The Sisters of Saint Joseph are waiting for a bus, glistening ever so slightly as they stand in the near-100-degree heat of a late June afternoon, huddled under a couple of pine trees that border an asphalt parking lot in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. The blocky, charmless building the lot services is home to the district office of Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, a Tea Party Republican, and the bus the sisters are waiting for isn’t any old municipal four-wheeler. The Nuns on the Bus are coming to town.
Earlier in the month, a rotating cast of nuns led by Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of a social-justice lobbying group called Network, set out on a two-week, nine-state tour of the country to protest the radical cuts to social services included in Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget, approved by the GOP-led House and supported by his soon-to-be running mate, Mitt Romney. The tour is something of a calculated guilt trip—every stop is coordinated to confront Catholic lawmakers or Republican leaders who voted for the legislation. “Reasonable revenue for responsible programs” has become the slogan of the Nuns on the Bus, one that Campbell and the sisters chant to the crowds that greet them at every stop.
Fitzpatrick’s district, centered just outside of Philadelphia in Bucks County, is an idyllic suburban scape dotted with gabled Victorians and Phillies bumper stickers. It’s also a Catholic stronghold—66 percent of the county belongs to the church. Sympathy for American nuns has been running deep since April, when the Vatican issued a harsh doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest association of sisters in the U.S. The group was admonished for promoting what the Vatican called “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” an allusion to the nuns’ refusal to stand down from their support for, among other things, ordaining women as priests.
By 3 P.M., the crowd has grown to a few dozen when a sleek bus pulls up with a motif featuring happy children, blue skies, and “Nuns on the Bus” in massive lettering. From it emerge four women in boxy suits—the kind you might get off the rack at a deep-discount department store—led by Campbell, a trim woman with the smile-worn eyes of a 66-year-old extrovert. She waves to the fans, who cheer like they’re at a rock concert—if rock concerts were played to geriatric throngs sporting walkers, bucket fishing hats, and high kneesocks.
Half an hour later, when the sisters emerge from their meeting with the congressman’s staff, everyone clusters around a small wooden podium that’s been set up in the parking lot. As local-TV cameras jostle against homemade banners—“We Love Nuns With Sense”—Campbell presides over a rally. “In the richest nation on earth we are not bankrupt,” she proclaims in a chirpily authoritative voice. “That’s just the truth. The only way we’re bankrupt is in political will.” Campbell gamely answers the crowd’s shouts and deflects their questions about the Vatican controversy before turning over the microphone to locals who offer testimonials about what the Ryan budget would mean in their lives. A community-college student talks about the cycle of student-loan debt he’s stuck in. “They keep moving the goal post!” someone shouts. An elderly diabetic speaks about what Ryan’s cuts to Medicare would do to him. Campbell, arms crossed, head down, listens intently, nodding. She enfolds each speaker in a hug when they’re finished.
“As Catholic sisters, we’re all about being with people at the margins,” Campbell says after the rally, catching a quick rest inside the frigidly air-conditioned bus before heading to a “friendraiser” event in Philadelphia. That, she says, is why the nuns are under fire from the Vatican. “Sisters are the grass roots, and our mission is to be with folks at the edge, and that mission includes being moderately annoying to the center.”
The sisters have become the most visible part of what some call a “civil-rights movement” within American Catholicism—an expanding coalition of activists bent on reforming the church from within and changing the public’s perception of it as a solely conservative force on social issues. The Nuns on the Bus’s progressive politics and spunky persona fly in the face of the dour, scolding visage of the church as most Americans know it—one represented most frequently in the media not only by Pope Benedict XVI (nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler”) but also by cable-news regular Bill Donahue, president of the ultra-conservative Catholic League. Within the coalition, Network, a 40-year-old organization, focuses on economic, immigration, and health-care reform, while Catholics for Choice, also four decades old, represents the majority of American Catholics who believe in birth control and abortion rights. On the church-reform side of the movement, DignityUSA organizes LGBT Catholics, while Voice of the Faithful supports victims of sexual abuse by priests. Other groups, including Call to Action and FutureChurch, encourage the church to ordain women and married men and to listen to the laity.
