Sister Simone Campbell on What Drives ‘Nuns on the Bus’

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Sister Simone Campbell waves as she steps off the bus in Ames, Iowa, June 18, 2012 (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network and leader of the Nuns on the Bus. Our producer Andrew Fredericks is on the road with the nuns, and managed to squeeze this interview between visits to social service sites and congressional offices.

Andrew Fredericks: How did “Nuns on the Bus” come about?

Sister Simone Campbell: After the Vatican issued the document censuring the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and named their collaboration with Network as a problem organization, we thought, ‘how can we use this attention to be of service to the people that we care about?’ Having this much attention — we’re not used to that as Catholic sisters. It seemed like a great convergence to have this notoriety used for the sake of our mission.

We don’t know who first thought of the bus, but the idea caught like wildfire. May 14th we had the idea, and June 17th we launched the thing. It’s a miracle.

Fredericks: Why the focus on the Ryan budget?

Sister Simone: Network’s mission from its beginning is about economic justice issues. So the thing that’s utmost in our minds is the devastation being done economically through the budget fight. What will happen to programs that we care passionately about that are so effective, that really help people? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said that the budget is an immoral document. I’ve just said it’s wrong; they’ve said it’s immoral.

Fredericks: One of the things the Ryan budget would cut is food stamps, which you call “business subsidies.” What do you mean by that?

Sister Simone: Many of the people who get food stamps are working full or part-time. So from my point of view, this isn’t charity. This isn’t something that we do because we don’t like to see hungry kids. Of course, it’s wrong to see hungry kids. But the fact is, these are business subsidies. We have a choice as a nation. We can either provide a real safety net so that workers can eat, or we can mandate a living wage. It’s a choice. Part of me would much rather go after a living wage. Our choice has been the safety net, but now they want to do away with that, and they blame the people receiving the benefits. Actually, it’s the people paying low wages that are the problem. But the choice has been made to allow businesses to pay low wages, to keep costs down and increase productivity. Many of these people that are using food stamps make a little bit above minimum wage and they still are in poverty. So food stamps are a business subsidy.

Fredericks: You call Ryan out on his interpretation of Catholic social teaching. Is there room for difference on this?

Sister Simone: Well, there’s room, but he’s got to be accurate! If you read Pope Benedict’s Charity in Truth, the encyclical from 2009, it’s abundantly clear that Paul Ryan is totally off base. Charity in Truth talks about how individual justice is one aspect. Then there’s social justice, which is equally important. Individual and social justice together makes the whole teaching. Paul Ryan talks a lot about the individual. His whole budget is about the individual and about shifting money to the top. Pope Benedict then goes on to talk about responsible economics, saying that corporations are not only obligated to their shareholders — they owe a duty to their workers, to their consumers, to the earth. This is the antithesis of what Ryan’s talking about.

Catholic social teaching is all about building community together, and he’s missed that point dramatically. I wish he would talk to us.  That’s what I’d like to do is to talk to him.  I’d like to say, “How are you thinking about this? What part of your Catholic social teaching did you miss? Did you ever hear about community?” Maybe we can get a summit.  That’d be fun.

Fredericks: Tell us about your own personal journey. Who are  your greatest influences?

As a kid growing up in Southern California, my sister and I were really influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was our hero. We couldn’t understand what was going on in the South.  It seemed so horrible, watching it on the TV. My dad was an engineer, so he liked gadgets. We had an early television in the neighborhood and everybody’d come over and we’d watch the news. I couldn’t believe the courage of those black kids going to school in a white community. I couldn’t understand how a white community could be hostile to people.

And then, we had this magical camp called Camp Mariastella where there were girls from all economic sectors in the Los Angeles basin, the wealthy and the poor and tract home kids like me. I had three friends; Jennifer, Lourdes and myself — we were the three musketeers. Jennifer lived in Bel Air, in a fancy house with a swimming pool, Lourdes lived in East L.A. in a barrio, and I lived in a tract home in Long Beach. I think that whole idea of coming together beyond the usual walls and boundaries was really magic for me.

Fredericks: What does being Catholic mean to you?

Sister Simone: To me it’s that amazing history of spiritual practice, social engagement, witnessing to the fact that Jesus lives in our world now and says that there is enough if we share. The miracle of the loaves and fishes — one of the accounts says 5,000 men ate.  Well, the reason they only counted the men was the women and children knew it was the women who had brought all the food! Only the guys thought it was a miracle, the women knew it was about breaking bread and sharing it. This isn’t biblical — this is just my interpretation of it, but to me the miracle was sharing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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