McKinley: Nuns on a bus — An ecclesiastical exercise in contradiction

By Rosie McKinley

As you hit the highway for your summertime travels, you might notice a busload of nuns speeding… As you hit the highway for your summertime travels, you might notice a busload of nuns speeding across America. Don’t worry, they’re not asking for your prayers or donations. Instead, they’re bringing us an uncommon — though delightful — illustration of political compromise.

This summer, Network, a group of socially active nuns, embarked on a nine-state bus tour, planning to stop in homeless shelters and food pantries and eventually visit Washington, D.C. Contrary to the traditional image of stern, ruler-wielding Catholic schoolteachers, these nuns are a group of well-educated, boldly open-minded women. But their uncharacteristic mobility — both in mind and geography — isn’t gaining these nuns any brownie points with Church leadership: It’s putting them at odds with the Pope himself (The Vatican has recently defined them as “radical feminists”).

Their very appearance indicates that Network sisters are not your father’s grade school teachers. They have shed their stern black-and-white habits for more modern and colorful — but conservative — outfits your grandmother might find in a JCPenney catalogue. But it isn’t their costume change that has them making national news and appearing as guests on late-night TV. These women have sparked controversy because of their bold support of socially liberal programs, especially President Barack Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, and opposition of right-wing programs such as Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan.

The idea of socially liberal nuns doesn’t just sound like a contradiction — it is. We don’t often associate social progressivism with the Catholic Church. In fact, the Church has become a de facto leader of the pro-life movement, anti-gay marriage amendments and other socially conservative policies. So it is indeed surprising that a large number of American nuns have embraced socially liberal policy in the name of social justice. Sisters involved with Networkparticularly support high government spending for programs that benefit the poor. Their road trip across the nation is aimed at informing Americans on the importance of government spending for social welfare programs.

You don’t have to share their faith or political stances to admire their courage. Not only are they challenging the popular image of the male-dominated church hierarchy (female nuns are subordinate to male priests and bishops), these women more subtly challenge our perceptions of the liberal-conservative divide.

In some ways these women are very conservative, even while they promote a liberal social policy of government spending for the poor. While they no longer wear traditional habits, they nevertheless strictly follow the core teachings of the Church. While the Vatican has criticized them for their relative hush on issues like abortion and gay marriage, these women spend their lives totally committed to the basic Christian ideal of helping the poor. Nuns have become aligned with the political left in providing support to the extremely impoverished, even while Church leadership has become an ally of the political right.

These nuns have found a way to compromise. They balance the truly leftist idea of supporting the poor even while they practice the conservative lifestyle of a Catholic nun. The nuns’ example of compromise is exceedingly rare in the context of a society that acts to divide us.

In today’s America, we find ourselves in a constant state of division. We classify ourselves as liberal or conservative as if there is no room in the middle. Even our beverage choices make us either Pepsi or Coke people. There is the hipster who only drinks PBR and the jock who exclusively wears sweatpants and black socks halfway up his calf. We are told that to straddle the fence means that we are weak and indecisive. So we end up with people living on the extremes. You’re either a part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement or a spoiled brat who brainlessly abides by the system. You’re either a crazed Christian fundamentalist or a pagan homosexual. When do we hear about a gay student who is also a leader of the youth group, or a southern pro-lifer who is a part of student democrats? We’ve become a society comprised of characters from “The Breakfast Club” and no one in between.

But life isn’t as black-and-white as the habit on a nun. Rather, most of us are far too dynamic to comfortably stand on just one side of the liberal-conservative abyss that the current polarized state of American politics has established. By being socially conservative on issues like abortion yet quite liberal on government spending, these nuns illustrate that it is possible to exist somewhere in the middle ground.

Despite heavy criticism from the Vatican, these nuns’ commitment to their particular God isn’t cheapened by their focus on achieving social justice through government spending. By promoting liberal policy even as they live an extremely conservative lifestyle, these road-tripping nuns are a lesson in compromise. It’s one we could all learn from.

Write Rosie at [email protected].