Although their areas of advocacy differ, these activists share a view of Catholicism as a fundamentally open and compassionate religion; they point to the life of Christ and assert that the church began as a progressive institution. Egalitarian principles have long been part of the American Catholic tradition as well, going back to the first schools opened in America’s inner cities by pioneering priests and nuns. They argue that the church should take its cues not just from the bishops and cardinals who’ve moved it further right in recent decades but from the laity, whose views on many social issues diverge sharply from doctrinal teaching.
“Some people leave the church because you’re just driven nuts,” says Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “Every time you open the newspaper you see another crazy thing from the bishops, or you’re LGBT and you’re hurt and you really feel excluded, that you might as well go off and join a community of Unitarians where you’re going to get a hug every Sunday and someone really means it. I understand why people do that, but there’s the rest of us, and the rest of us—which I believe is the majority—we actually don’t believe in going anywhere.”
If Catholic” were a corporate brand, the image consultants would have been called in a long time ago. In the cultural landscape of 21st-century America, the church has become one of the country’s most vocal naysayers, a stolid institutional power obsessed with turning back the clock on social, especially sexual, mores. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ vociferous backlash against the Affordable Care Act—because it mandated that birth-control costs be included in health-care coverage—exemplified that stance and illustrated the gulf between the hierarchy and the laity. An overwhelming majority of American Catholics—82 percent—believes contraception to be morally acceptable. Fifty-one percent say that President Barack Obama’s views on social issues, including abortion, best reflect their own; 34 percent of Catholics share Mitt Romney’s social views.
Not long ago, to be Catholic in America was, by and large, to belong to a close-knit, ethnically ghettoized community. For generations of immigrants, local parishes were the center of life from birth to death: Nuns schooled you, church mixers found you a spouse, and the parish priest stuck a lily in your casket. Thanks to large waves of Irish and Italian immigrants during the late 19th century, the church found itself at the heart of middle-class struggles during the country’s maturation into an industrial power. Though it gave rise to figures like Father Charles Coughlin, who aired his anti-Semitic, anti–New Deal politics on a wildly popular national radio show during the 1930s, American Catholicism also fostered political progressivism, from Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement to Cesar Chavez’s organizing on behalf of farm laborers. Although Latinos make up 32 percent of today’s American Catholics, the preponderance of Catholic reform activists are third- and fourth-generation Americans, descendants of the country’s first spike in Catholic population more than 150 years ago. Now that they are safely assimilated into American society, the parish church no longer forms the core of their world, making formal disagreement with the institution a less complicated undertaking.
John Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state—given in response to fears that he would take orders from the pope if elected president—codified the approach American Catholics have tended to take toward faith and politics. “I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me,” then-Senator Kennedy told a group of ministers in Texas. “Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with … what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”
But as lay Catholics’ views on the social issues cited by Kennedy continued to merge with the American mainstream over the next 30 years, the church began backtracking from the reforms of Vatican II. That historic council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1962 with the aim of adapting the church to the modern era, and it produced such changes as abandoning the Latin mass for a service performed in the vernacular, a move that symbolized a greater emphasis on laity participation. The retrenching began almost immediately—John XXIII’s successor, Pope Paul VI, issued Humanae Vitae, a church encyclical against birth control, ignoring the directives of a secret Vatican commission of married laypersons who had voted to approve the use of contraception. The conservative turn became even more pronounced during the tenure of Pope John Paul II. The Polish pontiff’s easy smile, public warmth, and solidarity with anti-communist movements made him a beloved figure; it also distracted attention from his leadership in guiding the church in a more reactionary direction. The conservative drift wasn’t only seen on reproductive rights. In 1994, John Paul II issued Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, a proclamation reserving priestly ordination to men alone. The teachings contained within the statement were declared to be infallible. Most American Catholics disagree. In a 2010 CBS News/New York Times poll, 59 percent favored ordaining women.
Despite the more progressive views of the lay majority, public discussion of Catholicism in America has remained focused on the sentiments of the institutional hierarchy and the conservative elements in the church—voices like those of Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum, who pointed to his Catholicism as the reason he, if elected president, would confront “the dangers of contraception” and who said that when he read JFK’s speech on church-state separation he “almost threw up.”
There is little room for publicly dissenting voices among the leadership. “Men of God who sit as bishops are absolutely imprisoned by such scrutiny that they would never be able to say maybe what’s on their mind,” says Jim FitzGerald, executive director of Chicago-based Call to Action, which advocates greater lay involvement in church decisions. “That’s the climate.”
