISTER CHAPMAN: It is true that we all need to be
individually responsible, and he’s partially right that
subsidiarity involves decision-making being made at the
lowest possible levels. But he totally misunderstands
what solidarity is. He thinks that solidarity is some
sort of largesse on the part of the wealthy, but as Pope
Benedict says, you cannot have charity until you have
justice, and justice includes being able to eat, have a
roof over your head and being able to support your
family through your work. Those are the very things that
the Ryan budget would undercut. So he has a very
misinformed view of what Catholic social teaching is on
these issues.

REBECCA BURNS: And a growing number of Catholic
conservatives are challenging the traditional
applications of Catholic social teaching. What is going

SISTER CHAPMAN: They are caught in the U.S. culture of
individualism and the protection of moneyed interests.
The whole point of Catholic social teaching is to call
our culture to conversion. The challenge of solidarity
is to realize that we in the first world are the source
of much of the suffering in the third world, and that we
need to change our behaviors. It’s a moral issue and
it’s very challenging, very difficult to do that
conversion work. Yet on the other hand, it is the
only way forward as a globe if we’re going to survive.

SISTER CHAPMAN: Global warming is probably one of the
clearest examples of this. Moneyed interests would
rather not say there is such a thing, but the fact is
we’re suffering because of it. So how do we change our
behavior? It’s hard to figure it out, and it’s also
urgently important as an issue of faith.

REBECCA BURNS: In the 1970s and 1980s, liberation
theology was ascendant and the Church was connected to
movements for social justice. What do you think has

SISTER CHAPMAN: I’ve seen a visceral change. There is
now a litmus test within the Church, and you get
described as being “true Catholic” or not. It’s a
problem. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s just

REBECCA BURNS: You are getting ready to speak at the
DNC. Do you see yourself as maintaining pressure on the
Democrats around these issues?

SISTER CHAPMAN: We’re equal opportunity annoyers. I
agreed to speak at the DNC to put pressure on the party
to get on the ball. I understand that, politically, they
want to talk about the middle class. But the fact is
that the working poor are slipping into poverty and are
not able to care for their families on the wages they
earn. The wealthy keep getting wealthier. It’s about
time we shifted priorities. Everyone would be better off
if there were less wealth disparity. It’s about the

REBECCA BURNS: What do you think of the Vatican’s
criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women
Religious? What role does the Nuns on the Bus tour play
in this discussion?

SISTER CHAPMAN: Network isn’t in LCWR, but we were
mentioned in the Vatican’s critique. So we gained this
notoriety, and I wondered, “How can we use this for a
mission?” The result was the bus tour. Nuns don’t go
looking for the spotlight, but we’re always on a

Network was founded 40 years ago in response to the
Vatican’s teachings on economic justice. That’s our
mission and that’s all we do. We’re just being faithful
and using our notoriety for the sake of this work.

REBECCA BURNS: Many progressive women ask why nuns
remain in the Church, given its stance on women’s issues
and exclusion of women from the clergy. Why do you

SISTER CHAPMAN: Politically, women have always been at
the margins of the Church. Part of our mission is to
annoy the center and call for the conversion of all of
us. The reason we stay? The deepest core of me is a
spiritual being. You know, we can fight through
politics, but the deeper truth is still beyond it.

REBECCA BURNS: Do you see your work with the bus tour as
related to promoting reform within the Church?

SISTER CHAPMAN: I have enough trouble with the federal
government. I mean, the thing that people get mixed up
is that faith and the institution are really not the
same. The institution is a way of facilitating faith,
and sometimes it can become challenging. But as Catholic
sisters, we’re rooted in the Gospel, which is
deeper—it’s led us to be advocates for people in
poverty, and we’ll continue on with that.

REBECCA BURNS: Catholic voters are expected to play an
important role in this year’s election. What message do
you hope to get out to them?

SISTER CHAPMAN: This election is about the soul of our
nation. Will we be individualistic, closed up in our
gated communities, fearful of each other; or will we
reach out and choose, as I think Jesus would, to have
each other’s back? We’re not usually partisan, but the
Ryan budget has made the choice very stark. These issues
are all pro-life issues—that people have healthcare,
that people can feed their families, that we protect
life at all stages.

REBECCA BURNS: Network has also been a strong defender
of the Affordable Care Act. What do you see as the next
steps for healthcare reform?

SISTER CHAPMAN: The first step is to get this thing
fully implemented. Our big project is getting sisters to
lobby their governors to insist on full expansion of
Medicaid so that the maximum number of people can get
coverage. Once we get it at the state and local level,
we need to take the next step and make sure folks who
are left out now get included. For that, we need a
“Medicare for all” provision. Not the voucherized
Medicare that Ryan wants, but a real Medicare. That will
not be achievable easily, so we have to take it in
incremental bites and keep on expanding coverage. It’s
ridiculous that the richest nation on earth cannot take
care of its sick people.

REBECCA BURNS: Some conservatives have criticized the
work that you’re doing as being inappropriate for your
position. How does your contemplative life inform your
political engagement?

SISTER CHAPMAN: My faith has always included civil
engagement. It’s just part of who I am. And my religious
community was founded in 1923 by the first woman in
Parliament in Hungary, so we’ve always been political.
I’m really rooted in the social gospel, and I can’t
imagine seeing my work as disconnected from government.

Rebecca Burns, an In These Times staff writer, holds an
M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute
for International Peace Studies, where her research
focused on global land and housing rights. A former
editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a
research assistant for a project examining violence
against humanitarian aid workers.


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