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, insisted that, 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 said. "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 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 A. Boehner of Ohio, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is the architect of the House-passed budget. 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, who attends St. Ambrose Cathedral in Des Moines.
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 have been given five years to reorganize that group.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately comment on the bus tour.