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Feminism & Faith: An Interview with Sister Simone Campbell

Faith and religion can often be a dividing force in American politics.  Nobody knows that better than Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, and ringleader of the “Nuns on the Bus.”  The Nuns faced censure from the Vatican a few years ago after Pope Benedict became concerned that the Sisters were spending too much time aiding the needy and not enough time persecuting gays and protesting abortion.  Already a champion of the vulnerable, she has thrown the weight of her organization and the newfound fame brought on by their conflict with the Vatican behind progressive causes like fighting poverty, promoting universal healthcare, and opposing the Ryan budget.   WRUN sat down with Sister Simone to talk about Pope Francis, women’s leadership in faith communities, and the progressive nature of Christianity.


Sister Simone on CNN’s “Amanpour”

WRUN:  So, a lot of people are surprised to find out about you and the Sisters, that you are these “radical feminists” and progressives.  You lobbied for the ACA, testified before Congress to keep our safety net intact.  It seems that in our culture, when you say “religion,” especially “Christianity,” people immediately associate you with hardline conservatives. 

SS:  Oh my gosh, that’s certainly true of politics!  I mean, that’s historically been one of the challenges, to be a progressive and a person of faith in politics.  I mean, it’s like “how could you possibly be that, you’re like a traitor!”  You say “religion” and people assume the far right, as opposed to a deeply spiritual place.

WRUN:  It does seem that the right seems to feel that they have some kind of a lock on moral authority.

SS:  Right, but we let ‘em do that.  That’s the thing that’s annoying to me, is that I backed off speaking religion for a while, and it was because I didn’t want to be identified with the right.  But then that ceded ground to them.  And I shouldn’t have, I don’t think.

WRUN:   You wrote this great article about Pope Francis in Time magazine last fall, and it does seem like you share a little bit of a wavelength with him about what the Church’s mission ought to be about.  Have you been happy in general with the leadership you’ve seen from him so far?

SS:  Absolutely.  I’m a progressive so I’ll never be totally satisfied, but I think that the amazing thing that he is doing, is that he’s living his faith, from the inside out… That’s huge!  He is not a fearful person at all, he trusts the spirit is alive and living among us, and he acts accordingly.  I mean, it’s a challenge.  The November Exhortation was a challenge to everybody.  It’s a challenge to progressives, and it’s a challenge to conservatives.  Because what he says there is, “We cannot be satisfied with the safety net.  What we must do is change the structure of our economy so that all will benefit and no-one is left out.”  And he talks about private ownership; the responsibility of private ownership is to hold property for the sake of the common good.  The responsibility of those who own is to share.  Isn’t that fabulous?

WRUN:  It does seem that there are some Catholics who are having a bit of sticker shock with him, that he’s not quite the Pope they thought they were going to get.  

SS:  Yes, he’s quite surprising.  I enjoy the surprise of it.

Prominent-Catholic-Newspaper-Endorses-Women-Priests-MovementWRUN:   There is one thing that you don’t agree with him on though, which is the ordination of women, and how he sort of slammed the door on that.  What do you think is really keeping that from happening?

SS:  Experience.  Just experience.  He speaks about women not as the Eve temptress, but as Mary Immaculate, and we’re neither.  We’re human beings.  And so, there’s a couple of things we need to do.  We need to have women in leadership roles, so these guys who have worked in primarily male environments have experience with us.  And that once there’s experience, then the change will come eventually, I believe.  Additionally, it’s not only about changing their definition, but I also think that we’re being called to expand how we think about ordination, and that just utilizing the bishops’ definition as the only definition I think limits the quality of service that we’re called to.  For instance, when I was the head of my religious community, it was really abundantly clear to me that many times, I served a priestly function for my sisters.  I led prayer, I heard confessions in an informal sense, I gave forgiveness, I mediated sacred mysteries, I received the vows of new members.  All those are priestly functions.  But we have, in some of our fights with the Bishops about women’s ordination, have lost sight of some of the ways in which we do serve priestly functions.  I don’t know if you know tai chi, but the idea is that if you push against something, you just reinforce it.  And so rather than pushing against, they recommend standing aside.  Find your own definition.  So that’s some of what I think we’re called to do.  Stand aside, and the new will emerge.  Eventually.  It’s not fast enough for me, but eventually.

WRUN:  You’ve mentioned elsewhere that when you were practicing law in the 70s, that there weren’t a lot of women, and you saw a lot of women lawyers trying to kind of emulate the male lawyers.

SS:  Right, when I first started, that was for sure.

WRUN:  And to some extent that’s still an issue in a lot of professions now, even.  If you were to see women be ordained in the sort of traditional sense that the Bishops think of it, what do you think they would bring to the role that would be different from the way that men do it?

