I’m ambivalent about the idea of a religious sister (or priest) accepting a spot as a speaker at the national convention of either political party. But I believe strongly that Sr. Simone Campbell deserves the applause she received at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday evening. (Video here.) She has been for years an effective advocate for social justice in many ways. Her words about the kind of nation we are called to be (“I am my sister’s keeper! I am my brother’s keeper!”) moved and inspired me. Her criticism of the Romney/Ryan budget proposals was on the mark.
Yet at the same time, I was troubled and disappointed by her speech, especially by the words with which she closed and by words she did not speak.
“We care for the 100 percent!” she proclaimed in the final moments of her speech, to rousing applause. She’s right that we ought to care for “the 100 percent,” but given her own work and the audience to whom she was speaking, the statement had an element of self-congratulatory deception, highlighting the inconsistency of both the important organization she heads and even moreso of the Democratic party platform.
NETWORK, which calls itself (and is) a “Catholic social justice lobby,” takes no position on abortion. Despite the fact that NETWORK cites Catholic social teaching as the inspiration for its issue agenda, and appropriately includes “the dignity of the human person” first among them, abortion is not included among the list of issues on its radar screen — not even in the final “additional issues” category.
The Democratic party, of course, goes farther. I admire a great deal the party’s attentiveness to the weak and marginalized among us. I admire its willingness to oppose those who would use their power and wealth to give even more benefits to others who also have it while ignoring the poor and the common good. Unfortunately, the party is selective about which weak ones it’s willing to protect; it has made itself so much the champion of completely unlimited abortion that it has only itself to blame for being called by some “the party of death.” Indeed, it is now no longer willing even to speak (as Bill Clinton often did) of a desire to make abortions “rare.” So emphatic was the party this week about its support for legal abortion that one columnist termed the convention an “abortion-palooza.”
That’s the crowd before which Sr. Simone, a Catholic sister and effective advocate for social justice, stood to proclaim “We care for the 100 percent!” In doing so, Sr. Simone moves from simply choosing to address issues other than abortion (no one can do everything) to excluding the unborn from any tally of who is a part of society. She gives the stark impression that they are not even among those who deserve attention, that they do not exist. How is this different than refusing to recognize that people of a certain race are members of the human family?
Sr. Simone might have considered offering at least a nod (as Cardinal Dolan was willing to do in his closing prayer, for example) to the portion of humanity for which the party does not care, or at least does not deem worthy of protection. As a friend in their midst, with whom she shares so many central convictions and who hold her in such deservedly high regard, Sr. Simone could have effectively challenged them — if only for a few seconds of an otherwise strongly positive speech — to extend the horizon of their concern to the whole human family and reminded them of one group that is left aside in the party’s admirable efforts to defend the weakest among us. And paired with Cardinal Dolan’s convention prayer, what a fine witness the two would have offered that — unlike either party — the Catholic Church does indeed stand in defense of life in all its stages and circumstances, and that it is beholden to no party or platform.
Sr. Simone and the good folks at NETWORK: Thank you for the important and effective work you do and witness you offer on behalf of the poorest among us. Please continue the work. But please widen your vision and your work to include another group of weak and defenseless persons who need and deserve our protection.
UPDATED 9/13: Deepening my frustration, I see Sr. Simone recently offered the “above my pay grade” answer to a journalist’s question about whether abortion should be illegal.