Video Duration 25 minutes 24 seconds

Catholic nuns: Taking on Rome and Republicans

Protesting Catholic nuns have ignited a debate on the role of religion and social justice in the US democratic process.

A group of nuns has embarked on a bus journey through nine states in the American heartland, making stops at homeless shelters, schools and healthcare facilities where their sisters help the poor and marginalised.

Their goal is to draw attention to the Republican budget plan, which they say will harm millions of those they work to help, making the country’s poor even more vulnerable.

But the man behind the budget – Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, himself a Catholic – disagrees. He says it was his religious principles that inspired his plan, and argues that it will help the poor by making them less reliant on government.

We believe in a faithful budget. Many of us from the faith communities, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, have been working for months on what we call a faithful budget, and that which would serve the common good and protect especially the most vulnerable people in society.”

– Sister Marie Lucey of the Franciscan Action Network

Ryan says his Catholic faith is about ‘how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person’.

“To me the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning the government closest to the people governs best, [is] having a civil society, the principles of solidarity where we, through our civic organisations, churches, charities, all of our different groups who interact with people as a community.

“That’s how we advance the common good, by not having big government crowd out our civil society but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.

“Those principles are very, very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching means ‘don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on governments so that they stay stuck in their station in life, help people get out of poverty on to a life of independence’.”

But ahead of Ryan’s address at their school, nearly 90 Georgetown University faculty members and administrators sent an open letter to the Republican legislator detailing their objections:

“However we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programmes for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. In short your budget appears to reflect the values of your favourite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the gospel values of compassion and love.”

Bishops historically have been above the partisan fray … [but] you’ve had a vocal minority of bishops who have used some inflammatory rhetoric, for example in Illinois a bishop compared the Obama administration to the days of Hitler and Stalin, another bishop used the word ‘despotism’.”

– John Gehring of the group Faith in Public Life

But as the nuns seek to bring attention to the plight of the poor, other Catholic leaders in the US, many who also oppose the Ryan budget, say the focus of Catholics should instead be on President Barack Obama’s overhaul of the US health system, the Affordable Care Act.

They want hospitals and schools run by the church to be exempt from a requirement that health insurance plans cover contraceptive services. Those bishops – and many other Catholics – oppose the use of birth control. And some have gone as far as saying that the healthcare law constitutes a war on religion.

Meanwhile, the Vatican has also criticised the nuns for focusing too much on economic injustice and not enough on the church’s other social teachings.  But the nuns say the controversy has only served to help them promote their cause.
Inside Story: US 2012 asks: What should Catholic leaders in the US focus on?

Joining Shihab Rattansi to discuss this are guests: Stephen White, a fellow in the Catholic studies programme at the Ethics and Public Policy Center; John Gehring, the Catholic programme director of the group Faith In Public Life; and Sister Marie Lucey, the associate director of the Franciscan Action Network, a grassroots, faith-based civic engagement organisation.

“Reform in entitlement programmes is necessary because it’s hard to have a safety net for the American people, especially for people on the margins if the nation is insolvent. So the idea is to get the long-term debt under control ….”

Stephen White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center


  • It aims to reduce the deficit by cutting spending on everything except defence and mandates the reduction of all government spending by 3.75 per cent of the gross domestic product by 2050
  • According to US political journalism organisation Politico, about half of the budget’s $2.5 trillion in 10-year savings would come from cutting healthcare programmes in addition to nutrition and education programmes that benefit working class families
  • Food stamps assistance will be cut by $133.5bn, assistance for low-income college students will be cut by $94bn
  • The proposal also preserves George Bush-era tax cuts and lowers the corporate tax rates