SS:  Well, first of all I think that they’d have to wrestle to find the alternative… Because just getting ordained doesn’t necessarily automatically mean that you’ll do it differently.  But in that exploration, I quite frankly cannot believe that a woman would stand by and watch the pedophiles abuse and not do something about it.  In fact I was just up in Minneapolis last night and heard that the reason why the situation finally came to light there was that because the woman chancellor pushed it.  And she finally ended up resigning from being chancellor because she would not condone the fact that they were refusing to deal with it.  And she’s the one that has brought it to the public’s attention.  I think women are much less likely to cover up something of that nature, when kids are being hurt.

WRUN:  I do think we have a lot of religious women that follow us and they’re torn.  There are a lot of issues that they’re torn over both as women of faith and as feminists, and the child sex abuse scandal is certainly one of them.  In the back of their mind, they have a distrust issue with the Church, and also the fact that they have mixed feelings about how the Church views them.  It tends to get pretty confusing at times, like, “I want to be a part of this group, but does this group want me?” 

SS:  I can relate to that.

WRUN:  Do you think there’s a middle ground there?  What do you think the Church should be saying to women as opposed to what they are saying?  Because there are women who feel that they are faithful but they have key differences with the Church on issues like contraception, like IVF, and they feel that those particular issues put them at odds with the Church over their family, which is also equally important to them.  What do you think the Church should be saying to them?

SS:  I think that we have to learn that we are the Church.  We’re a piece of the Church.  It’s not them, it’s us.  And we all struggle.  I just finished doing a piece for another group, and I was talking about how what I think Pope Francis is calling us to is conversion, and we all need to be converted in some form.  And that the challenge is that the wealthy and the leadership have hidden from their own conversion, and lied about it.  And that their fear of losing power or prestige or whatever it was, led to the pedophilia thing.  And what we have got to do is to hold our leadership accountable, and I think that is what the Pope is trying to do.  They cannot hide from it.  The only way forward is through repentance.  We’ve got to find a way to weep together over what’s happened, and that so many people have been hurt either through actually being molested or abused in some fashion, or if not directly abused, then shocked.  Scandalized.  Hurt.  Puzzled.  We’ve got to find a way to atone and weep before we’ll know new life.  And I think we as women have less invested in the trappings of leadership, and have been denied trappings of leadership, so maybe our gift is to be the leaders who are breaking out of the cocoon and allowing ourselves to really weep and change.  But it’s us.  We’re all in this together.  It’s not them.  It’s us.

WRUN:  Which is a very different idea of leadership than what people think of when they think of the Church.

SS:  Oh, yeah, that’s true, unfortunately.

WRUN:  You are many things: a lawyer, a woman, a follower of Jesus Christ, a sister, a leader and an American citizen. What do you think of yourself as being first? Do you even rank those things or do you consider yourself to be all of those (and more) in equal measures?

SS:  That’s an interesting question.  I’m just me.  I’m a woman who has a deep contemplative practice.  On the good days, it all works together.  On other days, many various perspectives sort of have tug of wars, but on the good days, in that contemplative stance, it’s all one.  It’s all in the spirit.

Sister Simone and the Nuns on the Bus are the subjects of a documentary film entitled “Radical Grace” which is currently in post-production (see below for trailer).  To learn more about their work and support the efforts to bring this film and the Sisters’ messages to the world, visit radicalgracefilm.com.


Practically Feminist


If there’s one thing that we can say for sure about the multi-headed beast that some call Third Wave feminism (or is it Fourth Wave now?), it’s that feminism often seems like it can be whatever the hell you want it to be.  This makes it difficult for us as feminists to speak with one voice about things that are really important.  And in the end, it may be hampering practical approaches to improving things.  Feminism isn’t an idea, it’s a collection of a lot of ideas, and we’re free to argue them with one another. That’s healthy.  But feminism needs to sort out what it’s trying to do.  Right now, it feels more like a chaotic, en-masse reaction to attacks on our rights, as opposed to a positive, proactive movement.

When I first started putting my toes in the waters of feminism, I was really only interested in working on legislative activism.  I wanted to roll up my sleeves and call state senators, and put out useful infographics encouraging people to email their representatives about this bill or that bill.  I essentially limited my entire focus to brass-tacks, equality-under-the-law issues.  And it made sense to do that.  There was, and still is, so much work to be done on that front, and so many legislators trying to take away rights our mothers fought for, that it felt unproductive to get drawn into “soft” cultural issues and wrangling with feminist theory.  On my best days, I am a practical gal.

