1923:  The Sisters of Social Service (SSS) was founded in Hungary by Margaret Slachta.

1945 (October 22):  Simone Campbell was born in Santa Monica, California.

1964:  Campbell joined the Sisters of Social Service.

1971 (December):  NETWORK was founded.

1972 (April):  A small NETWORK center was established in the Washington, D.C. area.

1973:  Sr. Campbell took her final vows in the Sisters of Social Service.

1978:  Sr. Campbell founded the Community Law Center in Oakland, California.

2001 (January):  President Bill Clinton presented the Presidential Citizens Medal to one of NETWORK’s founders, Sister Carol Coston.

2004:  Sr. Campbell became the executive director of Network.

2008:  The Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, lead by Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, ordered a review of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. 

2012:  The “Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America” was issued by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

2012:   The “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” was issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith.

2012-2014:  Four “Nuns on the Bus” tours were conducted.

2015 (April 16): The Vatican’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious abruptly ended.


What became the Network: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby developed out of the Sisters of Social Service (SSS), a Roman Catholic religious institute in the Benedictine tradition (“History” n.d.; “About Us” n.d.). Under canon law SSS is designated as a “society of apostolic life” rather than an “order,” and members refer to themselves as a “community.” SSS was founded by Margaret Slachta and several other Catholic Sisters in Hungary in 1923. Slachta was a political activist who worked on behalf of workers’, women’s, and family rights. She trained other women activists and went on to become the first woman to serve in the Hungarian Parliament (Campbell 2014). SSS soon spread to a number of other nations. The California District of SSS was established in Los Angeles i n 1926 by Sister Frederica Horvath. SSS was very active in rescuing Jews during the World War II era. With the rise of communism in Eastern Europe after World War II, religious orders were suppressed, and the European and American wings of SSS separated, later reconnecting as a federation. Sr. Margaret Slachta moved to Buffalo, New York in 1949. Sister Simone Campbell, who became the leader of NETWORK, also served as General Director of SSS for the United States, Mexico, Taiwan, and the Philippines between 1995 and 2000. SSS has always been a small community, with fewer than 100 members in all of the nations in which it has a presence.

NETWORK was founded in December, 1971 in Washington D.C. by a group of forty seven activist Catholic Sisters. Sr. Simone Campbell was one of the founding Sisters and became NETWORK’s Executive Director in 2004. Sr. Campbell was born on October 22, 1945 in Santa Monica, California. Little information is available about her early life (Campbell 2014). She was born Mary Campgell and later took the name Simone. As a child she attended Catholic school and learned about Vatican II, which would be a major influence in her life, from the nuns who were her teachers at school. Sr. Campbell recalls that the combination of the tumultous events in the early 1960s civil rights movement and the diagnosis of her younger sister with a terminal illness contributed to her decision to join the Sisters of Social Service when she was nineteen years-old. Five years later earned a B.A. degree from Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles. In 1973, Sr. Campbell took her final vows in the Sisters of Social Service. She earned a J.D. degree at the University of California at Davis in 1977. Sr. Campbell has a long record of political activism. She founded the Community Law Center in Oakland, California in 1978, where she held the position of lead attorney for nearly twenty years. She also served as Executive Director of JERICHO (2002–2004), an interfaith public policy group in California that works on behalf of disadvantaged populations. In her role of Executive Director of NETWORK, Sr. Campbell was an active participant the largest coalition of American women religious, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The LCWR coalition represents eighty percent of the approximately 57,000 women religious in the U.S.

NETWORK became best known in recent years for its four “Nuns on the Bus” tours. The first tour, which ran from mid-June 2012 to early July 2012 started in Iowa and ended in Washington, D.C., covering nine states. The tour was undertaken to protest a federal budget bill initiated by Wisconsin Republican congressional representative Paul Ryan (which included provisions such as cuts to food stamp, service block grants, and child tax credits) that NETWORK contended would seriously disadvantage working and low income families. The theme of the second tour, which ran from the end of May, 2013 to the middle of June, 2013 was a call for comprehensive immigration reform. A third tour, which took place in 2012-2013, featured events in a number of states calling for expansion of the Medicaid Program. The most recent tour, running from September, 2014 through November, 2014 was an eleven-state, 44-city, 115-event opposing “big money” influence on the 2014 midterm elections as a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010. Sr. Campbell commented on the tour: “It’s all about ‘we the people’ standing up against big money” (Gibson 2014). Each of these tours drew large audiences and extensive media coverage.


NETWORK describes itself as growing out of the “progressive spirit of Vatican II” and rooted in the Catholic social justice tradition. More specifically, NETWORK identifies itself, as “a Catholic leader in the global movement for justice and peace,” one that “educates, organizes and lobbies for economic and social transformation (“About Us” n.d.). The objective is to work “to create a society that promotes justice and the dignity of all in the shared abundance of God’s creation (“About Us” n.d.).

