What The Next Pope Can Learn From A Nun On The Bus

If he was hoping to make a quiet exit, Pope Benedict (now officially pope emeritus), has left his successor a Roman Catholic Church in chaos. The findings of the so-called Vatileaks scandal, delivered to the Pope in a December 17 dossier, reveal the depths of controversy and corruption throughout the Vatican. Not only will the next pope need to address issues of an alleged gay underworld and financial misconduct, but also a conservative culture within the Catholic hierarchy that receives increasing pressure to modernize on women’s and LGBT equality issues. 

Across the United States there is a growing movement of Christians who are challenging conservative church leaders and policies and demanding full inclusion of LGBT people.

These people of faith are coming out to say that an LGBT identity is not bad or sinful, and it is inhumane and irresponsible for anyone to say that it is. Nearly 6-in-10 American Catholics, for example, now believe in modernizing or shifting traditional beliefs of the church. And as these beliefs continue to shift, we are strengthening the safety and the health of our families, children and lay people around the world. 

Believe Out Loud plays an important role in this shift by mobilizing and elevating voices of our allies and partners in this movement. As I’ve worked with Christian leaders across a variety of denominational perspectives, even within the smallest corners of our most conservative faith communities, there are good people—clergy, lay people, families, and more—who have walked a mile in the shoes of their LGBT brothers and sisters and understand it’s time to end unjust treatment towards them in and outside of the church.

These allies are not abandoning their faith—instead, they are targeting the homophobic culture that plagues our faith communities and saying enough is enough!

One of these faithful Christians who directly liaises with the Roman Catholic church is Sister Simone Campbell. We had a conversation last week about whether or not the next Pope and future Catholic Hierarchy could eventually evolve its opinion on human sexuality issues and women’s roles in the church. “Yes,” she hesitantly offered, “but I wouldn’t hold my breath!” 

Sister Simone Campbell, the 67-year-old executive director of the Catholic lobbying group Network in Washington D.C., made headlines last year when she toured the country via “Nuns on the Bus,” talking about the immorality of the Ryan Budget.

Prior to the nine-state bus tour, the Catholic sisters were reprimanded by the Vatican, which has an ongoing investigation of the “radical feminism” it claims has pulled these faithful sisters away from condemning women’s rights issues and same-sex marriage. The Nuns of the Buss stood boldly against this crticism from the male dominated Hierarchy.

Their conscience—filled with the human stories and journeys of the people they walk with on a daily basis—could not allow them to discriminate against or cast judgment on LGBT people.

“The Catholic Hierarchy has done very poorly at engaging the issues of sexuality period—their own, or anybody else’s. I have said that what we need is a real spiritual renewal among our leadership because for me, following the gospel means be not afraid," she said. "Welcome everyone—hug them welcome them close, and live and love. And there’s a saying live and love said the Lord Jesus Christ. I mean that’s the deal."

But why is the church leadership so rigid in their doctrine? Sister Campbell offered this reflection:

My hunch would be that if you did similar age demographics and income data, that the hierarchy wouldn’t be that different from old white guys who run corporations. I’m not sure that faith is the telling thing here. I think it may be culture and life experience. There are also many priests who are gay, and I would imagine that since there are many priests who are gay then there are bishops who are gay. A piece of it is that sometimes folks who are hiding from themselves are the most judgmental.

Neither of us could say with any certitude whether or not this was true, but it certainly seems possible, especially in light of what just happened in Britain. Cardinal Keith O’Brein, the highest-ranking Catholic in Britain, resigned after a history of inappropriate sexual advances towards male priests surfaced in The Observer newspaper. He was slated to join the conclave that will elect the next pope, but withdrew his participation amid the controversy.

“Catholic leaders have to deal with their own personal sexual journey and their own identity,” Sister Campbell said.  

As a Catholic Sister, Simone Campbell has never had conflict on LGBT identity or equality issues. The first time she encountered it as “an issue” was as a lawyer in the 1980s during a custody battle case of a lesbian client, which alerted her to the unequal provisions in the legal system that cause harm to American families.

“I was practicing family law in Oakland California. I had a mom come to me who was breaking up with her partner and the partner was the biological mom of the child they had chosen to conceive together,” she said. 

When the child, as I recall was about 7 or 8 years old, my client had gotten a part time job, but there was no previsions in the law for her to have any rights, and she had raised this kid and the kid called both of the parents “mommy.” The fact that my only argument could be best interest of the child, but gave her no standing even though she was the parent most connected to this child, it made me realize that “family” was outstripping our definitions, and that this was the only family this child knew.

But even outside of the legal system, she saw the painful journey around how individuals reconcile their own sexual or gender identity:

I had two friends who were women who were married and had children, but then came to understand themselves as lesbian and actually got together. One of the women had to rethink everything. From how she thought of herself, to how she related to her family, to what she thought family was. For me the hard part was watching. It’s like the whole board erased 30-something years of her life and she had to re-write her life with this new understanding. And to see her struggle and anguish both at feeling guilty for never having figured this out earlier, and then guilty for what it did to the marriage, was hard.

Working amongst so many pro-LGBT Christians who have always been supportive of our rights, or those who are becoming new allies—I’ve observed a common expression of their values. These types of relationships and experiences that place a human face on inequality and anguish have the power to change the hearts and minds of not only the Vatican, but millions of Christians who have yet to understand the human dignity question involved. As Sister Simone Campbell shared in a recent CNN interview, “the culture of the church (as opposed to the faith) is what needs to catch up to our democratic culture.”

She offered this final message to the next pope:

Jesus embodied the love of God in the world and that’s what we’re charged to do. He sent apostles, including women, out to do that, and he said that we would go places that he couldn’t.

And I actually think that both what I do personally, and what Catholic sisters do, is that we are sent to take the gospel to where it’s needed and to live and love, and to welcome everyone. I mean that’s the fabulous thing about our vows. What they’re really about is opening us up to everyone, so that everyone becomes our family.

Photo courtesy of Nuns on the Bus

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