Nuns, Budgets, and Buses…Oh My

The Nuns on the Bus tour ended in front of the United Methodist Church & Society Building here in DC on July 2nd. Sister Simone Campbell gave an impassioned speech invoking Catholic Social Teaching in defense of their ideas about the federal budget and criticized certain Catholic politicians for violating the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching like solidarity and preferential option for the poor. She was thrilled to be there: “I have never felt more enriched being a Catholic sister than I do standing here with my sisters today.”

This statement might not help her defend her lobbying organization, NETWORK, against the Vatican accusation that American women religious have focused more on politically liberal causes than the Church’s teaching on family or life issues. Sister Campbell has the life issue taken care of: “I really think what sisters do is hug the life into people, not out of people.”

Catholic Social Teaching itself has been an issue of contention in the budget battle for several months. Representative Paul Ryan invoked the principle of subsidiarity on behalf of his budget back in April, equating it with the conservative preference for federalism. When he came to speak at Georgetown University a few weeks later, 90 faculty signed a letter accusing Ryan of using Catholic Social Teaching for political gain when they claimed his budget had no sign of a preferential option for the poor. (Only one of these faculty members later signed a letter condemning HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ invitation to speak at Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s graduation a few months later.)

Campbell has taken this contentious tone on the road, making a “Spirit-driven” journey across the country and “turning up the heat on Congress” in the name of “faith, family, and fairness.” NETWORK has found an ally in the United Methodist Church, which has used its Church & Society building to host prayer vigils and a “liturgy” for a “faithful budget” for the few weeks leading up to the bus’ return to Washington. “The vigils are an interreligious effort to raise the voice of peoples of faith on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable among us,” said Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society. The sponsors of the vigils said they were meant to “call on God to move in the hearts of policy makers to preserve robust assistance for people in poverty.”

Rod Dreher recently posted a comment from a reader of his blog at The American Conservative about the political aspirations of mainline Protestantism that hit the nail on the head: “it’s an attempt to outsource our moral indignation so we don’t have to consider that actual moral and religious problems afflicting our own communities.”

This week, I read James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, in which he discusses how Christians have sought to “make the world a better place” and “build the kingdom” in the late modern era. Among other critiques he makes of both the Christian Right and Christian Left’s attempts to change culture, the primary issue he confronts is the mythology of political activism’s ability to re-Christianize the broader American milieu. Instead, he puts forth a theology of “faithful presence” whereby Christians are called to be the image of God and representatives of Christ in their sphere of influence and wherever they are. While this may not suddenly change late modern culture more broadly, “faithful presence” is simply being salt and light, Jesus’ command for Christians living in the world.

Catholic Social Teaching is precisely for “faithful presence” in one’s own community.  Subsidiarity certainly is not embodied in a giant federal budget and neither can be true solidarity with the poor. Sr. Campbell’s shoehorning the “gospel” into a budget debate is only a reflection of the politicization of culture at large that only, like a commenter at Dreher’s blog said, “outsources our moral indignation” and moves our attention away from our own moral shortcomings in order to blame or look for respite from the state for our social ills.

Catholic Social Teaching is well built for the nuns’ local community and not as much for budget formation in a late modern liberal democracy. To “hug life into people,” you have to be close to them.


Julia Polese is an intern with the Institute on Religion & Democracy. She graduated from Georgetown University in May and will be a Fellow at the John Jay Institute in the Fall.

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