Nuns on the Bus' Media Stunt Detracts From Bishops' Fortnight for Freedom


Sister Simone Campbell drums up support during a Nuns on the Bus tour stop in South Bend, Ind.
Sister Simone Campbell drums up support during a Nuns on the Bus tour stop in South Bend, Ind. (photo: Ann Carey photo)

The recently completed “Nuns on the Bus” tour garnered a great deal of publicity for the sisters involved, who claimed they were making the trip to protest proposed federal budget cuts they say would hurt the poor. However, there were many more undercurrents to the nine-state, two-week trip than most people realize.

The giant banner on their bus proclaimed, “Sisters driving for faith, family and fairness,” and a gushing media noted that the sisters’ fans along the way greeted them like rock stars. However, it turns out that the sisters who organized the June 18-July 2 tour — from the sisters’ lobbying group Network — also were driving for their own agenda.

As a Washington Post headline put it: “The Nuns on the Bus tour promotes social justice and turns a deaf ear to the Vatican.”

The Nuns on the Bus tour did treat issues of poverty, but the tour also was designed to highlight the good works many sisters do in order to respond to the doctrinal assessment by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that found numerous doctrinal errors in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The LCWR is a superiors’ organization of about 1,500 sisters who lead orders that include 80% of the sisters in the country.

The LCWR has had ongoing difficulties with the Vatican for decades, culminating in the April 18 assessment report that directed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee a reform of the organization. Network also was named in the assessment, for it is closely connected to LCWR.

Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, did admit in some press interviews that the bus trip was a reaction to the CDF assessment: “Their big mistake was naming us [Network],” Sister Simone told the Washington Post. “With all this attention, we had to use it for our mission.”

In a July 2 profile of Sister Simone, Time magazine observed, “At times Nuns on the Bus can seem like Campbell’s personal act of retaliation against the Vatican for its virtual takeover of the nuns’ leadership conference and its rebuke of Network.” Indeed, the article quoted Sister Simone: “I’ve been a faithful woman religious for over 40 years. … And some guy who’s never talked to me says we’re a problem? Ooh, that hurts.”

Likewise, it was no accident that the sisters’ two-week bus tour was timed to coincide with the U.S. bishops’ June 21-July 4 Fortnight for Freedom. The fortnight observance called for prayer, fasting, education and action to preserve religious liberty in the face of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that all employers must provide insurance coverage for sterilizations and drugs that are abortifacient and contraceptive.

The only religious exemption is for churches and does not include Catholic hospitals, schools and other institutions that serve the general public.

The Network sisters support the HHS mandate that has been rejected by the bishops, and a press hungry for sensationalism was much more inclined to cover the sisters’ public disagreement with Catholic Church leaders than to cover thousands of Catholics — including many more sisters than those on the bus — praying in churches. The New York Times called the Nuns on the Bus tour a “spirited retort to the Vatican,” and Time’s headline on its July 2 profile of Sister Simone read: “Holy Strategist: A nun takes on bishops with a bus tour and Twitter.”

The bus the sisters chartered for their trip also made for sensational photos, with its billboard-sized “Nuns on the Bus” signs, but the image did not match the reality; for rather than a busload of sisters, only two sisters made the entire trip. They were joined along the way for a day or two by a few local sisters, but never were there more than six sisters on the bus, which is usually rented by entertainers on the road and equipped for comfort, with a lounge area and a kitchen.

How did a handful of sisters on a bus get such wide media coverage? The answer might be found in the media professional who accompanied them on the bus and her employer. A perceptive blogger, Elizabeth at Laetificat, made the connection that the sisters’ media representative, Casey Shoenberger, is employed as a media relations assistant for the organization Faith in Public Life (FPL) and had worked in the associate program at Network.

According to a June 27 media advisory from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), FPL was founded with help from the pro-abortion group Center for American Progress (CAP) that is directed by John Podesta, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. The USCCB advisory said that both FPL and CAP have received funding from billionaire atheist George Soros.

The unusual USCCB advisory was issued because the bishops became aware of a memo to news media from FPL’s John Gehring “casting aspersions on the Catholic bishops and their educational project on religious liberty, the Fortnight for Freedom.” Gehring is Catholic outreach coordinator for FPL, according to its website.