The truth is, though, that it’s useful to explore cultural issues and feminist theory because it forces us to reflect on the underlying biases of the choices that we, as well as our politicians, make on a daily basis.  Feminist theory is often the soft underbelly of public policy, and its thinking often colors the more “mainstream,” legislatively-oriented discourse.  The problem is, the continuum of idealistic feminism often yields ideas that don’t translate well to the harsh light of day-to-day living.  The policy activists and the Judith Butler disciples have to figure out how to talk to each other, because right now, it feels like a food fight: nobody’s really getting hurt, but boy is it a mess.

I recently found myself in a real, live argument with a bunch of other feminists about whether or not sex work is a particularly healthy or positive career choice.  Spoiler: my position was, “Broadly speaking, no.”  I was a little surprised at how unpopular a position this was.  I got roundly scolded for prostitute-shaming, silencing, and even being a flat-out misogynist. It was a little mind-boggling that there was more of this than there was actual concern for the very real structural dangers and problems inherent in that industry.  It may have been the moment I finally chose a label and slapped it on my sweater: call me a “practical feminist.”

“Dear lord!” I thought. “Give me back my old-fashioned public policy wonkery!”  I can tell you why we need an Equal Rights Amendment, and tell you whose office to call about it.  It’s straightforward.  But ask me whether or not a girl should take what seem like a few smallish precautions to avoid a sexual assault…?  That’s a hornet’s nest.   Many feminists argue that such advice contributes to victim-blaming.  I would never have thought that risk-reduction precluded teaching consent.  But here we are.

You find these divides throughout feminism on a whole host of issues:  Is sex work an empowering life choice?  Should we specifically do things to avoid rape?  Should someone tell Miley Cyrus to put some clothes on?  Someone besides Sinead O’Connor? For crying out loud, we can’t even agree on how we feel about the relatively unimportant matter of sledgehammer fellatio:  is it empowering or degrading?  Of course it’s Miley’s right to do it.  Don’t be mad though, at the feminists who can’t work up much enthusiasm about it.

Women are sexually harassed on the street, ogled at work, passed over for opportunities of all kinds, because for so many men, we can’t possibly be more than instruments for their enjoyment.  So, when you, as a woman, lead with your sexuality, it can be hard for a lot of people to see that there’s a person, with talents, opinions, preferences and passions, attached to it.  And it’s hard for some feminists to say, “You go, girl!” to the woman who’s choosing to do it, because it can feel like she’s perpetuating the objectification that, in spite of our best efforts to leave it in the past, is still a problem.  Short version:  it feels a little counterproductive to put your tits in someone’s face and then get annoyed when they aren’t looking you in the eye. But it’s a debate feminism is still having with itself, and nobody really has a good answer. And in the meantime, women and girls are still getting the short end in a lot of ways, large and small.

So practically speaking, what do I think would help it?  I like policy prescriptions, so I’m likely to reach for mundane things like accurate and early sex education, a gender studies requirement at the high school level, and with any luck, a loosening of religion’s stranglehold on our morality and public policy-making. Despite the fact that the jury is 100% in on the failure of abstinence-only sex education, we’re still dealing with deeply religious policy makers who seriously believe that simply not giving kids information about sex will keep them from having it.  (The irony is, most abstinence education does far more to devalue and objectify young girls than Ke$ha shaking her booty in a thong.)

Pushing for high school health classes to require a unit on consent as part of sex education would do far more to prevent rape than berating women who sometimes circulate those “how to avoid rape” lists.  Pushing to decriminalize prostitution is a far more empowering step than demanding that fellow feminists affirm sex work as a positive career choice.  Regulated prostitution appears, at least from a number of studies, less dangerous and damaging to the women (and men) in it than the system we have now, and it’s a move that a lot of feminists could get behind; why are we expending so much energy policing each others’ feelings about it as a life choice, when there are massive, practical, structural problems with it (risk of arrest, STIs, dangerous weirdo clients) that we could be working on?  We don’t have to give 100% approval to everything in one another’s hearts, we just have to figure out how to band together on productive actions.

If we’re not all at least somewhat aligned on what it is we’re supposed to be fighting for (or against), in what sense is feminism a movement?  The very nature of the term “movement” is a pretty clear.  It’s supposed to move.  Presumably forward.  Going backwards, and even standing still, aren’t options.  If we can’t coordinate, we need to at least get out of each other’s way.  It would be nice though, if we could agree on some concrete things we can DO, together, or else this is just one giant online coffee klatch, and everyone’s got a bone to pick.  It’s human to respond to stimuli, but if the response isn’t coupled with a plan, then that’s all it is.  A response.  Not a movement.

There’s work to be done, ladies, and a lot of it.  Who’s with me?