Go, nuns!

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About a dozen nuns set out June 18 on a nine-state bus tour to promote social justice — and incidentally, to oppose Republican budget cuts that would eliminate health care and social services funding for poor families. That’s just the kind of advocacy nuns are known for, and not at all the negative, sex-focused stance that the pope wants them to take. The nuns’ bus tour makes a perfect symbol of why many of us in (or out of) the Catholic church look to them for leadership-by-example, and why the pope recently denounced them for focusing on social service and social justice instead of on opposing same-sex marriage and abortion.

Since I met my first activist nuns in Chicago, some 45 years ago, I’ve admired their total commitment to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In some of the better efforts of my life, I worked with them, marched with them, prayed with them, broke bread with them, and lived with them for a time. Back in the day, I even tried to join the School Sisters of St. Francis, but did not succeed, for which my daughters are grateful.

The Nuns on the Bus website explains, “As Catholic Sisters, we must speak out against the current House Republican budget, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). We do so because it harms people who are already suffering.” The House Republican budget slashes spending on safety-net programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. Ryan has defended his budget in a speech at Georgetown University in April and said it is consistent with his Catholic faith:

Our budget offers a better path consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith. We put faith in people, not in government.”

The Des Moines Register had a response from Nuns on the Bus organizer Sister Simone Campbell:

At a kickoff event Sunday night at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Beaverdale, Campbell criticized Ryan for saying his Catholic teachings had led him to what she described has an individualistic, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy. “The role of Catholic social teaching is to counter that individualism with a keen knowledge of solidarity,” Campbell said.

The Moyers and Company website, which is traveling with the Nuns on the Bus, had a further explanation from Campbell:

“Pope Benedict says that until people have justice you can’t give charity; justice is what is owed by society to a person, and charity is largesse above it….

We try to live in relation to people at the margins of society and lift all up for justice. Where there is one bit of injustice, we all suffer.”

From the School Sisters of St. Francis to the Nuns on the Bus to Minnesota’s McDonald Sisters, I agree with Nicholas Kristof’s verdict: Nuns “are among the bravest, toughest and most admirable people in the world.”