Sister Simone Campbell has been in the spotlight since last April, when the Vatican criticized U.S. nuns for focusing on social justice but not speaking out enough against abortion, birth control and gay marriage.
The Vatican's doctrinal office noted "the prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic Faith" and positions that were "not in agreement with the Church's teaching on human sexuality."
A UC Davis law school graduate, Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, a liberal social justice lobby in Washington, D.C. She made headlines last summer when she launched the Nuns on the Bus tour that took on Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's budget.
She also spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and this week was interviewed on National Public Radio and CNN for her reactions on the election of a new pope.
What could Pope Francis mean for U.S. Catholics, particularly women?
The sum of Catholics in the U.S. continues to grow because of immigrants and babies, but they say the third-largest denomination in the U.S. is former Catholics. I don't expect any structural changes like ordination of female priests. But he is coming from Argentina where there is a woman president, so he's used to working with women in power positions, which is very different from previous popes. I'm hoping he will be able to work with women and see the value of our contributions.
Can an individual pope make a difference in the daily lives of American Catholics?
Dramatically. Look at Pope John XXIII, who made a tremendous difference in our faith and called for the second Vatican reform council, Vatican II. He was very charismatic and engaging, and I was reminded of him when the new pope made a joke about the cardinals having to go very far away to find a new pope. Humor is something we haven't seen in a while. He could make a big difference if he wishes. He could call another council of reform.
Why did the Vatican investigate you and other American nuns, and how could the new pope handle it?
I'm hopeful the Italian way will be done, where the investigation just falls to the bottom of the drawer and nobody pays attention. That would be the best outcome. They said we didn't work enough on some of their favorite issues, including abortion, and because we were silent we were suspect. The fact is we were founded 41 years ago to work for economic justice in response to the Vatican's call to stand with those in poverty. We've been faithful to that responsibility, and now they seem to have changed their mind.
How will the new pope deal with American Catholics' views on abortion and birth control?
We were named as a problem because I wrote what was called the "Nun's Letter in Support of the Affordable Health Care Act," and American bishops opposed it because they thought there was federal funding of abortion. But the courts have determined there is no abortion funding. One poll claimed that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control at some point.
They say the new pope is a conservative with regard to sexual politics, but he's a 76-year-old man who took a vow of celibacy. It's not his issue: He doesn't have to make these choices daily.
Abortion doesn't mean excommunication. Under Vatican II, our renewal program of the 1960s, the individual conscience is the highest governor of our actions, and it's our goal as people of faith to make sure that our conscience is well-formed, we know the Gospel, we live deeply a spiritual life – and based on prayer and reflection we make choices as best we can for our circumstances.
What's next for Nuns on the Bus?
If we raise the money, then what we're going to do is another tour lifting up the issue of immigration reform – we will all be better off if we fix our immigration system.
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.