Sister Simone Campbell, whose social justice organization, Network, sponsored the Nuns on the Bus tour protesting the Republican budget, gave Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan the what-for from the podium of Wednesday night's Democratic National Convention, leading my colleague, Joshua Holland, to tweet that she had rapped Ryan's knuckles. Ryan set himself up for the ire of the kind of nuns who minister to the poor when he tried to wrap his draconian budget in the magisterium of Mother Church.
Paul Ryan claims his budget reflects the principles of our shared Catholic faith. But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test, because it would harm families living in poverty.
We agree with our bishops, and that's why we went on the road: to stand with struggling families and to lift up our Catholic sisters who serve them. Their work to alleviate suffering would be seriously harmed by the Romney-Ryan budget, and that is wrong.
Taken at face value, that's a righteous and guileless statement. But to take Sr. Campbell's remarks at face value would be to miss the fascinating subtext of a theological war for the soul of the church, a volley of which is taking place at the podium of the Democratic National Convention.
When Sr. Campbell invoked her sisters' agreement with "our bishops," it was not without a dash of irony. When the Vatican cracked down
against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most U.S. religious orders of nuns, for focusing too much on social justice issues and "radical feminist themes" at the expense of anti-abortion and anti-gay messaging, singled out for special opprobrium was LCWR's relationship with Sr. Campbell's group.
And when the Obama administration made its "accommodation" for religious institutions on the contraception mandate that is in the regulations governing the new health-care law, Sr. Campbell expressed her approval
while the bishops howled that the administration was threatening their religious freedom, which they believe to involve their right to provide insurance to employees of major Catholic institutions that does not cover contraception. (The accommodation arrived at by the administration will have insurance companies picking up the tab for prescription contraception rather than employers.)
Among those bishops howling that their religious freedom was being thwarted by the administration is Cardinal Timothy Dolan
, the archbishop of New York, who will deliver the closing benediction tonight at the Democratic National Convention, from the same podium where Sr. Simone delivered her remarks.
Dolan was a bit of a late add to the program, having first accepted an invitation to deliver a closing benediction at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, whose nominee has joined the bishops in their laughable claim about the infringement of their religious freedom. When the appearance of politics was noted by the media, Dolan offered to do a benediction for the Democrats at their convention, an offer, reports say, that was initially rejected
. No accounting has been offered for the change of heart.
The bishops not only oppose the contraception mandate; they pretty much opposed the Affordable Care Act, the health-care reform law that became known as ObamaCare. So Obama found his Catholic imprimatur in a letter signed by 55 prominent Catholic leaders, many of them members of LCWR, as well as in the sign-off of Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association. In so doing, he exposed the powerlessness of the bishops over their own flock, and the men in the pointy hats were not amused.
So, when Sr. Simone lauded the health-care law before the Democratic National Convention, she stuck a thumb in the bishops' eye. And she found a way to do it by chiding them for their emphasis on abortion:
In Cincinnati, I met Jini, who had just come from her sister's memorial service. When Jini's sister Margaret lost her job, she lost her health insurance. She developed cancer and had no access to diagnosis or treatment. She died unnecessarily. That is tragic. And it is wrong.
The Affordable Care Act will cover people like Margaret. We all share responsibility to ensure that this vital health care reform law is properly implemented and that all governors expand Medicaid coverage so no more Margarets die from lack of care. This is part of my pro-life stance and the right thing to do.
Almighty God, Who gives us the sacred and inalienable gift of life, we thank You as well for the singular gift of liberty. Renew in all of our people the respect for religious freedom and fulfill that first, most cherished freedom. Make us truly free by tethering freedom to truth and ordering freedom to goodness.
When Dolan takes the stage tonight in Charlotte, he knows the eyes of Rome will be upon him. He will appear the day after a plain-spoken nun made it clear she would yield no quarter in the fight for the soul of the church. How or whether he will respond is anybody's guess.