'Ask the Holy Spirit'

by Michael O'Loughlin

NCR Contributor

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What's next for Sr. Simone Campbell?

Sr. Simone Campbell wasn’t a well-known entity until one day, when, quite suddenly, she was.

The savviest K Street consultant could never have planned the events that thrust NETWORK, the DC-based social justice lobby Campbell leads, into the national debate on the role of government.

Two years ago the Vatican released a Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). It concluded that the group representing 80 percent of U.S. nuns spent too much of its efforts on social justice concerns and not enough on church teachings on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. It accused the group of focusing on “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The eight-page document called for a review of LCWR's link to other organizations. One group stands out prominently: NETWORK.

Campbell heard the news while on retreat in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Her communications director told her that NETWORK had to be ready for an onslaught of media inquiries. Before she decided how to respond, she listened. Each morning, she told Global Sisters Report, she reflects on scripture and listens for answers. That day was no different.

The 68-year-old Campbell, a skilled political operator, decided that rather than become defensive, she would respond to the report’s criticism by highlighting the good work she and her colleagues were championing.

“I was trying to figure out how to deal with all that notoriety with the censure. And what came to me was, ask for help. We had too small of an imagination, that’s what I heard. And that resulted in the bus,” she explained.

Nuns on the Bus was a nine-state tour for Campbell and other sisters, from Iowa to Washington, D.C., to speak out against proposed cuts in Congress to social welfare programs. They listened to the stories of people who had been left behind in the sluggish economy. They took their lobbying shop on the road.

And something else happened, too.

Everyday Catholics rallied around the nuns. They thanked the women for their work at each stop. If the Vatican had wanted to silence NETWORK, it failed.

In 1964, Campbell joined the Sisters of Social Service, the community of Catholic women founded by Sr. Margaret Slachta in 1923. The founder believed, perhaps unsurprisingly, as she was Hungary’s first female member of parliament, that legislative change is the most effective form of social activism.

After graduating from Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, Campbell went on to earn a degree in law from the University of California, Davis, in 1977– a time when there weren’t a lot of women training to be lawyers. While there, she was editor of the UC Davis Law Review.

A year later, she founded and led the Community Law Center in Oakland, Calif. She practiced family law and fought cases on behalf of those who otherwise would have no advocate. Her clients included poor single mothers and neglected children.

She then served as general director of her religious community, leading her sisters in the United States, Mexico, Taiwan and the Philippines from 1995 to 2000.

Campbell told GSR that she saw her role during that time as “priestly,” an experience she describes in her new book, A Nun on the Bus, out this month. She was quick to note she isn’t comparing her experience with the exclusively male-ordained Catholic priesthood, which she says she doesn’t want, but nonetheless says she felt that she was filling a certain priestly role.

“I was ordained by my sisters in that moment, in those five years, and that’s actually what ordination was in the beginning. And that we’ve so institutionalized it and narrowed, that we’ve lost sight of its spiritual role,” she said.

It’s language like that – challenging convention all the way to the very edges of orthodoxy – that has won her praise in some circles, and suspicion in others.

But her critique of power structures doesn’t stop at the church. In fact, Campbell’s passion is most evident when talking about those who live on the margins of society, both here and abroad.

In December 2002, just three months before the United States invaded Iraq, Campbell visited Baghdad. In her role as leader of JERICHO, an anti-poverty coalition of religious leaders based in California, she co-signed an open letter addressed to the American people. It said, quite simply, “War is not the answer. We must seek a path to peace.”

Following the 2012 bus tour, in early September, Campbell was granted one of the most coveted spots on television, a prime-time address at the Democratic National Convention

Catholics sometimes accuse bishops of being too closely aligned with the Republican Party. When asked if that charge could be leveled against Campbell, though of course, in her case, with the Democrats, she admitted that her message is more aligned with Democratic priorities, but she rejected the notion that she is a shill for the party.

“If you listen to my speech, I did not endorse the president,” she said. “I sent in a speech I wrote, and [party organizers] sent back a political speech. And I said, ‘If you want a political speech, get a politician. I’m happy to give up my slot.’”

The party backed off, and Campbell delivered the speech she wanted.

“I told them that I needed to say I was pro-life, lift up the stories from the bus from the folks who struggle, and say that there’s a big tent and all are welcome,” she said.

In fact, her line characterizing the expansion of Medicaid as a “pro-life” issue gained perhaps the loudest applause of her speech.

Campbell is a lobbyist, but her clients aren’t oil company executives or Wall Street bankers.

Instead, they’re people like Margaret, a woman, she recalled, who died because she didn’t have health care to treat her terminal illness. Or the teacher’s aide who has been homeless since Hurricane Katrina desolated New Orleans, destroying her apartment.

She keeps little slips of paper with her clients’ names and stories written on them in her personal bible, carrying it with her as she meets with lawmakers in the ornate, marble hallways of the U.S. Capitol.

“I have one whose husband has just gotten diagnosed with third stage cancer of some kind; they have two little kids, they had just gotten health insurance on the (Affordable Care Act’s) exchange, and they weren’t excluded for a preexisting condition. Folks who have been unemployed for a long time,” she said.

