For all the excitement and goodwill Pope Francis generates, the doctrine he promotes leaves many women’s rights advocates feeling conflicted. Earlier this month, he surprisingly declared that Catholic priests could forgive women for having abortions, and he consistently advocates for the protection of vulnerable women, girls, and single mothers throughout the world. At the same time, he maintains traditional stances on contraception and the limited role of women in church leadership. But at least one high profile Catholic feminist—Sister Simone Campbell—says she shares plenty of common ground with the Pope. That’s not because the Religious Sister (with the Order of Social Service) shies away from dissent. In fact, defiance and faith go hand in hand when she throws herself into a cause. Take the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: when it was debated by Congress in 2010, the U.S. Conference of Bishops — the official mouthpiece of the Catholic Church in the U.S. — formally opposed the reforms in question. Not so Sister Simone. So she wrote her own letter in support of the measure, and she implored other female religious leaders to do the same. She ended up rallying enough backers to earn herself an invitation to the law’s signing.
She has also caught the attention of Susan Sarandon, who executive produced Rebecca Parrish’s documentary Radical Grace, which follows Sister Simone and other politically engaged women of the church. Sarandon, who was raised Catholic, told Variety earlier this year that while she “couldn’t stay in a church that sidelines women and the LGBT community, spirituality is still an important part of my life. I feel a deep connection to the women featured in Radical Grace, and this film will hopefully build a movement toward a more inclusive and just church, and world.”
A lawyer and lobbyist as well as a nun, Sister Simone has served since 2004 as the Executive Director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, an organization founded by Catholic women in religious orders in the years after Vatican II was adopted. Its influence continues to grow thanks to new efforts spearheaded by Sister Simone, such as the national Nuns on the Bus Tour. The premise is simple: a group of nuns on a bus travel across the country and engage Americans in spiritual dialogue about social justice issues. In 2012, the nuns toured with a focus on poverty in the U.S.; in 2013 and 2014, they addressed immigration and voter participation, respectively.
With social justice issues such as gay marriage and women’s reproductive health at the forefront of American politics, religious institutions like the Catholic Church regularly find their traditional teachings tested, scrutinized, or simply rejected. But Sister Simone finds very little conflict between her identity as a nun and her commitment to the most vulnerable members of society – in fact, for her these are deeply and naturally connected. As Pope Francis lands in the United States for his first papal visit, Women in the World shares Sister Simone’s thoughts about what it’s like to be a feminist nun, how Catholicism and progressivism can work together for women, and what the Pope’s visit could mean for all Americans.
Women in the World: Were the calls you felt to work for social justice and to a life as a woman in a religious order always somehow intertwined, or did one come before the other?
Sister Simone: They’ve always been intertwined. Jesus and Justice both begin with “J.”
WITW: How has being a woman devoted to an institution like the Catholic Church been challenging?
SS: It’s important to recognize that the sisters do a very specific type of ministry. Our charge is to walk with the people, understand the needs of our communities, and compassionately respond. In this sense, it’s been quite easy to do the work God has called me to do. Every day I advocate for those who need healthcare; for those who are working full time and are still homeless; for those who are being rejected and need community. The challenges and divisions in our communities are significant and the ministry we women provide is critical to make change.
WITW: You’re currently on your 2015 Nuns on the Bus Tour speaking about the effects of America’s partisan, polarizing politics. Describe a typical day on the tour.
SS: Every morning we wake up and start the day off in prayer. We grab a quick breakfast then board the bus. Our days are filled with encountering people in a variety of settings. We host community conversations and town halls; visit shelters and transitional housing facilities, schools, food pantries, parishes, congregations and social justice ministries; meet with legislators, Catholic sisters, faith leaders, community leaders, individuals, and families. We typically spend a day or two in each city.
WITW: Pope Francis seems to favor prioritizing social justice and care for others over the traditions that have defined the Church for centuries. What would you say has been the overall effect of his papacy on your work thus far?
SS: Both Pope Francis and NETWORK are united in our belief in a faithful approach to economic justice and political consensus that prioritizes the common good. The effect of his vision has been significant.
WITW: What are your thoughts on the Pope’s recent announcement of absolving women who have had abortions during the upcoming Year of Mercy?
SS: Having practiced family law for eighteen years and walked with women who have had abortions, I know that many experience pain and suffering. His acknowledgement of women suffering was a healing step that I was grateful to hear.
WITW: How should American Catholics think about the SCOTUS gay marriage decision?
SS: Catholic Sisters are called to take the Gospel to where it’s needed and to live and love, and to welcome everyone. This decision is an important step in extending God’s welcome to all.
WITW: What is your advice to spiritually faithful women worldwide who find traditional teachings of their religious institutions to be at odds with their personal beliefs?
SS: The Spirit is so much more profound than the rules of frightened leaders. We need to keep on journeying into the truth that we are all connected, we’re all one, and that truth will set us free — and our frightened friends.
WITW: What do you hope the Pope’s strongest message to Americans will be during his visit to the United States next week?
SS: I know that Pope Francis’s visit cannot be about the fine points of policy. Rather, what Pope Francis stirs in me is the hunger to come together across the political chasms to address the crying needs of our time. The urgency of the global crisis of exploitation of people and our planet challenges us to set aside partisanship and find the courage to be our better selves. This is one of his most important messages to our country and world.