Between applause, chatter and lunch at the YWCA's annual fundraiser, Sister Simone Campbell complimented Charlotte's social conscience. Standing at the podium, she told the 800 or so audience members, "There's a lot of good work being done here."
The "work" the diminutive, plain-spoken nun was referring to has nothing to do with the regular 9-to-5 grind of commerce and banking, and everything to do with helping those on the margins of society. Campbell came to Charlotte — her sixth visit in the past 12 months — to serve as keynote speaker of the YWCA's largest public event of the year, held at the Westin Tuesday, Feb. 19.
Considering her fairly low profile just a couple of years ago, it's remarkable that Campbell has become enough of a prominent national progressive figure — and familiar enough to Charlotteans — to be asked to deliver the keynote address at such a large event. Remarkable maybe, but no surprise. Even the Pope knows who she is.
Many of the people attending the fundraiser likely first heard of the attorney, nun and activist in April 2012, when the Vatican announced a crackdown on Network, a social-justice lobby run by Campbell, and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of 1,500 Catholic orders that represents about 80 percent of all American nuns. The nuns, said the Vatican, had "serious doctrinal problems," primarily disagreements with the male bishops over gay rights, the male-only priesthood and healthcare (the nuns came out in favor of "Obamacare," while American bishops opposed it). The Vatican report also criticized Network and the Leadership Conference for promoting "radical feminist themes" and focusing too much on poverty and economic injustice, while staying "silent" on abortion and the supposed evils of same-sex marriage. While many American Catholics were outraged by the Vatican's position, the Pope went ahead and appointed three bishops to "remake" the Leadership Conference.
"We were shocked that the Vatican had even heard of us, to be honest," Campbell said. The nuns, she related, met and decided to use the controversy as a chance to spread their message, so they launched the Nuns on the Bus tour last summer, a nine-city, 15-day road trip in which they talked to whoever would listen about the dangers of the proposed Paul Ryan budget and its effects on "the lives of those who live on the margin." (Ryan's budget includes privatizing Medicare and drastically reducing all social welfare spending.) Campbell even spoke at last year's Democratic National Convention.
Since the bus tour, and particularly after her DNC speech, Campbell has become a go-to source for news stories about social justice, as well as a guest on national talk shows including The Colbert Report, The Daily Show and even The O'Reilly Factor.
Last week she spoke of meeting with Ryan and telling the GOP's then-future VP candidate that his idea of churches taking care of the nation's poor was not a feasible response to the massive nature of our poverty-related problems. In her speech, she praised YWCA programs that put homeless people in transitional housing so they have somewhere to get their lives and, in many cases, their families, back in working order. But the public can do more to help the most vulnerable parts of society, she said.
"The most important thing you can do right now," she told the crowd," "is to please, please call your governor and your state legislators and tell them that expanding Medicaid, as part of the new health care law, is essential and a wonderful opportunity to ensure that everyone in the state benefits from an increased level of health care."
Summoning more progressive tenets, Campbell said she supported offering everyone a safety net.
"It's so much more reasonable to act as a caring community," she said. "I came to that idea by my faith, but many others reach the same conclusion by other ways, and that's just fine. The important thing is acting on those principles."
At the end of Campbell's speech, the audience rose and gave her a lingering standing ovation.
Afterward, she explained to me that she is "pro-life," but not on the terms adapted by the movement of the same name.
"A pro-life stance," Campbell said, "means that everyone in the richest country in the world should have easy access to health care. 'Pro-life' doesn't just have to do with birth; it's also about life after birth, and keeping up that stance throughout life."