Religious sisters (not nuns) finish their whirlwind bus tour today. And although there is a bus, only two sisters are technically “on” it. The proposed federal budget they’re ostensibly protesting has no chance of being passed, and the two-week, nine-state tour they’re on just happens to coincide with the dates of the “Fortnight for Freedom” declared by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, but is pointedly not connected to it.
Welcome to Nuns on the Bus, a rolling publicity campaign run by NETWORK, a lobbying group associated with politically and socially liberal causes — and Catholic women’s religious orders. Rome has found that association to be a problem. To supporters of NETWORK, that only increases the lobby’s appeal.
Fans, mostly female and gray-haired, assemble at the stops in small, happy knots. The Traveling Sisterhood of NETWORK Executive Director Sr. Simone Campbell and Sr. Diane Donoghue, both Sisters of Social Service, get off the bus with the guest sisters and supporters for the day. The media who bother to show up file fluff stories lauding the sisters as “irrepressible” (Mother Jones said “sassy”) — at once adorable and venerable, speaking truth to power.
If the powerful aren’t particularly listening, that might be because the Nun Bus hasn’t bothered to let them know they’re coming. The “press conference” I attended on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square — really a rally — was billed on the Nuns on the Bus schedule as taking place at Congressman Steve Chabot’s local office. But as it took place on Sunday afternoon and in a public plaza, he wasn’t there. When I called late Friday afternoon to see how his office planned to respond, his local communications director told me my call was “the first we’ve heard about it.” Likewise, when I called Speaker of the House John Boehner’s local office Monday morning about the 10 am stop planned there, his communications director told me they had been contacted about the visit just minutes before.
I guess everyone is supposed to already know what the sassy, irrepressible “nuns” are doing. After all, their schedule is on their web site and BillMoyers.com! Anyone who matters already knows, or ought to know.
I find the whole thing disturbing, but not in tradition of those “Uppity Women” books chronicling irrepressible women of previous centuries who set out to disturb the complacent. I am anything but complacent. The non-nuns on the bus appear almost preternaturally eager to disturb, but who is it they want to disturb?
It can’t be Rep. Paul Ryan, whose budget has no chance of passing. It can’t be the politicians who aren’t aware they’re going to be protested. It can’t be fans of Bill Moyers (who has a crew assigned to film the entire tour) — they are, one would think, natural supporters. After all, the sisters don’t demand that anyone believe anything, they simply brandish their “Faithful Budget” and say that passing it is a matter of justice. Who can be against justice? Support the sisters and you get the comfort of being moral while at the same doing and believing whatever you like. They, you can assume, do the religious part for you.
A man I met at the Cincinnati rally exemplifies this. An atheist, he showed up with a fistful of signs equating the Republican party with Satan. “I basically see religion as one of the most evil forces in the world,” he told me. “I always say I don’t have enough hate in me to be a Christian. But these sisters are different. They’re doing what everyone should do.”
It is this earnest ignorance that characterizes much of the reaction to the Nun Bus. People who have no connection to the Catholic Church regularly turn up at rallies and in online comment boxes, expressing genuine surprise and admiration that Catholic sisters — instead of doing whatever they imagine Catholic sisters do — help the poor. Apparently unaware that the Catholic Church runs more hospitals, orphanages, food pantries, free clinics, schools, disaster relief organizations, and other charities than anyone else in the world, these people are indignant that anyone would criticize what they are led to see as the few, brave, caring women in the big, bad Church.
And NETWORK likes it that way. Instead of admitting that their interpretation of Catholic Social Teaching is one of many, and that Catholics (and others) who disagree with them may be trying to solve the same social problems a different way but with equal goodwill, they purposefully equate themselves with the only possible just solution to the immense problem of poverty.
Charity, Sr. Simone told the Cincinnati crowd, is beside the point. Sprinkling her speech with the sort of buzz words popular on the political left — “investment” instead of “tax,” for instance — she claimed that even Pope Benedict XVI agrees that there can be no charity until justice is first established, a statement which would come as a surprise to everyone who ever lived in the past 2000 years as well as to anyone who has ever studied Pope Benedict.
NETWORK alone, it seems, knows how to establish justice. NETWORK alone loves and serves the poor. Bishops? We don’t need no stinking bishops! While the bishops are concerning themselves with vague, abstract concepts like religious liberty, NETWORK will concern itself with vital, abstract concepts like “social justice,” hopping in a bus and getting in the news as much as possible. While Rome may think the leadership of American women’s religious orders are entirely too entwined with groups like NETWORK, NETWORK will show Rome that it knows what America needs far more than some old white men in Italy do.
