Have you ever seen those medieval illustrations of exotic animals—the ones where the drawing bears just enough likeness to some real critter that you can guess what the artist was going for? Take the 15th century drawing of an elephant, below: it’s got tusks and a trunk like an elephant, and four legs, but the likeness pretty much ends there. Of course, the artist can be forgiven; he’d probably never met a real elephant.
I mention this by way of a recent piece in Politico by Sister Simone Campbell—of NETWORK and Nuns on the Bus fame–in which she sketches a crude portrait of both Republicans and American bishops in order to contrast them with Pope Francis. A reader could be forgiven if his first reactions was to wonder whether Sister Simone has ever actually met a political conservative, let alone a Republican. Her descriptions of these exotic creatures are so hackneyed and cartoonish that, in charity, it is best to assume she is simply ignorant of what she speaks.
Her take on the bishops is even worse.
Like our medieval elephant, some of Sister Simone’s portrait of the GOP is recognizable, if exaggerated. (For example, Republicans have recently done a pretty terrible job demonstrating how their favored economic policies would promote the common good.) But as one reads the things Sister Simone attributes to Republicans, the description becomes more and more detached from reality. Sometimes she attributes to all Republicans policy positions that are held only by some. Sometimes she attributes to Republicans positions that are in fact held by very few. And sometimes she ascribes to Republicans policy preferences that are, not just untrue, but preposterous on their face.
Sometimes Sister Simone manages to cram all these distortions into a single sentence, such as: “Republicans oppose raising the minimum wage [generally true, though not universally], paid sick leave [some Republicans oppose some laws mandating sick leave], paid vacation [does anyone not named Scrooge oppose paid vacation?]or any policy that supports the reality of working families [this is not only untrue of Republicans–it’s not even true of North Korea.]” Other examples like this abound.
If Sister Simone has taken certain liberties in describing her opponents’ positions, she’s hardly the first to do so. That’s not to excuse her loose rhetoric but simply to observe that such rhetoric is everywhere these days. And if such biased portrayals of “mean” Republicans are commonplace, that doesn’t make them true.
While one might dismiss Sister Simone’s cartoonish depiction of Republicans, her portrayal of American bishops, or at least the “conservative” ones, as partisan lapdogs is far more difficult to dismiss, and deserves a response. Here’s the very first sentence of her piece:
Ever[y]year, the Republican Party grows more closely identified with the agenda of conservative Catholic bishops, and vice versa. Unfortunately, too many bishops have been tempted by the allure of political power as they join America’s culture wars. They treat Roe v. Wade as a litmus test and urge Catholics not to vote for Democrats, who are likely to add liberally minded judges to the Supreme Court.
Notice the subtle ease with which Sister Simone conflates Republicans and the Catholic bishops. She asserts, as if it’s self-evident, that the GOP and Catholic bishops are “closely identified,” and then proceeds to treat the two interchangeably throughout the piece, distinguishing or conflating them as suits her purpose. Read that opening paragraph again: Is it the bishops or the GOP that “urges Catholics not to vote for Democrats?” It’s not clear.
To charge that American bishops, tempted by political power, have put the partisan interests ahead of the Catholic faith is a very serious thing. To level such a charge, as Sister Simone does, while offering no evidence to support the claim approaches slander. Instead of evidence—even anecdotal evidence—she offers crude generalizations and dark warnings about “conservative” Catholic bishops who are supposedly fixated on “culture war” issues like abortion. She never says just who she’s talking about—it’s always “they” and “some” and “too many.”
As a matter of fact, the American bishops’ vocal opposition to abortion is a matter of faithful consistency–or,to use, Sister Simone’s phrase, part of a “complete pro-life agenda.” If Catholic teaching on abortion reflects badly on Democrats (whose part platform defends the abortion license as a basic right), how is that the bishops’ fault? Does Sister Simone suppose the bishops’ vocal support for immigrants’ rights, to pick but one example, is evidence that the bishops are in the tank for Democrats? The bishops do speak about abortion, as they must—and they also speak on poverty, immigration, health care, and countless other issues. In this regard, the bishops have demonstrated precisely the kind of consistency that Sister Simone herself cannot claim.
The closest Sister Simone comes to actually defending the unborn is when she writes, “pro-life means that you must be more than pro-birth.” Fair enough. But this silence on a fundamental issue is part of a larger pattern. On the NETWORK website (the organization Sister Simone leads) the only time abortion is mentioned is in the context of insisting we can’t only talk about abortion or in insisting that Obamacare doesn’t cover abortion. (In practice, it does.) When she was addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012, Sister Simone was asked directly, “Should it be illegal [for doctors]to perform abortions?” Her answer: “That’s beyond my pay grade. I don’t know.”
For all I know, Sister Simone believes that abortion is an “unspeakable crime,” as Vatican II calls it. But for someone who claims to advocate for a “complete pro-life agenda,” and is so outspoken on so many issues, her stand on the matter is conspicuous in its absence. (Conspicuous enough, in fact, that the Vatican has taken notice.)
Moreover, it is worth noting that the hand-wringing over supposed collusion between bishops and Republicans is coming from a woman whose entire ministry is devoted to lobbying for political change based on her beliefs! That’s what moved her, presumably, to speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and what explains Vice President Biden showing up to kick-off her most Nuns on the Bus tour. I wish more Catholics would take the public implications of their faith as seriously as Sister Simone does. I also wish she’d be less hasty to assign perverse motives to those who disagree with her about which means are best suited to the agreed upon end.
Let me finish by acknowledging that, by all accounts, Sister Simone is deeply committed to helping those she serves. She’s cares passionately about making sure people don’t fall through the cracks—and about making sure someone is there to catch them if they do. She knows that poverty and human suffering are not abstract ideas to be dealt with only in stump speeches and Sunday sermons; these are concrete moral challenges that require concrete solutions. In short, Sister Simone has a great deal to say and to teach, not just to her fellow Catholics, but to the whole nation.
Sadly, by dealing in crude generalizations–and lobbing hypocritical accusations of inconsistency–Sister Simone becomes the greatest obstacle to the credibility of her own message. The worthwhile things she has to say are drowned out by the partisan clichés, assumed motives, and obvious double standards. She fails to take seriously those she would rebuke—fails to engage real ideas and real people—and ends up writing, not an invitation to mercy and conversion for all, but an elaborate condemnation of political caricatures of her own design.
In the end, a Gospel message tailored to straw men is Good News for no one.