NETWORK defines its values as follows (“About Us” n.d.):

A just society includes all and values people over the accumulation of profits .

We work to change structures that cause poverty and inequality, placing the needs of people at the economic margins and excluded at the center of our advocacy.

We work for a federal budget that benefits everyone and a just tax system that ensures that all pay their fair share.

We work to ensure inclusion of everyone in our economy and democracy.

A just society ensures that all people – the 100% – have what they need to live dignified lives.

We work for justly compensated jobs and quality healthcare for all.

We work to protect the rights of immigrants and all who struggle at the margins.

We work for affordable housing, food assistance and safety-net programs for all who need them.

A just society recognizes that we live in an interconnected world.

We work for nonviolent solutions to conflict.

We work to alleviate unequal burdens created by climate change.

We work for trade policies that are rooted in justice and that protect all. 


NETWORK is a lobbying organization and is coordinated through a governing board of thirteen members. There are small teams with specific areas of responsibility: leadership, communications/media, development/membership, field organization, government relations, and education programs. NETWORK addresses a range of issues: promoting peace; reforming immigration policy; combatting hunger, poverty, and inadequate housing; ensuring adequate and affordable healthcare and secure retirement; advocating for wage equity and fair trade policies; and reforming federal budget priorities.


The conflict between Roman Catholic women’s orders and the church hierarchy can be traced most directly back to the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which began in 1962 and inaugurated a range of sweeping changes. Mass was now celebrated in domestic languages; members of religious orders began engaging in social and political activism on a number of fronts; women religious traded traditional habits for more conventional clothing: cloistered religious orders were reorganized; priests turned to face the faithful in the congregation; the church adopted a more accepting posture toward other religions traditions, and Judaism in particular (Pope 2012; Ebaugh 1991). The lives and organization of women religious were dramatically affected by Vatican II as in modernized religious orders nuns were encouraged to focus on social justice and community engagement rather than to promote church doctrine. Religious orders began to operate more assertively and independently, downplaying the traditional nun role of remaining separate from the world, staying in the background, and emphasizing holiness (Kawentel 2012). Over time, the Roman Catholic Church has pulled back on some of those Vatican II initiatives and begun to reassert control over religious orders, particularly after Pope Benedict XVI (the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) succeeded Pope John Paul II, while some religious orders have continued to pursue the Vatican II mandates (Neuman 2012). Harvard professor Harvey Cox commented that “…Ratzinger got very dismayed and distraught by what was going on in the late 1960s in the German universities”….”He thought it was time to tack [to the right] and emphasize authority and obedience and order because he thought things were getting out of hand” (Neuman 2012).

A major flashpoint in the conflict between women religious and the U.S. Conference of Bishops was the 2010 debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which the Bishops opposed. During the debate, Sr. Campbell wrote the celebrated “nuns letter,” which was signed by LCWR and several dozen Catholic Sisters (Nichols 2013).

The health care bill that has been passed by the Senate and that will be voted on by the House will expand coverage to over 30 million uninsured Americans. While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all. It will invest in preventative care. It will bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It will make crucial investments in community health centers that largely serve poor women and children. And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments—$250 million—in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.

The nuns’ input was quite influential. Sixty-two members of the House of Representatives sponsored a resolution praising their work to “make our nation stronger.” Sr. Campbell was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention, and Sr. Campbell was later invited to the White House for the Affordable Care Act’s presidential signing ceremony (Fox 2012; McElwee 2012).

The ongoing tension between women’s religious orders and the Roman Catholic hierarchy led to two reviews of their activity. The Vatican initiated a review of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which was founded in 1956 with Vatican approval, in 2008 to assess the consistency of constituent religious orders with church doctrines. (A smaller, more conservative umbrella group, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious was established by the Vatican in 1992 to counterbalance the more liberal LCWR). Archbishop Peter Sartain, Bishop Leonard Blair, and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki were appointed and given up to five years to conduct the review, which would provide “review [and] guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work of the LCWR,” according to the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith’s (CDF) doctrinal assessment (Neuman 2012).