Why are they doing it? Catholics who agree with the bishops think they know. These Catholics, mostly younger, mostly pro-life, regular mass-goers, passionately interested in Trinitarian theology and thrilled with the idea of the “New Evangelization,” see NETWORK and the LCWR as having gone astray. “It’s their last hurrah,” one young Catholic told me. “They know their days are over.”
“They believe religious life is dead,” a young religious sister explained. “They think they’re ushering in something new, something to come, and they’re willing to see their orders die to bring it about.” Some of these Catholics roll their eyes in exasperation. Some laugh, like popular blogger “Fr. Z,” who finds the idea of the bus tour so funny that he chortles “Oh… how I hope this Nuns On The Bus tour never ends!”
Catholics who agree with NETWORK have a different view. These Catholics tend to be older, don’t go to Mass often, and tend to be dismissive of both the hierarchical Church and the Trinity, preferring a vague notion of God as androgynous and amorphous “Spirit.” Many equate being Christian with “living the Gospel message,” which they talk about far more than they talk about Christ. They admire the Nuns on the Bus for what they see as standing up for the marginalized (to use one of their favorite words) and for defying authority.
“There’s a division in the Church that’s only growing,” one older Catholic who sympathizes with Nuns on the Bus told me. “More and more people are saying they don’t need a medieval institution run by men who think they’re princes.” These Catholics think they’re leaving the Catholic ghetto for a larger world, a world that needs them. They see themselves as transforming the world, while the former Catholics think NETWORK and their allies are being transformed by the world — into Protestants at best, pantheists at worst.
Who is right? When examining reported apparitions and claims of miracles, the Church frequently looks at their “fruits.” What fruits do we see from the bus tour — other than division? Looking at who turns out for Nuns on the Bus, one rarely sees young Catholics, or young people at all. The three area religious freedom rallies I attended in as many months were crammed with mothers and young children, as well as with many retired people and everyone in between. I counted two young mothers at the Nuns on the Bus stop, and only a handful of other people younger than 50.
Besides the atheists and former Catholics who came out to voice their support for anyone who was doing anything nice in the world, there were Catholics who wanted to thank the sisters and nuns they know, particularly sisters who had taught them in school back in the days where sisters taught school. There were also religious sisters from various orders, women who work long, hard hours every day helping the poor.
Among the rest I recognized Janice Sevré-Duszynska, a Lexington activist and member of the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Among her more well-known exploits was showing up at the Lexington cathedral dressed as a priest and demanding to be ordained. Another was actually being “ordained” at the ceremony attended by her friend, Maryknoll Fr. Ray Bourgeois, who said he was willing to face excommunication for participating but who, several years later, continues to fight actually being excommunicated. Sevré-Duszynska carried a sign that said “Republican policies stop a beating heart.”
What other fruits do we see? News reports delighting in the sisters defying the Church, and the sisters apparently delighting in it as well. In an editorial on his blog, ACORN founder Wade Rathke crows, “It’s time to leave the church and follow the nuns!”
The Non-Nuns on the Bus set out to disturb, and I am disturbed all right. This is what disturbs me: Their evident desire to defy, to be seen as defiant, and to be lauded for defiance. With everyone from the network news to “Organizer in Chief” Wade Rathke lining up to use NETWORK as a stick to beat the Church with, Sr. Simone and friends seem quite happy to be that stick. Whether their ideas actually work don’t seem to matter as much as their ideas being theirs. And like Fr. Bourgeois, they seem to like defiance more than they like taking the consequences of being defiant.
No one, anywhere, is attacking nuns or sisters for helping the poor. It is wrong of NETWORK and the LCWR to say so. No one, anywhere, is saying religious sisters can’t believe or do anything they want to believe or do. But if they abandon the Church to do it — if they allow themselves to be witnesses, not to Christ, but to themselves — they need to stop claiming to be brave and defiant, and actually be brave and defiant. Part of standing up for what you believe in means accepting the consequences. When you belong to a Church, and the Church tells you that you need to do things differently, you either do things differently or you leave.
They don’t want to do either. But the bus tour is over. It’s back to business as usual, and I’m afraid that young sister I spoke to is right: NETWORK and the sisters sympathetic to it are waiting for something else to take the place of religious life. And they’ll keep waiting, while the Church (which has actually been remarkably patient, waiting decades to issue only the mildest of admonitions) lets them go on their irrepressible way. They will not, I predict, establish justice in the United States. They will not see their orders revive. They will not see anything new arise to take their place — what is on the rise is a more vigorous, traditional Catholicism, and an aggressive secularism that sees no good in religion at all. The poor will remain, their very existence demanding charity and mercy as well as justice. And the Church established by Christ will remain as well, not the gate big enough to drive a bus through, but the the small and narrow gate to life.