DES MOINES, Iowa – A group of Roman Catholic nuns began a nine-state bus tour protesting proposed federal budget cuts Monday, saying they weren't trying to flout recent Vatican criticisms of socially active nuns but felt called to show how Republican policies are affecting low-income families.
The tour was organized by Network, a Washington-based Catholic social justice group criticized in a recent Vatican report that said some organizations led by nuns have focused too much on economic injustice while failing to promote the church's teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage. The Vatican asked U.S. bishops to look at Network's ties to another group of nuns it is reorganizing because of what the church calls "serious doctrinal problems."
Sister Simone Campbell, Network's executive director, while the tour may appear to have been organized to counter recent criticism of social activist nuns by the Vatican and American bishops, it was not. The timing was in response to consideration of the federal budget in Congress, she said.
"We're doing this because of what's happening on the Hill," she told The Associated Press in an interview. "We're desperate to get the word out, that's why we're doing it now."
But if the 14 nuns who will rotate on and off the bus during the next two weeks weren't trying to counter the Vatican, they likely did little to ease its concerns about social activism.
The tour kicked off with a rally that had the feel of a political event. About 20 supporters brought flowers and balloons and sang, "Alleluia," as the nuns boarded a modern tour bus decorated with bright-colored graphics.
While the nuns say they aren't opposing any specific Republican candidate, they plan stops at the offices of several closely tied to the budget process, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the architect of the House-passed budget. Their first stop Monday was Rep. Steve King's office in Ames. The tour will end in Washington on July 2.
The mandate to crack down on socially active nuns upset some church parishioners who turned out to support the nuns.
"They want to bully these nuns and shut them down and tell them: 'Get back in your place, ladies.' No, it's not going to be that way anymore," said Mary Ann McCoy, of Des Moines, who attends St. Ambrose Cathedral.
She said the Vatican and bishops speaking so harshly of nuns has split the church.
"They're women of courage," McCoy said. "Back in the Old Testament they talked about prophets. A prophet is somebody who speaks for God and these are the things that God talked about — injustice, the poor, the marginalized, woman. Jesus was the greatest prophet when he went out and he shook things up a lot. Well, I think the sisters are walking the walk and talking the talk and that's what's important to us."
While the Vatican has criticized Network, church officials have not ordered a full-scale overhaul of it as is being done with another group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. After a two-year investigation, the Vatican concluded the conference had undermined Roman Catholic teaching with radical feminist themes and taken positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the all-male priesthood, marriage and homosexuality. Three U.S. bishops, including Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, have been given five years to reorganize that group.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately comment on the bus tour.
Campbell said if the Vatican would talk to her group, she could explain that it was simply continuing the work on poverty and economic injustice that has been its focus for 40 years.
Father Michael Amadeo, who attended the rally and is pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Des Moines, said that although the Vatican may have issues with Women Religious, he doesn't think the bus tour conflicts with church teachings.
"These are Catholic social teachings which we've had for decades," he said. "What they're trying to highlight both to communities as well as legislators is what our Catholic social teachers are, and they are about not only charity work but asking the tough questions. Why are these people homeless? Why are they in shelters? Why are they on food stamps? Part of our social justice teaching is asking questions about justice."
Amadeo said 300 people turned out Sunday night for a send-off prayer service for the nuns at his church. He said that's an indication of support and there are plenty of people committed to working for justice and helping the poor.
"Hopefully this will be a groundswell as it heads across the nation," he said.
Boehner's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bus tour.
King's office responded with an email faulting "the failed policies of President Obama and Nancy Pelosi," vowing to repeal the president's health care reform law and promising to pass a balanced budget amendment. The email did not say anything specifically about the nuns.
Ryan's spokeswoman also did not mention the nuns when she responded to a request for comment by sending several Internet links to interviews and opinion pieces he's written on the budget. One was published April 25 in the National Catholic Register and is posted on his website.
"Our budget ends welfare for those who don't need it, but strengthens welfare programs for those who do. Government safety-net programs have been stretched to the breaking point in recent years, failing the very citizens who need help the most," he wrote. "... We rightly pride ourselves on looking out for one another — and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn't worked."