The review of LCWR (Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith 2012; Gibson 2014) described the organization’s condition as “grave and a matter of serious concern” It made reference to “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” sponsoring individuals and groups that were not in alignment with church teachings, and challenging the bishops who represented church authority on matters of faith. As the review put it, some LCWR organizations have perpetuated “a distorted ecclesiological vision, and have scant regard for the role of the Magisterium as the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church’s Faith.” The CDF’s doctrinal assessment was concerned with LCWR’s failure to speak out on matters central to Catholic doctrine (right to life issues such as abortion and euthanasia, family/sexuality issues such as homosexuality and gay marriage), and gender issues (such as ordination of women). NETWORK was specifically singled out for criticism. The church hierarchy’s displeasure was certainly not diminished by the fact that NETWORK’s first tour (which protested Paul Ryan’s conservative budget proposal and attracted widespread media coverage) overlapped with the church’s “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign (Boorstein 2012) intended to convince the public that religious liberty in the U.S was being eroded by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (requiring that employers provide healthcare insurance for employees, including religious and charitable organizations, that provided coverage for various forms of birth control) for which Sister Campbell had been a vocal advocate (Boorstein 2012). The authors of the report had numerous supporters who thought that the nuns had gone too far (Desmond 2010). For example: “Maybe they should review the vow of obedience they took. See that is the problem with the American Church, they think they can do whatever they want. These women don’t even dress like nuns. They promote liberal ideas in opposition to Church teaching, and when the Holy Father calls them on it, instead of being obedient they protest” (Simon 2012).

Many women’s religious orders saw the Vatican organized review as a threat to their independence, their commitment to social justice, and to continuing recruitment difficulties that began during the Vatican II period. The also reacted to what they regarded as an over-reaching patriarchy that was itself morally compromised by financial and sexaual scandals inside the church (Davis 2012; Hunt 2012, 2013; O’Keefe 2013). They found the “compromise” offered by CDF, Bishop Leonard Blair to initiate a “dialogue” that would “educate” nuns to be unacceptable (“Bishop Explains” 2012):

“If by dialogue, they mean that the doctrines of the church are negotiable, and that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR represents another position and somehow we find a middle ground about basic church teaching on faith and morals, then no, I don’t think that’s the dialogue the Holy See would envision. But if it’s a dialogue about how to have the LCWR really educate and help the sisters appreciate and accept church teaching and to implement it in their discussions, and try to heal some of the questions or concerns they have about these issues, that would be the dialogue.”

The response from women religious was critical and pointed. Comments such as “ “Our sisters have fed the hungry, healed the sickand stood with the marginalized, so they’re wondering, how can these men in the Vatican criticize us?” and “Submitting to the Vatican’s demands would be akin to ‘allowing an oppressive regime to come in with a hostile takeover’” were not uncommon. Critiques were accompanied by organized vigils protesting the review and a petition to the Vatican asking that it be discontinued (Simon 2012). Sister Campbell was even more direct, commenting on the report’s reference to NETWORK, “. “Their big mistake was naming us,” Campbell said. “With all this attention, we had to use it for our mission” (Boorstein 2012; Goodstein 2012).

The second review, this one by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (Apostolic Visitation) involved an examination of about 340 congregations (Braz de Aviz 2014). This report urged women religious to ensure that they were compliant with Catholic doctrine: “ This Dicastery calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.” The report also took note of a lack of cooperation with the review by some women religious: “This Dicastery is well aware that the Apostolic Visitation was met with apprehension and suspicion by some women religious. This resulted in a refusal, on the part of some institutes, to collaborate fully in the process. While the lack of full cooperation was a painful disappointment for us, we use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them.”

The Apostolic Visitation received a similar response to the CDF review (Simon 2012):

The current “Apostolic Visitation” is not a normal dialogue between religious and church authorities. It is the ecclesiastical analogue of a grand jury indictment, set in motion when there is reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or a prima facie case of serious abuse or wrong-doing of some kind. There are currently several situations in the U.S. church that would justify such an investigation (widespread child sexual abuse by clerics, episcopal cover-ups of such abuse, long term sexual liaisons by people vowed to celibacy, embezzlement of church funds, cult-like practices in some church groups) but women religious are not significantly implicated in any of these. Religious are disturbed by the implied accusation of wrong-doing that the very fact of being subjected to an apostolic visitation involves, especially because the “charges” are vague or non-existent.

Tensions appeared to begin to dissipate in when Pope Francis issued a conciliatory statement: (Nichols 2013; Spadaro 2013; Zoll 2014) Pope Francis stated that:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

The ongoing standoff came to an end in April 2015 when the Pope met with four leaders of the LCWR. As one observer characterized the meeting: “It’s about as close to an apology, I would think, as the Catholic Church is officially going to render” (Goodstein 2015). The continuing influence of NETWORK and other groups of women religious is indicated by President Obama’s reaching out to them as allies in the run-up to what could well be a landmark decision by the Supreme Court’s decision Affordable Care Act (Boorstein 2015).


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David G. Bromley
Jessica Smith

 Post Date:
4 June 2015


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