Someone recently described Catholic sisters as having “a spine of steel and a compassionate heart.” I can think of no better description for women who selflessly dedicate their lives to the most vulnerable while confronting injustice.
Embroiled in a tense dispute with the Vatican and U.S. bishops over promoting “radical feminist themes,” the sisters are not backing down. On the contrary, they are launching a nationwide bus tour to assert their Gospel-driven mission by standing up for the poor and speaking out against Rep. Paul Ryan’s reckless budget proposal. Traveling to social service agencies, soup kitchens, and health clinics run by Catholic sisters, the bus tour will highlight nuns’ contributions to the common good and call for a more faithful budget proposal.
The Bishops Agree
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees with the sisters’ message of economic justice. They have repeatedly warned Congress not to slash food stamps, social services block grants, the child tax credit and other vital programs targeted in the House Republican budget. In their guidance to lawmakers, bishops have stated: “The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.” Rep. Ryan has dismissed these concerns and continues to insist that a disproportionate share of cuts must come from programs that serve lower-income Americans even as the wealthy are coddled with more tax breaks.
Will the Bishops Get on Board?
Part of the Catholic sisters’ strategy, then, is to encourage the bishops to use their megaphone and the bus tour opportunity to speak out more boldly against the Ryan budget. They plan to invite bishops whose dioceses they pass through to join them at events. But given that the bishops are dedicating enormous resources during that same time towards their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign to protest the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, that plea may fall on deaf ears. In fact, the bishops’ overheated rhetoric has caused many to ask whether that campaign is just a thinly veiled partisan effort in an election year. It’s even causing some backlash among Catholics in the pews.
As the political courtship of Catholic voters heats up in this contentious election year, Catholic sisters are remaining true to their mission and elevating our values debate. I’m grateful for their courage and persistence.
This week, Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times reported on a new campaign from women religious this summer: a cross-country bus tour highlighting the valuable work of sisters in local communities and defending vulnerable populations from the devastating budget cuts of the House GOP budget.
“We’re doing this because these are life issues,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a liberal social justice lobby in Washington. “And by lifting up the work of Catholic sisters, we will demonstrate the very programs and services that will be decimated by the House budget.”
Goodstein also notes that the bus tour is occurring at the same time as the Catholic Bishops “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign in opposition to the HHS contraception regulations and comes on the heels of the Vatican’s harsh critique of American women religious.
Dressed in the clothing of consumer protection, the bill strips away Pennsylvania’s long-held and strongly enforced protections against predatory short-term loans. Sponsored by Rep. Chris Ross (R., Chester), the legislation would drop-kick the state’s 24 percent annual-percentage-rate cap. As a result, individuals with marginal incomes, including truck drivers, nurses, and clerks, could be pushed into a cycle of debt.
It’s easy for that to happen: Lured by the availability of quick money, a borrower may take out a two-week loan and pay it back on payday, with interest and fees. A few days after payday, though, he realizes he can’t pay his bills, so he takes out another loan. Of course, he has less money to pay the new debt because he’s just paid an unconscionable premium to the payday lender.
The cycle repeats, keeping people indebted to the lenders an average of 200 days a year, according to national statistics.
Borrowers secure the payday loans with their bank accounts by either giving the lender a postdated check or, incredibly, giving the lender Internet access to bank accounts. Ross’ bill would also give payday lenders access to unemployment and Social Security checks. Talk about vulnerable people!
On a $300 loan, the legislation would allow $42.50 in interest and fees. Annualized, that’s 369 percent.
As the editorial points out, this effort puts Pennsylvania on the opposite path of other states such as Missouri where faith groups have been a key part of the coalition to put a payday-lending restriction referendum on this year’s ballot.
While the conference (under the leadership of Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development Chairman Bishop Stephen Blaire) has been clear that Ryan’s budget fails a “basic moral test,“ Bishop Morlino appears to let Ryan off the hook. Deferring to Ryan’s own excuse that he is exercising “prudential judgment,” Morlino describes him as someone “who makes his judgment in accord with all the teachings of the Church.”
Unfortunately, if Bishop Morlino actually means to say the Ryan budget is in accord with Cathoilc teaching, it would put him at odds with his fellow bishops who — as the USCCB made clear to Rep. Ryan – are represented by Bishop Blaire’s letters.
Their critique focuses not only on the specific cuts Ryan makes, but also his abandonment of the larger principle of shared sacrifice by the wealthy and the military.
It’s that imbalance — an imbalance that will do real harm to vulnerable families — that violates the bishops’ principles and puts the House GOP budget outside the range of acceptable options.