WASHINGTON, DC – It was in the late 1960s that Adrian, Dominican Sister Carol Coston, felt the energy released by the Second Vatican Council in the call of Church leaders to engage the world with wealth. of Catholic education.
She was teaching at the time at Tampa Catholic High School in Florida. Before long, she moved across the state to Fort Lauderdale to work on housing rights and racial equity issues.
Coston was not alone. She was one of hundreds of religious women nationwide who moved from the traditional ministries of teaching and parish work to social ministries alongside poor and marginalized people.
By 1971, a movement was underway to bring religious women together to effect change in federal policy in response to the social ills the sisters were witnessing. Msgr. Geno Baroni, a longtime social activist who had established the Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, encouraged the sisters to meet, then stepped aside to counsel them when they had questions.
When Coston heard of sisters meeting in Washington just before Christmas that year to discuss a new type of “political ministry,” she was on board.
“The energy of all the women together was something very appealing,” Coston, 87, told Catholic News Service.
In all, 47 nuns gathered at Trinity College, now known as Trinity Washington University.
“A lot of us in that first group had been in Latin America or Central America, so they were trying to work for justice in those environments. Then a number of us had worked on anti-Vietnam war activities. Another group was agricultural workers’ rights. It was a way of taking the issues we cared about and looking at them from a public policy perspective,” Coston said.
To sow the movement, the sisters collected between them the modest sum of $147. They also appointed a 13-member steering committee; Coston was among them.
The committee met in January 1972. Coston soon became the choice to lead the effort that would soon be known as the Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying organization.
“It felt like I couldn’t say no,” Coston said. “But then there was a bit of anxiety because we didn’t know what we were doing and it was kind of a big step forward.”
Using desks and phones donated by other organizations and securing modest monthly financial commitments from religious congregations, Network has embarked on a ministry that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
One of Coston’s first tasks was to connect with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the precursor to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to determine which issues needed the most attention. She was asked to review briefs summarizing the bishops’ legislative priorities.
Going through a four-drawer cabinet, she found that more than 75% of the contents were devoted to contraception, abortion, and public funding of parochial schools. She had found the answer for Network management.
“I thought that was where our niche would be, all the other (economic justice) issues,” she said. “There was this rich history of Catholic social thought and (the records) didn’t go beyond those issues.”
Deciding which political issues to focus on was easy to discern, said Sister Mary Hayes, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who attended the initial weekend meeting at Trinity College.
She described an “urgency” among the sisters to fight poverty, economic justice and racism. Abortion, she said, was not yet a hot issue because Roe v. Wade from the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized it was still over a year away.
“The issues they chose were ones that they could actively lobby Congress on in terms of legislation and abortion was not on the legislative agenda of Congress,” explained Hayes, 86, retired history professor and archivist at Trinity Washington University.
To help generate interest and knowledge of the issues facing millions of people, Network has held summer legislative conferences over the next 21 summers. Sister Nancy Sylvester, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, joined the Network in 1977 as a legislative researcher and served as executive director from 1982 to 1992. She said the summer sessions, initially reserved for Churches, then opened to anyone in the 1980s, helped people learn about the legislative process.
It was a time when “you could talk to people across the aisle” to get bills passed, Sylvester recalls. “It was an exciting time, even though we had different presidential administrations, there were people who saw gospel values.”
The network continues to focus its legislative priorities on economic justice with a focus on poverty, housing, welfare reform, racial equality, voting rights and federal investments in families and local communities , including the extension of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.
Mary Novak, who became the network’s first lay executive director in March 2021, said she and the staff, now numbering about two dozen, looked to those early days in an effort to ground current legislative efforts. of the organization in the vision of the 47 women gathered in 1971.
“We are replicating what Vatican II invited religious orders to do in the 1960s, which is to study your history, reconnect with your founding charism and carry it forward for the 20th century, (and) for us in the 21st century,” Novak told CNS.
One of the network’s priorities is to work on comprehensive immigration reform. The organization is working with the USCCB, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Health Association of the United States, and Catholic Relief Services to convince a deeply divided Congress and the White House to come up with a plan whereby immigrants receive fair treatment.
Over the years, Network has partnered with various organizations as well as Republican and Democratic members of Congress to achieve significant legislative victories. Among the most significant is the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, a complex piece of legislation that has expanded access to health care for millions of people.
Sister Simone Campbell, the Network’s executive director at the time and who retired in 2021 after 17 years in the role, said the effort required the collaboration of many organizations, including the Catholic Health Association and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Campbell, a member of the Sisters of Social Service, said the bill was essential for people without health insurance. However, the USCCB opposed the ACA, saying a provision would require employers to pay for abortion. Network read it differently, Campbell said.
Then-President Barack Obama and Democratic members of Congress credited Network with pushing the bill through Congress.
The ACA remains in place. The USCCB has since opposed efforts to overturn it, urging Congress to pass replacement legislation first so that millions of people do not lose access to health care.
In 2012, Network launched a series of national Nuns on the Bus campaigns that focused on various economic justice initiatives. Until 2018, six bus tours traveled the country meeting people to discuss day-to-day concerns and shape the political agenda of the organization. The tours also raised Network’s national profile.
Campbell said the tours were important because people wanted someone to listen to them.
“Our goal is economic justice and the impact of our economy on the most marginalized. It’s following the gospel, meeting the needs of those who have been left behind,” Campbell said.
“There are many, many organizations working on the issue of abortion in various ways and almost no one is working on the issue of poverty. So while this was true at our foundation, it is still true that the greatest need is the promotion of Catholic social teaching on the issue of poverty. As Pope Francis says, equally sacred, equally sacred is the care of the poor,” she added.
Today, at 50, Network boasts 100,000 members, who are regularly called upon to urge members of Congress to support legislation focused on economic justice. Novak, however, said it’s been difficult to garner bipartisan support for the bills because of the political polarization that exists in Congress and the nation as a whole.
That won’t stop Network’s political ministry, Novak said.
“It is a political ministry in that we accompany our elected officials in all their political seasons, being a constant presence, calling on them to put the well-being of people, communities and our land first in their legislation,” she told the CNS.
“And then also understand our work as a policy ministry where our advocacy is informed by its hubs, the voices and demands of those of us most affected by the federal policies we work on. We are very intentional about who we listen to before setting our agenda. We have achieved this by making our history what the first sisters did.