A group of American nuns are taking their politics – and their fight with the Vatican - on the road with a nine-state bus tour designed to call attention to the impact of proposed federal budget cuts on the poor.
The bus is covered with giant photos of smiling women and children and the words "nuns on the bus" and "nuns drive for faith, family and fairness". The tour, organized by Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, is causing quite a stir in the US heartland.
I jumped aboard in Dubuque, Iowa, where the sisters had been visiting a food pantry, and I spoke with the Executive Director, Sr Simone Campbell, as the corn fields of Iowa rolled by.
I first met Sr Simone about a month ago, after the Vatican had issued stinging criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization representing about 80 per cent of the 59,000 Roman Catholic sisters in the United States. Bishops in Rome have accused the group of promoting "radical feminism" inconsistent with church teaching and spending too much time on issues of economic justice. The bishops have called on the sisters to spend more time on other church priorities: fighting abortion and gay marriage.
Instead, the sisters have only intensified their fight against federal budget cuts proposed by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. They say the cuts will devastate social programmes that struggling families rely on.
I asked Sr Simone when the nuns on the bus would be rallying against abortion and gay marriage.
"I've given my life to gospel and to be criticised made me sad," she said. But sitting next to a homeless woman and her child on the Washington DC metro pointed her way forward. "I thought, 'Simone, your pride is hurt and here is a woman who is struggling with the basics. How can you possibly be silent in the face of this?'"
I talked to a couple Catholics along the way who thought the sisters were getting too political and thumbing their nose at the church hierarchy. But many rallied to support them after the Vatican critique and the spunky Sr Simone has become a darling of the media.
She sees all the attention as an opportunity to get their message out.
On the tour, the sisters have been swarmed by television cameras. About 200 people were there to greet them when the bus rolled into Janesville, Wisconsin. They sang and chanted “thank you”, holding signs saying things like, “You go girls!”
Janesville is the hometown of Congressman Ryan, who also happens to be a Catholic. He says the cuts he's proposed are grounded in his faith and the belief that outdated social programmes and the huge national debt are actually preventing the poor from finding jobs.
The nuns agree the debt needs to be brought down – but otherwise they see things quite differently.
"The problem is his budget doesn’t take care of that," Sr Simone explained. "He cuts social service programmes in order to shift the money to tax cuts for the wealthy and to give $8bn more to the military than they’re asking for. This doesn’t make sense!"
The bus tour targets Catholic lawmakers who support the budget cuts. Ryan wasn’t there when the nuns visited his office, but they dropped off what’s being called the "faithful budget" advocated by many religious groups as a better alternative.
And while the bishops may disagree with the nuns’ tactics and priorities, the devastating impact of the proposed cuts on the poor is one thing they actually do agree on.