Joe Biden Hitches a Ride With Nuns on the Bus

Recent news reports about the 2014 Nuns on the Bus initiative — a 10-state trip to encourage people to vote in the Nov. 4 midterms — are so bizarre they have me pinching myself to see if I’m really awake.

Consider this: Vice President Joe Biden flew to Iowa on Air Force Two Sept. 17 at taxpayers’ expense to help kick off the Nuns on the Bus 2014 campaign to encourage voter registration. And, according to The New York Times, he praised the sisters for fighting “like the devil” for passage of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.

He was referring, of course, to the role of Network, the sisters’ lobbying organization that sponsors Nuns on the Bus. Network played a major role in convincing Catholic congressmen to pass Obamacare in spite of the caution of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that the bill funds abortion and infringes on religious liberty. Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, leader of Network and the chief Nun on the Bus had insisted repeatedly that Obamacare would not fund abortion.

The irony of the “devil” comment may have escaped Biden and Sister Simone as they shared the limelight at the rally, but it’s hard to believe they could ignore the irony of celebrating their support of Obamacare just two days after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that more than 1,000 state exchange plans cover abortions with taxpayer money.

Of course, Biden, who identifies as Catholic, is of the Mario Cuomo “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but …” camp, so he probably was not too concerned about the GAO report. Undaunted, he told the Iowa rally that the Catholic hierarchy would be wise to listen to the nuns, according to The Times, because “guess what, they are more popular than everybody else.”

I must admit that not since junior high school have I heard advice to listen to someone simply because that person is popular. But it gets worse.

The Times also reported that on an official trip to the Vatican, Biden said he had told Pope Benedict XVI: “‘You are being entirely too hard on the American nuns,’ Mr. Biden offered. ‘Lighten up.’”

The article goes on to say that: “Last year, Mr. Biden seized on an audience with Pope Francis as another opportunity to praise the sisters who remained the target of a Vatican crackdown for their activism on issues like poverty and health care.”

That “Vatican crackdown” of course refers to the mandate to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 2012. However, the alleged “crackdown” was not for sisters’ activism on social issues as The Times suggested: It was for “serious doctrinal problems that affect many in consecrated life.”

Just as I was becoming increasingly concerned that the vice president of the United States would insert himself into internal Church matters by lobbying the popes, late in the article The Times writer finally revealed the source for these reports: The source is Sister Simone herself.

The Times also reported that Sister Simone claimed that “Obama administration officials had offered to help make her group’s case through diplomatic channels and added that the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, a Catholic whose brother is a priest, ‘is like totally into’ the nuns’ approach to the faith.”

The CDF mandate had called for a “review” of LCWR links to Network, and Sister Simone has been quite vocal in expressing her outrage at being singled out by the CDF, so it’s not surprising that she would claim that powerful people are on her side. Yet, I don’t think the Vatican was intimidated by such interference by U.S. politicians even if these incidents indeed did happen.

I can be forgiven for wondering why these stories had not come to light earlier if they are true, for Sister Simone does not have a strong track record of being factual.

She was, after all, the instigator of the notorious March, 17, 2010, letter to members of Congress, asking them to support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The letter, on Network letterhead, was signed by fewer than 60 sisters and claimed to “represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States,” which at that time was the total number of women religious in the country.

The letter came just two days after Cardinal Francis George, then president of the USCCB, had issued a statement explaining that the bishops judged the flaws in the health care bill to be “so fundamental that they vitiate the good that the bill intends to promote.”

In a conversation with Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, on March 17, 2010, that is posted on YouTube, Sister Simone flashed the Network letter and boasted that “Within 48 hours we got 60 Catholic sisters’ congregations to sign on.” In reality, the letter had the signature of fewer than 60 individual sisters, who were members of 44 of the 400-plus orders of women religious in this country.

The 48 hours Sister Simone mentioned were the two days after Cardinal George spoke, an obvious effort to counter the bishops’ statement before the House of Representatives was set to vote on Obamacare March 21. Furthermore, those two days would not have given the letter signers time to poll all the members of their own orders, let alone all 59,000 sisters they claimed to represent.

This whopper was too much for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued a news release the following day, stating that the Network letter “grossly overstated whom they represent.”

Yet, in a video shot March 21, Sister Simone smiles approvingly as she stands next to Congressman Jim Ryan (D-Ohio) who is preparing to vote for Obamacare. In the video, Ryan thanks Network for its work, saying they would not have been successful without the “59,000 Catholic nuns” who backed the bill.

Also stretching credibility, Sister Simone continues to claim that the Nuns on the Bus are not political. It is very hard to swallow that argument after she was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. Even the Huffington Post noted sister’s “Democrat-leaning agenda” won her that invitation, and The Guardian observed that the Nuns on the Bus are “an ostensibly non-partisan but indisputably liberal Catholic group.”  

It is not accidental that Sister Simone kicked off the 2014 Nuns on the Bus tour in Iowa, just three days after Hillary Clinton visited the state, whose primary caucus is the first test for presidential candidates. As Sister Simone declared at the Sept. 17 rally at the Iowa Capitol, according to The Times article: “All politics begin here in Iowa.”

Sister Simone also proclaimed at the Iowa rally that the Nuns on the Bus want to highlight the evils of “dark money” in politics. Yet, Network refuses to reveal the source of funding for the 5,000 mile Nuns on the Bus tour, which utilizes a luxury bus that normally is rented by rock stars.

According to GuideStar, the IRS 990 form for the tax-exempt entity funding Nuns on the Bus — Network Education Program — reveals that last year it took in $485,934 in contributions and grants, up from $345,752 in 2012 and $160,587 in 2011 (the year before Nuns on the Bus began).

It seems that the Nuns on the Bus method of being “nonpolitical” pays pretty well and provides cover for an aspiring 2016 presidential candidate to do a little campaigning in Iowa on the taxpayers’ dime.