The bishops’ conference advisory said: “In his memo, Mr. Gehring juxtaposes what he calls the bishops’ ‘fictions’ with his ‘facts’ — and he provides the media with ‘questions to ask Catholic bishops’ that he apparently thinks are embarrassing.” The USCCB advisory then went on to answer all the questions and show how fact and fiction are confused by Gehring himself.

Additionally, the FPL website reveals that the connection between FPL and the Network sisters goes back at least two years. On the FPL “Successes” page is an entry about the March 17, 2010, letter on Network stationery to Congress urging passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. The bishops, while supporting health-care reform, did not support that bill because it included funding for abortion and did not have adequate conscience protection. The Network letter claimed to represent all 59,000 sisters in the U.S., but was signed by only about 60 sisters.

The bishops’ conference issued a clarification about that letter the next day, explaining that the signers had “grossly overstated whom they represent” in that letter.

“Network’s letter about health-care reform was signed by a few dozen people, and despite what Network said, they do not come anywhere near representing 59,000 American sisters,” the clarification stated.

Nevertheless, the FPL website reports that in the final days of the health-care debate in 2010, FPL “worked with 60 women religious, representing nearly 59,000 nuns, who sent a letter to Congress supporting health reform and challenging misinformation about abortion provisions. With the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposing the bill, the nuns’ letter assured undecided pro-life Catholic members of Congress that supporting the legislation was in keeping with Catholic teaching, a crucial success that helped ensure passage of health reform.” FPL goes on to take credit for making sure the Network letter reached the media.

Network’s communications coordinator, Stephanie Niedringhaus, told the Register that FPL’s Schoenberger accompanied the bus tour only because she herself was unable to go due to family obligations. She said she was not aware of any funding for the tour from Faith in Public Life and said that the funding came from “a long list” of sources, with that funding still coming in.

Whatever the case, Catholic sisters who disagree with the position of the bishops make very helpful allies for anyone with a political agenda who is working to discredit the bishops’ strong stand on religious liberty.

Louann Kensinger, who attended the Nuns on the Bus “friend raiser” in South Bend, Ind., on June 21, told the Register that the tightly controlled event was “one-sided,” “like a political rally.”

Strangely, those “friend raisers” were “open to the public, closed to the press,” according to the Nuns on the Bus website. However, writers for the National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal were admitted to the South Bend event and reported on it for their publications.

Visits to the offices of local congressmen along the bus route also were tightly controlled. While those visits were listed as “open to all” on the Nuns on the Bus website, in South Bend the people who turned out to greet the bus were not allowed to accompany the sisters into the office. This writer was told by Casey Shoenberger that the sisters would report to us what transpired when they came out.

An article in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch about the sisters’ visit there on the eighth day of their trip observed that what the sisters reported about their meeting at the office of Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, did not completely reflect the actual event. Sister Simone told the Dispatch that Tiberi’s staff offered the “first substantive conversation of our visits” and that the staff agreed that more revenue is needed, but disagreed on income criteria for food stamps. Sister Simone called their conversation a “gift” because “for the first time” there was “some giveback,” “some conversation.”

According to the Dispatch: “Tiberi spokeswoman Breann Gonzalez said the congressman’s staff has a different view of the conversation but was receptive to the nuns’ concerns and did discuss the need for programs to help the most vulnerable.

“‘However, as a Catholic, Congressman Tiberi finds it ironic that during the heart of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ campaign against President Obama’s attack on religious freedom, this group did not once mention the importance of preserving religious freedom,’ she said. ‘Instead, they chose to discuss a bill [the Republican budget proposal] that has already passed the House and is virtually dead in the Senate since the Senate hasn’t passed a budget in three years.’”

So, while the Nuns on the Bus tour did highlight some of the wonderful work sisters are doing for disadvantaged people, it also played a partisan political role and enabled Sister Simone Campbell and her sympathizers to display their disregard for the teaching authority of the U.S. bishops and the Vatican.

Register correspondent Ann Carey is the author of 

Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities.