A few years back we published Amy Koehlinger’s The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s, a widely praised work of archival research and oral history. In the post below, Koehlinger explains how this summer’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour continues a tradition of Catholic sisters barnstorming for social justice.
In April of this year, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) censured the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a body that represents over 80% of American sisters, claiming that sisters in the organization had embraced “radical feminist themes” that were incompatible with Catholic faith. Additionally, the CDF charged that American sisters had focused too strongly on the Church’s social doctrine, failing to give equal attention to issues like abortion and euthanasia.
Despite this Vatican reprimand of American women religious for being too focused on social justice issues, one group of sisters refuses to back away from advocacy for these causes. A group of rowdy Catholic sisters from Network, a Catholic progressive lobby organization, just completed a 9-day, 15-state “Nuns on the Bus: Nuns Drive for Faith, Family and Fairness” tour to protest the federal budget proposed by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. Sisters say the “immoral” and “unpatriotic” proposal favors the wealthy at the expense of economically vulnerable people, especially poor and working families. More importantly, “Nuns on the Bus” sisters object to the way Ryan, a Catholic, defended the budget as consistent with Catholic teaching. Speaking for the group, Sister Simone Campbell argued that Paul Ryan’s budget “rejects church teaching about solidarity, inequality, the choice for the poor, and the common good. That’s wrong.” The nuns spoke out against the budget at food pantries, homeless shelters, and congressional offices from Iowa to Washington, D.C., often greeted by cheering crowds along the way.
Though most people know that Catholic sisters provide essential services to poor, outcast, and oppressed persons, fewer understand the public advocacy role that many sisters see as a natural part of their religious calling. In fact, the “Nuns on the Bus” tour is not an unusual or unprecedented activity for Catholic sisters. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), many Catholic women religious have understood the apostolic mission of religious life as one of addressing society’s most pressing social issues, at times by addressing human needs through traditional works of mercy but also by speaking prophetically about the social and political implications of the Christian gospel. In fact, over 45 years ago another group of outspoken sisters crammed themselves into a much smaller vehicle—a Ford station wagon—and toured the country speaking about the central social issue of the 1960s, civil rights.
The Traveling Workshop in Inter-Group Relations (later the Traveling Workshop in Race Relations) was a group of Catholic sisters who toured the United States to raise public awareness about the causes and consequences of American racial injustice. From 1965 through 1971 sisters of the Traveling Workshop barnstormed the country each summer, trying to inform Catholics about the problem of racism and persuade them to support civil rights efforts. Traveling Workshop faculty were sisters with PhDs who worked as professors in Catholic colleges during the academic year and donated their time to the Traveling Workshop in the summer months. Sister-speakers of the Traveling Workshop discussed racial inequality from the perspective of their academic training in fields like sociology, psychology, history, economics, and social work.
Workshop speakers challenged white Catholics to support social reforms and civil rights legislation, arguing that racial injustice in the U.S. revealed a problematic contrast between official Catholic teaching about human equality and the white supremacist views many American Catholics privately held. Speaking at a 1966 Traveling Workshop session, Sister Mary Eric Zeis, SSND, critiqued the apathy about civil rights evidenced by many white Catholics, observing that “somewhere along the line people have stopped saying, ‘See how they love one another,’ of Christians.” But there were hopeful signs in the contemporary Church, Zeis continued. “The contemporary insistence on personalism and human dignity is directing us again to the visible witness of love of neighbor in our lives,” she added.
Over the years the Traveling Workshop program steadily expanded its number of presentations, faculty members, and geographic range. It also gradually broadened its audience to include Catholic institutions, diocesan leadership, and eventually non-Catholics. In the summer of 1965 the single Traveling Workshop team gave six workshops at motherhouses and schools attended by approximately 1500 sisters and other interested Catholics. By the following year, three teams of Traveling Workshop sisters offered 45 workshops for approximately 14,000 participants. A brochure touting the accomplishments of the 1966 Traveling Workshops paired a photograph of sister-faculty climbing into their station wagon with the question, “Would you believe⎯ fifty thousand miles?” Sister Margaret Traxler, SSND, who coordinated the Traveling Workshops, estimated that by 1969 Workshop faculty had traveled 400,000 miles, mostly in rented station wagons. “Watch the Fords go by!” she once quipped about their trademark station wagons.
Like the 2012 “Nuns on the Bus” tour of sisters from Network, the Traveling Workshops of the late 1960s and early 1970s sparked considerable attention from both the public and the press. Some of the interest in both speaking tours surely is rooted in curiosity about sisters themselves, who remain mysterious presences for many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But beyond the novelty of nuns in the spotlight, there is important historical continuity in the willingness of Catholic women religious to take a public stand on the nation’s most pressing social issues. After attending a Traveling Workshop presentation in 1967, one religious superior wrote, “I am heartened again and again by the dedication and the foresight of the women of God. I believe that the exciting times we live in are causing us in the Sisterhoods in the United States to examine the meaning of our own vocation in the light of present day needs and demands.” The trend that began with the Traveling Workshops on Race Relations in the 1960s endures in the 2012 “Nuns on the Bus” tour critiquing the Republican budget, and it surely will continue in the future as sisters continue to try to make their religious ministry relevant to contemporary society.
[UPDATE: At the Religion & Politics blog, Koehlinger argues that it’s the Vatican that has strayed, rather than American nuns, and suggests an interpretation of the censuring as an effort to distract attention from the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse by priests.]