TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The religious sisters of the social-justice activist organization Network have hit the road again with their second "Nuns on the Bus" tour, this time touting immigration reform, an issue on which they and the U.S. bishops strongly agree.
In contrast to last summer’s tour, which coincided and appeared to compete with the U.S. bishops’ "Fortnight for Freedom," the nuns and the bishops are on the same page this time, standing behind the "Gang of 8" immigration bill.
Last summer, while the bishops sought to spotlight religious-liberty concerns about the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate, the sisters from the social-justice lobby were turning their attention — and that of the public — to Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, decrying its cuts to social programs.
The trip’s timing also gave Network a platform for promoting the charitable works of American religious sisters when the Vatican’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the apostolic visitation/"Doctrinal Assessment" of women religious in the United States were in the news.
The Vatican assessment, which said the "current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern" and instructed that reform of the LCWR be undertaken to correct these problems, noted the close relationship between the LCWR and Network.
One paragraph of the Vatican assessment specifically referenced documentation about the attitude of the LCWR, Network and another organization associated with the LCWR, the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, toward life and family issues. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, provided the documentation.
"The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States," the assessment stated. "Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching."
Sister of Social Justice Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director and the leader of the "Nuns on the Bus" initiative, delivered a keynote address at last September’s Democratic National Convention in support of President Barack Obama.
In her remarks, Sister Simone criticized Republicans for failing to acknowledge the shared responsibility of Americans to care for their neighbors through federal government programs. She applauded the president’s economic, health care and Medicaid policies.
"This is part of my pro-life stance and the right thing to do," she said.
After the 2012 bus trip, Sister Simone thought the group would never do another. But she said of the new tour, "When we knew we had a clear opportunity for immigration reform, and we really needed to stand up with our brothers and sisters, it seemed like a bus tour was the right thing to do."
Shared Views on Immigration
Agreement with the bishops on immigration reform is not new for Network. The group is one of about 16 members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants Coalition, having joined years ago, said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the USCCB. The relationship between coalition members and the bishops is mainly one of information sharing, he said, adding that members do not help determine policy.
Appleby said that, although the bishops support the immigration bill, they would like to see some improvements, including a faster track toward citizenship and accessibility for more people through a more generous cut-off date and lessening of fines and income and employment requirements. Still, he said, "if it were to pass today unchanged, we would support it."
Sister Simone agreed that no bill is perfect, but she said it has merit. "The Senate bill is such a huge step forward for our nation ... that it’s worth it to push hard for it."
Toward that end, Network started its three-week bus tour May 28 in New Haven, Conn., with plans to cover 6,500 miles and 15 states over three weeks, ending June 18 in San Francisco. Twenty-nine nuns are participating in the tour, but the number on the bus varies with each stop.
On June 4, in Tallahassee, Fla., for example, Sister Simone said the tour had "a full complement of 10." The tour also travels with several support staff, including Casey Schoeneberger, media relations associate for Faith in Public Life, who served as the 2012 tour press liaison.
Funding for the tour comes from multiple foundations, according to Stephanie Niedringhaus, Network’s communications coordinator, who said she did not know the total cost for renting the bus, fuel, materials and other expenses.
In a May 29 column, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights alleged that the tour is being funded by Organizing for Action, a nonprofit group set up to support President Obama’s agenda.
Donohue cited an email he received from Sister Simone about a stop in Jersey City, N.J., that said, "We’re proud to have the support of Organizing for Action." The email said it had been paid for by OFA and included a line below Sister Simone’s signature asking for money for OFA.
Niedringhaus said "support" referred to the organization’s support for the message "Nuns on the Bus" is advancing. The tour has received no money from OFA, she said, nor is it soliciting money for the group. She said Network supplied the text of Sister Simone’s email to a number of mailing lists and that OFA in turn sent out that message under its own name.
Donohue said he is not convinced the group is not accepting or raising money for OFA. "No organization unaffiliated with the Catholic League would ever dare submit a letter with my name on it to a mailing list designed as a fundraiser without my consent."
The continuing connection between the bus initiative and the Faith in Public Life group is also troubling for some Catholics.
In a commentary posted at CatholicCulture.org, Stephanie Block criticized Faith in Public Life’s exclusive focus on "social and economic justice" and its affiliation with numerous abortion-rights and homosexual-rights groups.
Said Block, "Thus, the Catholic Church and Faith in Public Life are working at cross purposes."
Sister Simone said this year’s tour route, which is longer than the one in 2012, was inspired by her "poetic vision" of beginning at Ellis Island in New York and ending at Angel Island in San Francisco, the "Ellis Island of the West."
In between, the tour is stopping at churches, legislators’ offices and other sites, holding rallies and "friendraisers," such as one in Lawrenceville, N.J., where Trenton Bishop David O’Connell, former president of The Catholic University of America, spoke. The group is visiting lawmakers to thank some like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for their support and to ask others for their votes.
While the tour was in Washington May 30, Sister Simone was assured of Obama’s support for the bill during a visit to the Oval Office. She said they talked only of immigration reform and no other issues.
"The reason he wanted to meet with me was to make sure I knew he was committed to the bipartisan solution to this really challenging problem we are facing in this nation," she said. "He wanted me to know he had read our materials and that he, as a person of faith himself, understood the need to welcome the stranger."
This year’s tour has been especially intense, Sister Simone said, because of encounters with people personally affected by current immigration law. For example, she said, in Charlotte, N.C., a couple who had seen her on the news drove 18 hours from Pennsylvania with their daughter to seek help with expired temporary visas.
Sister Simone said she had tried to connect the couple with legal help, but discovered at a stop in Greenville, S.C., that they had followed the tour. "At the end of this beautiful prayer and conversation at St. Anthony Padua Church in Greenville, they stood up and begged for help. They were so distraught and so certain I could help them."
What followed, she said, was an emotional time of prayer in which everyone in the church extended their arms around the family as they stood in the center aisle. "With that, they were able to relax a little bit, and they got some good connections in Greenville so they could get help. They know God cares for them."
Sister Simone said that, because this year’s tour is going through the South, which is not heavily Catholic, she expected smaller groups to turn out. However, she said that several hundred people consistently have shown up.
Along with supporters, the tour has run into protesters, Sister Simone said. In one town, she said, "There was a persistent group of four who described themselves as tea party people, who were upset that we were trying to change laws. Part of that group also was upset that we were doing immigration and not abortion. The part that broke my heart was, much as I talked to them, they couldn’t see that this is a pro-life, pro-family issue."
Asked whether "Nuns on the Bus" would take up an issue like abortion in the future, Sister Simone said, "We’re pro-life, so it’s possible. The thing is, at Network, our issues have been economic-justice issues and not gender-sexual issues, but if there is an opportunity, we’re pro-life, so I’m not saying No."
Judy Roberts writes from
Catholic News Agency
and Register staff
contributed to this report.