Catholic sisters are under fire from the Vatican for being “radical feminists” more concerned about poverty and social justice than abortion and gay marriage. This criticism has been painful, disappointing and a source of alienation for many sisters. It’s also deeply troubling to many lay Catholics who admire their commitment to Gospel values. During my three decades as the social action director in the Diocese of Cleveland, I learned that women religious represent the very best the Catholic Church has to offer.
In the face of Vatican scrutiny, Catholic sisters are not retreating from their social justice mission. In fact, sisters from Network, a Washington-based advocacy organization that lobbies on Capitol Hill for those without a voice, have just hit the road for a “Nuns on the Bus” nine-state tour. They will visit Cleveland and other cities to highlight the heroic work of nuns and call for economic policies that serve the common good. Specifically, the sisters are drawing attention to how the House Republican budget, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, cuts food stamps for hungry families and threatens health care for low-income citizens while giving more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. Rep Ryan claims an economic agenda that hurts those already struggling on the margins of society reflects the values of his Catholic faith. This is more than wishful thinking. It’s flat out wrong. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has sent a series of letters to Congress calling for a federal budget that protects the poor and addresses our fiscal challenges in a responsible way. The House Republican budget proposal “fails to meet these moral criteria,” the bishops wrote.
The spotlight Catholic sisters are shining on our struggling neighbors is needed more than ever. The Center for Community Solutions recently found that one in 10Ohio children lives in an extremely poor family with an income less than half of the poverty level (the poverty line is $19,000 per year for a family of three). The prophetic voice of these sisters and their commitment to proclaim a Gospel of Life is a sign of hope for many. They remind us that the budget is a moral document and irresponsible policy choices have a devastating impact on families.
For some, this bus tour may for the first time highlight the incredible work of Catholic nuns. But in our region women religious have been at the forefront of serving the hungry, homeless and unemployed for many years. They are often the first to care for new immigrants, offer compassion to those suffering from AIDS and bring dignity to those who are developmentally disabled. When services were lacking and poverty spiked, it was the sisters who created innovative programs that provided hope and opportunities. The nuns not only established vital services for our most vulnerable neighbors; they funded and staffed them. These faithful, humble and intelligent women deserve our sincere appreciation. I’m proud to stand in solidarity with them during this difficult time.
For centuries, Catholic sisters have walked with the least, the last and the lonely as Jesus taught us. Please welcome them as their drive for “faith, family and fairness” arrives in Cleveland next week.