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Activist nun makes Rochester stop

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The philosophy of the hard right is breathtaking in its strangulation of compassion, and in its self-righteous disregard of history. It is also, says Sister Simone Campbell, just plain bad for the country.

Campbell is the executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby based in Washington, D.C. She is coming to Rochester later this month to speak at the Christ's Love in Action event sponsored by Flower City Habitat for Humanity and Heritage Christian Services.

Her appearance is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 25, at Asbury First United Methodist Church, 1050 East Avenue. There is no charge and registration is not required. Campbell will also make a couple of appearances at Nazareth College. The first is at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 19, in the Arts Center Callahan Theater. The second is at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, September 20, in the Linehan Chapel in the Golisano Academic Center. Both events are free and open to the public.

Campbell received national attention as an organizer of Nuns on the Bus, an activist group that makes cross-country tours to influence lawmakers on immigration reform, poverty, and health care. The group logged 6,500 miles through 15 states during its most recent trip.

People are afraid to look clearly at issues like poverty and immigration, Campbell says, because it would be mean sharing responsibility for both helping sustain and helping solve the problems.

"We all need to acknowledge that we are benefitting from having employers pay low wages, because we get lower-cost items," she says. "And if I'm going to face up to the fact that I am helping keep people poor, then I have to stand up and not only say that I'm willing to pay taxes, but I'm willing to pay higher taxes.

"And we know from history that having a permanent underclass wasn't a good idea when we had slavery," she says. "It's not a good idea now. In a democracy, the whole idea is that we work together to govern ourselves. And if you're leaving out a significant group of people, then the government is failing."

In a recent conversation, Campbell spoke about her support for the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform. Many of her positions put her and Network at odds with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church's governing entity and public policy arm. The Vatican chastised Network for "focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping 'silent' on abortion and same-sex marriage," says the New York Times.

What follows is an edited version of a wide-ranging interview with Sister Campbell:

CITY: You're an outspoken advocate for the Affordable Care Act, even though the US Conference of Catholic Bishops says it impinges on their religious freedom.

Campbell: The bishops' staff started off opposing the Affordable Care Act when it was still in Congress, claiming that there was federal funding for abortion in the act. I read the bill, and it specifically says there is not. And since that time, two federal courts have found as a matter of law that there is no federal funding of abortion.

The last time I checked the bishops' website, they no longer maintained that there is federal funding of abortion. Now they say they fear there is federal funding of abortion.

Even though the Obama administration did basically everything that they said they needed the administration to do to comply with the issues of religious liberty that they found, they persist in maintaining that it's not sufficient. They keep moving the goal post.

So I believe, along with the Catholic Health Association, that the accommodation that was made by the administration protects religious liberty. Unfortunately, the bishops, who have a contract as I understand it to litigate this issue, are holding out on a litigation strategy, thinking it would be better to litigate this than for our people to get health care.

I just find this disingenuous, and quite worrisome.

You're also outspoken in support of immigration reform.

On this one, we stand with the bishops. And on our latest bus trip, some bishops came and stood with us, which really was great.

We have all these treaties for the free movement of capital, but none for the free movement of labor. And as long as there's no real, workable provision for the movement of labor, labor's exploited.

We have sisters in Mexico working in little towns without men. Because of NAFTA, the men were no longer able to support their families with agriculture, so they came to the north. The women try to farm the land, and the men come here to try to send money back so their families can live.

So our global trade policy has generated the movement of people. We as a nation have to take responsibility for the consequences of our policy. Therefore we need to fix our broken system.

Jesus was all about welcoming the stranger, reaching out to the one who is left out, making sure all are included and can participate. So for me, it's an issue of faith. It's not good for us as a nation to have people who are not invested, who cannot invest in our democracy.

Your views on abortion are nuanced.

Abortions for all women in the top 70 percent of income have gone down as the economy has strengthened. Where abortions have gone up are with low-income women. That says to me that there's a direct correlation between abortion and economics.

And to be pro-life requires us to be vigorously in support of women, who are the majority of low-wage workers. Therefore I think it's more about the formation of individual conscience and economic opportunity than it is about outlawing it.

Both sides of this debate have used this one issue as a way to rally their base. And neither one has an interest in really taking care of women who might make this choice, or be tempted to make this choice.

You've talked about making the distinction between pro-life and pro-birth.

A congressman told me that poverty would be taken care of if we did away with minimum wage. He would consider himself pro-life. But he would rather have people starve.

The easy labels that we put on positions have been seriously counterproductive to having a conversation. So I've been trying to be clearer, to push folks who identify themselves as pro-life but don't want to do anything to support people after they're born.

It made me nervous for a very long time that I would be lumped into an extremist category that I don't belong in. But I finally realized that my values are my values, and why should I hide from it? I'm trying to be bolder about sticking up for what I believe. I am pro-life. [Abortion is] not a good choice. It's an anguished choice that no woman should have to make, and we ought to work really hard to make sure there are plenty of options. But we don't.

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