WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Nuns here are being treated like rock stars after the vast majority received a scolding from Pope Benedict XVI.

As the crowd in front of the United Methodist building in Washington, D.C., saw the bus coming down the street, loudspeakers began to play “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme song from the movie “Rocky III.”

The crowd clapped to the beat, cheered and waved posters.

“Sisterhood Is Power,” read one sign.

Lettering on the side of the bus became legible as the vehicle pulled closer: “NUNS on the bus: Nuns drive for faith, family and fairness.”

Jim Winkler, minister of the church, was the first to take the podium at the July 2 noontime press conference in sweltering 95-degree heat, just days after millions in the area had lost electric power during a brutal storm.

“They have been traveling across this nation to speak out for a faithful budget,” said Winkler, “and they are here today as our rock stars!”

This was the final stop on the “Nuns on the Bus” tour, which started in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 17 and ended about two weeks later in Washington, D.C., with this press conference.

The tour’s stated mission was to stir up outrage over what the nuns called the immorality of lowering taxes for the wealthy while attacking the poor through cutting food stamps and Medicaid, as outlined in the budget plan crafted by Paul Ryan, a Republican representing Wisconsin’s 1st District in Congress.

But the tour, which took place in the aftermath of Vatican censure of the nuns’ leadership group, was about more than the national budget.

It was also, intrinsically, a demonstration of how devoutly the nuns refused to be muffled.

Vatican Criticism

In April, the Vatican concluded an investigation of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an organizing body that represents 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in America. The Vatican criticized the leadership’s “radical feminist themes” and its focus on social services at the expense of other issues. It took particular issue with the leadership’s relative quiet on same-sex relationships and abortion.

The leadership’s first chance to respond to the findings of the investigation as a full body will be in August.

At that point “the members will discern together the next best step in this process of figuring out how to respond,” said Ann Marie Sanders, associate director of communications for the Leadership Council, in an email interview. “We don’t know at this point whether a decision will be made at this time to definitely comply or not comply.”

The American bishops agree that cuts to social service programs are harmful, but the Vatican investigation found that “occasional public statements by the Leadership Council that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”

The nuns on this tour have shown no sign of quieting down, and the Leadership Council could itself be on a collision course with their own authority.

Kate Conmy, education coordinator at the Washington-based Women’s Ordination Conference, was in the crowd outside the Methodist Church on July 2.

She said that if the Vatican tried to change the Leadership Council too dramatically, the organization could theoretically go “non-canonical.” In that case, it would no longer operate under the Vatican but would still consider itself Catholic.

The Women’s Ordination Conference has advocated since 1976 for the ordination of female priests in the Catholic Church.

Conmy argued that if a choice had to be made, “many Catholics will follow the nuns.”

Skyrocketing Membership

About 14 nuns joined the recent tour, though at any given time there were about seven or so, as they rotated in and out.

The details of the nuns’ alternative to the Ryan budget can be found at faithfulbudget.org.

The nuns’ Network organization, a Washington-based Catholic social justice group that was behind the nuns’ nine-state bus tour, had about 10,000 member e-activists before the bus tour. But since then membership has “skyrocketed,” said Shannon Hughes, education director at Network. She could not provide details on the membership growth.

There are about 68 million Catholics in the United States, about 22 percent of the population, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In response to the Vatican investigation, the Nun Justice Project, a coalition of women’s Catholic organizations, asked Catholics to pledge donations to local groups run by religious women as an alternative to giving to the Vatican, which asks for donations every June. About $87,000 has been pledged to local groups.

In 2011, donations to the Vatican exceeded $85 billion, according to Reuters.

“What we’re trying to get across is that there is an alternative to the Ryan budget  . . . based on Christian traditional values,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network. “Let’s not crunch the numbers before the most vulnerable and disenfranchised are taken care of,” she told the crowd.

Sister Mary Wendeln, who works with immigrants in Cincinnati, Ohio, joined a portion of the tour. “We went to different ministry sites, transitional housing, literacy places, food kitchens; all places where we saw people, programs that will be cut.”

As part of the tour nuns also visited members of Congress in their districts.

Vatican Too Rigid

Kate Wilson, a former nun from Arlington, Va., said that the Vatican is being too rigid in its emphasis on denouncing abortion and same-sex marriage. “I happen to be anti-abortion, but I certainly am in favor of looking at the issue  . . . The hierarchy is, no abortion, no same-sex marriage  . . . It can’t be just that.”

The Vatican first issued a warning in 2001 to the Leadership Council of Women Religious. In 2009, the Vatican began an official investigation because, as the New York Times reported, the council did not make requested changes to promote a male priesthood and advocate against homosexuality.

A delegation from the Leadership Council met with the Vatican in June. In a recent press release, the Leadership Council called the meeting difficult.

The Vatican has appointed Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartin to oversee a reform of the Leadership Council. The Vatican’s orders include revising the group’s statutes and approving each speaker at the organization’s programs.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to request for comment for this story.

In addition to the D.C. press conference, the tour included 15 so-called friendraisers, town hall style meetings where the nuns discussed the Ryan budget and the need for social services.

Many of those attending the events were nuns or former nuns. Others were simply frustrated Catholics such as Mary Duston Lidinsky, who attended the Baltimore friendraiser. She said she was “not an activist” but came to see the sisters because the castigation from the Vatican “put me over the top.” She said she supported everything the nuns are doing.

Samantha Kimmey is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y., covering women and politics this election season.

Photo: Samantha Kimmey on Flickr

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