Although any sympathizers FitzGerald might have in the hierarchy are bound to an implicit code of silence on views that might veer from orthodoxy, that doesn’t stop church-reform activists from trying to bend the institution when it comes to matters of ministry. Concerned by the shortage of priests, many see the ordination of women and married men as a pragmatic solution to a problem that has dogged the church for the past few decades.
“There are those that will say the church doesn’t have the authority to ordain women because Jesus did not ordain women,” FitzGerald says. “Jesus didn’t ordain men or women. This was something that developed later in the early years of the church. Women were leading religious communities and ministry to people in a very priestly way.”
For Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, which advocates female ordination, the challenges of living as a progressive in the church come daily. “What does [theologian] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza say?” she asks rhetorically. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” That, she says, is a view that needs to be articulated within a church that has been run by a passel of male priests for centuries.
Nobody swims against stronger currents of orthodoxy than Jon O’Brien and Catholics for Choice. His group is, in many ways, the ultimate dissident Catholic organization as it challenges the church’s most strongly held cultural stance. “Abortion is not outside the realm of most Catholics,” O’Brien says. “Catholic women have abortions as much as women of other faiths or no faiths do.” Like other Catholic reform groups, Catholics for Choice advocates for a church that better reflects the realities of its members’ lives—and also one that respects a Catholic tradition they believe has been undermined in recent decades. O’Brien, like Campbell and the other progressives, describes his dissent as fulfilling a Catholic obligation of conscience in the Augustinian mold. Saint Augustine’s fifth-century writings on the individual’s conscience as the primary connection to God are foundational documents to today’s catechism of the Catholic Church. That obligation of conscience should be applied to reproductive issues, O’Brien argues. “I think people in good faith make a difficult decision sometimes to have an abortion,” he says. “But the final arbiter in moral decision-making is your conscience. While there’s rules and regulations, it’s important to remember that Catholicism is much more complicated than that.”
Earlier this year, Bill Keller, a Catholic of the disillusioned variety, wrote in his New York Times column that reform-minded Catholics should simply leave the church. “If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience,” he wrote, “then go.” Many already have. Despite the large influx of Catholic Latinos in the past few decades, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Catholic has declined from a high of 29 percent in 1983 to 21 percent in 2010.
It’s fair to ask why progressive Catholics don’t exit through the back sacristy for the calmer pastures of other Christian denominations. But the Church’s grassroots activists are determined to change the popular perception of Catholicism—away from pedophile priests, bankrupt dioceses, and censorious bishops. At the same time, they aim to challenge the priorities of the hierarchy from within. Social and economic justice, they say, has always been at the core of the American Catholic tradition, and these issues deserve greater attention from the bishops and Vatican.
Translating the black-and-white moral teachings of the church into the shades-of-gray reality of the modern world can be a deeply confounding trial of conscience. The question of adhering to the faith is one that persists, lingering in the air like high-altar incense whenever two or more progressive Catholics are gathered. For Catholic women, the question bears even greater meditation: Their bodies are the battlefield, and they bear the brunt of belonging to a two-millennia-old patriarchy. But those who keep the faith, like Campbell, see the idea of the church as a human one—tragically imperfect but with divine intent. “I believe what Paul says: That in the body there are many parts and just as the parts work together, everybody has their place. I’ve got my place. Happens to be working on the federal budget,” she says. “I might just be a toenail or something on the body of Christ.”
To be part of the church is, for many, to be a member of a dysfunctional family: one that hurts its own most egregiously but which is difficult to quit, whether for reasons of upbringing or enduring faith. American nuns are only the most recently afflicted member of the family, and the Nuns on the Bus are the appealing face of a movement unused to attention. Most progressive activists, like Schenk of FutureChurch, soldier on in relative anonymity. Not long ago, she sat in her modest Cleveland office. In the next room over, middle-aged women stuffed boxes with pamphlets on females in the lectionary to the tune of “Cracklin’ Rosie” on the radio. Schenk reflected on why she, like so many others, stays and fights for change within an institution that so adamantly refuses to budge.
“It’s my church too,” she says. “I am the woman I am today because of the Catholic Church. I love this church too much to leave it, to leave it to what I think its worst elements are.”
This article was originally published by The American Prospect.