On a snowy day in late March, Campbell was seated behind a panel-table in a meeting room at the Capitol. She was hosting an information session for Congressional staffers two days before President Obama’s visit to the Vatican.

The group she assembled wanted to highlight some of Pope Francis’s ideas on just economies, with the hope that the staffers would share their notes with their bosses.

Speaking to about 40 people, Campbell recounted her stories from the bus and begged the staffers to get their bosses out on the streets, meeting with struggling constituents.

She said that Pope Francis was challenging 100 percent of society – she rejects the 99 percent against the 1 percent dichotomy – to find ways to care for the poor and asked the audience whose stories found their way through the halls of power.

“The question for your offices, for members of Congress,” she said, “is, what are the stories, whose stories, do I listen to?”

Recognizing the reality of political appearances, she suggested that members of Congress jealous of the pope’s popularity – Francis was TIME magazine’s person of the year while Congress has an approval rating in the single digits – might mimic his style.

“It could be a good medium for your member of Congress to follow in Pope Francis’s footsteps and walk out into the neighborhoods, or into those places where people are often on the margins,” she said.

It’s Campbell’s ability to combine effective political tactics with a morally compelling mission that wins her fans.

“It's unusual to find a policy wonk who is also a charismatic moral leader,” John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a progressive advocacy group in Washington, told GSR. “Sr. Simone is as comfortable leading a spiritual meditation as she is directing a legislative briefing.”

Her allies on Capitol Hill agree.

Last month, on a conference call lambasting Rep. Paul Ryan’s latest budget proposal, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, called Campbell her “heroine” and “a champion of the humble, the vulnerable and the poorest of families.”

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi highlighted Campbell’s ability to tell the stories of those struggling.

“Sister Simone sways lawmakers and leaders with an abiding faith in her values, with a message that travels from the pulpit to the people, with the powerful stories of our constituents and American families,” Pelosi wrote in an email.

But as anyone who’s ever argued about politics, or religion for that matter, knows, it’s not all adulation in this field. Some fellow Catholics criticize Campbell’s role in the church.

Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., wrote in a 2010 column for the Catholic Herald that, “The Lord Jesus Christ, unworthy though the bishops are, called the bishops to lead the people in faith; He did not call anybody in the Catholic Health Association and he did not call any of the Sisters in Network,” denouncing the CHA’s and NETWORK’s support for the Affordable Care Act.

Bishop Morlino jumped to the defense of Ryan, a target of Campbell’s bus tour, after other Catholic bishops said his budget ideas “rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”

Others criticize Campbell for not speaking out forcefully enough on abortion issues.

Stephen P. White, Fellow in Catholic Studies at the D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, criticized Campbell’s response to a journalist who asked her if all abortions should be legal. She said she didn't know, that it was, “beyond my pay grade.”

“This is astounding,” White wrote in 2012 column in the National Review. “In Sister Simone’s moral universe, there is only one just policy when it comes to government spending on social programs (more of it), but the undeniable implications of an unchanging Catholic principle – namely the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” – are beyond her pay grade.”

Back in Campbell’s office, one thing is evident: her access to power, highlighted by the photographs she keeps on her walls.

Mixed in with her diplomas, awards and reminders of her early years as a family advocate in California, there’s a photo of her smiling with Kathleen Sebelius, the outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services charged with implementing the president’s controversial healthcare law.

She’s also smiling with Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Jimmy Carter.

Another stands out, for it captures Obama’s fondness for Campbell.

“The president so surprised me, because he was standing behind me and he puts his hands on my shoulders and holds on really tight, and I was like, whoa!” she said, laughing.

Her influence was on display last summer, when she was one of four witnesses to testify in front of the House Budget Committee. Seated in front of Ryan, frequently her political target, she lamented that the House had just failed to pass additional funding for nutrition programs for low-income children.

“From my perspective, cutting SNAP (food stamps) is wrong morally and is not in keeping with the actual facts about the program,” she said.

On March 5, she appeared at a Washington event alongside Sen. Barbara Boxer, Democrat from California, calling for an increase in the minimum wage.

A week later, she took her minimum wage campaign back to the Hill, this time as a witness in front of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee.

But for all her access and influence, Campbell isn’t getting comfortable.

When asked what’s next for her and NETWORK, she smiled big, thought a moment, and exclaimed, “Ask the Holy Spirit!”

She said there’s so much to do, and mentioned that they are working “extremely hard” on immigration reform, hoping for an unlikely legislative victory sometime this spring.

In A Nun on the Bus, Campbell lays out her vision for her next big project, what she calls “the bigger issue of civic engagement.” Listening to her speak, it’s clear that she laments society’s inability to engage in dialogue, to have a conversation about the great challenges facing the poor.

“In a democracy we are required to work together,” she said. “That’s the nature of democracy, it’s about the 100 percent coming together to form this more perfect union. What’s abundantly clear to us is that we have to have a civil conversation about where we're going as a nation and the current direction of polarization is not good, for anybody.”

[Michael O’Loughlin is a writer based in Washington, DC. He’s written for National Catholic Reporter, America, Foreign Policy  and the Advocate, and he has appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.]

Related: Q & A with Sr. Simone Campbell