When the Nuns on the Bus pulled up in front of Rep. Paul Ryan’s home office in Janesville, Wis., earlier this week, they were challenging the theological rationale he has been using for his budget plan that has become the economic banner for the Republican Party.
But they were also showing how people can hold strong opinions, get those opinions into the public arena and still engage adversaries in respectful ways.
In the process, they called on citizens to get engaged in the same way.
“I urge you, urge you, I beg you, Janesville, in this election cycle, please, don’t be a spectator,” Sr. Simone Campbell pleaded with a crowd in the courthouse park as their visit to the southern Wisconsin city came to an end.
Campbell is the director of the Catholic social justice organization NETWORK and the leader of this bus tour.
“Engage in conversations,” she said, and then brought laughter as she added, “Risk talking to folks like my brother Jim, which is always a challenge. But everybody has a brother Jim, right?”
The whole event in Janesville was an effort to spark those conversations. Ryan’s staff members welcomed the nuns into their office – a sharp contrast with their reception at Rep. Steve King’s office in Iowa the day before where the doors were locked and nobody appeared to be home.
Here, Ryan’s constituent services director met the nuns as they came through the door. There were a few moments of chatter, then she led the four nuns back into the office for 10 to 15 minutes of conversation.
When the nuns came out Campbell was effusive in her description of the meeting.
“We had a very lovely conversation with Congressman Ryan’s staff.,” she said. “We were well-received, copious notes were taken, we gave them our ‘Faithful Budget’ and we mentioned our concerns about the budget that Congressman Ryan proposed.”
Ryan himself was in Washington since the House was in session, but he clearly had instructed his staff to greet the cadre of nuns with grace and style. There was no suggestion that Ryan had changed his position at all, but the encounter showed that people with differing viewpoints can still connect.
Don’t ignore the fact, though, that the nuns were a feisty bunch, making sure they were getting plenty of media coverage for their efforts to call Ryan to account not only for the way his budget tilts government toward the rich and away from the poor, but also to call Ryan to account for claiming this budget grew out of his own understanding of Catholic teaching.
If the nuns were articulate in making their points, so was Ryan. While his office had no direct comment on how that conversation went, he issued a statement defending his work to reduce the nation’s deficit with “bold and targeted reforms and real solutions.”
In an interview with the National Catholic Register in early May, Ryan talked about two principles of that teaching – “solidarity,” which is standing with the poor, and “subsidiarity,” which is using responses that are as close to people as possible. He said there needed to be a better balance — less solidarity, more subsidiarity, in other words.
“We want more involvement in people’s lives through our social-mediating institutions,” Ryan said. “That, to me, is a part of the poverty-fighting strategy that we have lost.”
He is looking for churches and other private institutions to pick up the slack as he would scale back governmental anti-poverty efforts.
But Campbell critiques Ryan for emphasizing individuality — looking out for oneself over solidarity. “Individual responsibility combined with solidarity makes a whole. That’s what we argue,” she said as she reported on her visit with Ryan’s staff member.
Campbell offered a vision of how these things can be combined. She talked about being at a food pantry in Dubuque, Iowa earlier that day where nuns deliver the food to those who need it, but it’s done in collaboration with the government.
“That’s the kind of partnership that we need in the nation and that’s the kind of thing that Ryan’s budget will cut,” Campbell argued.
As the visit to Janesville ended, though, Campbell referred not just to her own faith, which she called the core of her values, but also to the nation’s Constitution.
“We have to talk to each other about what we value, “where we think our country is going,” she told the crowd in the park. “Then we will be ‘we the people’ that form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and most important, secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., just outside of Madison.