Sister Simone Campbell's fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention offered more than a wedge or niche opportunity for partisan and independent feminists.
She built a matchless platform to highlight Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's first and largest blunder - his choice of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to be his running mate.
Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a social services organization of women religious, led a 2,700-mile, seven-state Nuns on the Bus tour to denounce Ryan's 2013 budget bill as "immoral" and "unpatriotic."
She told a wildly cheering convention audience, "In order to cut taxes for the very wealthy, the Romney-Ryan budget would make it even tougher for hard-working Americans?to feed their families. Paul Ryan says this budget is in keeping with the values of our shared faith [Ryan is also Catholic]. I simply disagree."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Campbell said, "stated the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test, because it would harm families living in poverty."
"We stand with our bishops," she declared, bringing delegates to their feet with a roar. There may have been a touch of irony in that outpouring of delegates, many of whom are strongly pro-choice and favor gay marriage, which are opposed by the Catholic Church.
The bishops themselves had a larger agenda touching on the Obama administration, which Campbell did not discuss, and which went unmentioned until Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York pleaded for renewed respect for "religious liberty" when he offered a prayer closing the convention.
Dolan, who heads the USCCB, ardently opposes an Obama administration rule that forces church-related charities, schools, hospitals and colleges to purchase health insurance that covers birth control and abortifacients. Dolan led dozens of bishops in a teach-in opposing this mandate. Campbell's tour, ending July 2, coincided with the bishops' "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign against the Obama regulation.
Neither campaign mentioned the other's core issue. It is true that a subcommittee of the USCCB sent a pointed letter on conference stationery in April strongly condemning the Ryan budget that passed the Republican-controlled House for failing to meet moral criteria. But Dolan and the "Fortnight" bishops said precious little about the GOP's "preferential option" for the wealthy over the summer. That's my play on Pope John Paul II's 1991 plea that a "preferential option for the poor" guide Catholic behavior.
For her part, Campbell and her group, along with nuns in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, are under Vatican scrutiny, according to Religious News Service, for possible doctrinal differences with Catholic teaching - Campbell, in particular, for her alleged "silence" on abortion.
Campbell and Dolan - two faces of Christianity, of religious life. Social missionaries on one side and those who make and attempt to enforce social rules and control property on the other. The fault line has been there for centuries. Now, it has become ideological and partisan.
For this snippet of eternity, the Romney-Ryan and Obama-Biden forces can claim that one face or other of God is on their side. But the president has the more politically powerful wedge issues, including women's reproductive freedom and economic equality in this very tight election.
Nobody put it better than Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, which Romney wants to deep-six. Her mother, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, gave a stem-winder at the 1988 Democratic convention, raising class envy against Republican candidate George H.W. Bush who was born, she said, "with a silver foot in his mouth."
The Democrats' wedge issues were not enough then. Will this year's wardrobe of class, ethnic and women's issues save Obama?