Despite Vatican, nuns' bus tour targets Ryan budget

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Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, speaks during a stop in Ames, Iowa, on June 18, the first day of a nine-state Nuns on the Bus tour. –Photo: AP

A group of Roman Catholic nuns are on a U.S. bus tour protesting the federal budget proposed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville.

The nuns said they’re not reacting to recent Vatican criticisms of socially active sisters. They said they felt called to show how Republican policies are affecting low-income families.

Network, a Washington-based Catholic social justice group, organized the tour. A critical Vatican report singled out the group, saying it and other nun-led organizations have focused too much on economic injustice while failing to promote the church’s teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage. The Vati-can asked U.S. bishops to look at Network’s ties to another group of nuns it is reorganizing because of what the church calls “serious doctrinal problems.”

But Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said her group’s purpose is not to defy the Vatican but rather to influence the congressional debate over Ryan’s budget.

The tour kicked off with a rally that had the feel of a political event. About 20 supporters brought flowers and balloons and sang, “Alleluia,” as the nuns boarded a modern tour bus decorated with bright-colored graphics. Fourteen nuns were scheduled to rotate on and off the bus during the nine-state tour, slated to end in Washington on July 2.

While the nuns said they aren’t opposing any specific Republican candidate, they stopped at the offices of several closely tied to the budget process, including Ryan’s. The mandate to crack down on socially active nuns upset some church parishioners who turned out to support the nuns. “They want to bully these nuns and shut them down and tell them: ‘Get back in your place, ladies.’ No, it’s not going to be that way anymore,” said Mary Ann McCoy, of Des Moines, who attends St.Ambrose Cathedral.

She said the Vatican and bishops speaking so harshly of nuns has split the church.

“They’re women of courage,” McCoy said. “Back in the Old Testament they talked about prophets. A prophet is somebody who speaks for God and these are the things that God talked about – injustice, the poor, the marginalized, women. Jesus was the greatest prophet when he went out and he shook things up a lot. Well, I think the sisters are walking the walk and talking the talk and that’s what’s important to us.”

While the Vatican has criticized Network, church officials have not ordered the full-scale overhaul of it that’s underway with another group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. After a two-year investigation, the Vatican concluded the conference had undermined Roman Catholic teaching with radical feminist themes and taken positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the all-male priesthood, marriage and homosexuality. Three U.S. bishops, including Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, have been given five years to reorganize that group.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately comment.

Campbell said if the Vatican would talk to her, she‘d explain that Network was continuing the work on economic injustice that has been its focus for 40 years. Ryan’s spokeswoman did not mention the nuns when she responded to a request for comment. Instead, she sent several Internet links to interviews and opinion pieces Ryan has written on the budget. A piece published April 25 in the National Catholic Register is posted on the congressman’s website.

“Our budget ends welfare for those who don’t need it, but strengthens welfare programs for those who do. Government safety-net programs have been stretched to the breaking point, failing the very citizens who need help the most,” Ryan wrote. “Relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.”