Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Could you tell us how your early education supported your work in Social Justice?
Sister: I was educated by the Immaculate Heart Sisters in Southern California. They always communicated the idea that Jesus and faith were not just an assent to something that happened thousands of years ago, but it was alive now. It all mattered that we were connected to the story of Jesus and the story of civil rights that was unfolding at the time. The speeches of Dr. King and others were about the application of our faith to daily life. When studying for confirmation, I chose the name Genevieve for my confirmation name because she defended Paris from invaders. The way I understood it: Genevieve applied her faith to the needs of her people and had an impact for good. In high school, I read about Dr. Tom Dooley who was a doctor in Viet Nam and Cambodia before the explosion of the war. I heard him speak once, and it was clear to me that he was applying his faith to the needs of people.
Dr. Knight: What led you to join the Sisters of Social Service?
Sister: I met our community through the summer camp that my sister and I attended as kids. Camp was magical in creating a community with children from all over the Los Angeles basin. We loved it and learned so much each summer during our week at camp.
When I was a senior in high school, my sister (who was a sophomore) was diagnosed with Hodgkin disease and given 3 to 5 years to live. As I look back, I think that spurred me to think that I needed to get about the work of justice. There was no time to wait sitting around in a classroom. President Kennedy was killed that November and life seemed short. I was tutoring in Watts (South Central Los Angeles) and engaged in other justice work. I needed more.
My community never taught in school nor nursed in hospitals. We are all about being where the needs are and acting to make a change. I was drawn to the Sister's strategic action and joy in the doing. I had a couple of the Sisters in class with me in college and I was drawn to the fact that they were working in social work and going to school to finish their bachelor’s degrees.
Dr. Knight: What is the mission and vision of your order? How does your vision coincide with this?
Sister: Our community was founded in 1923 in Budapest Hungary and 1926 in Los Angeles to do the social mission of the church. This was in direct response to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Our foundress in Hungary, Sr. Margaret lachta was the first woman in the Hungarian Parliament when ent when she was leading our community. She taught that there were four levels of engagement in society: direct service, group work, social movements, and legislation. She believed that to be effective at any one level those four aspects had to be connected and communicating with each other. Our Sisters in Hungary founded the first school of social work, reformed juvenile detention, led the women’s suffrage movement, and much more.
As an immigrant community in Los Angeles, our work was more about group work and working with individuals in parishes. By the late 1940’s our Sisters were founders and leaders of Catholic Charities, Catholic Youth Organization, and much more. We led settlement houses and a variety of service sites. Our Sisters became involved in state legislation through the various professional organizations of social workers that they were involved with. All of this was because of the Gospel!
My community is dedicated to the Holy Spirit and we were taught early in our days in community to trust the Spirit to lead us. This has been my consistent experience that we will be led.
Dr. Knight What inspired you to obtain a law degree?
Sister: I suppose the short answer is: “The Holy Spirit.” However, the details are that when I was assigned to Portland, Oregon for work in the Archdiocesan Religious Education Office with High School and Junior High non-school programs, I also did volunteer community organizing. We organized tenants to go to the state capital and testify about the need for tenants’ rights legislation. During the testimony, a curmudgeon of a legislator asked about some “covenant” that I knew nothing about. I have always hated power imbalance, and I came home and told the Sisters that I lived with: I need to go to law school. One of the Sisters that I lived with said that was interesting, but none of us had ever gone to law school and did it fit into our charism. I ended up writing what was essentially my first brief to convince our leadership that it was a good idea. After I took final vows a couple of years later, I got the okay to go to law school. I applied to California Schools because I thought that I needed to live in a community house while I did something that was unique for our community. For me, a confirmation of this direction came when I got “early admission” to my first choice for school: University of California at Davis King Hall. So I went to law school to do public policy and work on legislation, but while there I discovered I liked the practice of law and came to see how low-income people are too often left out.
Dr. Knight What aspects of your work on the UC Davis Law Review affect your work?
Sister: I went to law school to work in some fashion to serve the marginalized. I thought that they deserved a lawyer who had all the qualifications of a wealthy person’s lawyer. So I did what I could to get the “credentials” that I understood would validate my competence. I “tried out” for law review and was accepted. My article ended up entitled “Catholic Sisters, Irregularly Ordained Women and the Clergy Penitent Privilege.” I’m not exactly sure how this in-depth effort affected my work, but it did give me credentials and the confidence that I could do challenging work in the law. As a Law Review Editor in my third year, I learned a lot about clear and persuasive writing as we edited articles for our journal.
Dr. Knight: You established the Community Law Center in Oakland, California to reach more people. Tell us about this endeavor.
Sister: My last semester of law school I did an independent study to figure out a way to serve those who did not have access to legal services. I found that there was a BIG gap for those who did not qualify for free civil legal services, but could not afford a private attorney. It was the “working poor” who were left out of service. So I designed a law center that served the working poor where we charged on a sliding scale according to income and number of dependents. We ended up doing most of the high conflict low-income family law and probate cases in our county. When President Regan curtailed legal aid, we were swamped. I convened a meeting at our house of some lawyer friends and family court judges. My question was “How do we triage the cases?” We ended up creating a referral panel of attorneys who would take our referrals at our fee structure. It had not been my answer, but, for me, it was the Spirit alive in the room that evening. 18 years is impossible to summarize, but it was a rich and rewarding experience.
Dr. Knight: You became the director of your religious institute and oversaw its activist internationally. What did this assignment afford you to do?
Sister: I had made the decision to leave the law center so that it could flourish and I could do something else. In the process, I got elected to leadership for a variety of reasons. It was the most challenging work that I have ever done in the effort to be responsive to my Sisters and their needs and promote the mission of our Society. Our internationality is a gift that allows us to know how the Gospel is lived in other settings and how culture affects our mission. Our Sisters are in the US, Mexico, Taiwan, and the Philippines. We are indigenous in each country. Visiting our Sisters became an enriching opportunity to learn about my assumptions and cultural constraints and be open to others.
Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about the reforms to health care that you supported and why the USCCB did not support it?
Sister: This is a whole chapter in my book A Nun on the Bus. The short answer is the I had read the bill and knew that there was no federal funding of abortion in the Affordable Care Act. The USCCB staff was highly identified with Republicans on Capitol Hill and did not want President Obama to have a “win.” So they told the bishop leaders of the USCCB was that there was federal funding for abortion in the bill. This was not true. Therefore, we supported the position of the Catholic Health Association who (like us) had read the bill and knew what was actually in it. If you’re interested in this struggle, please see my book. It is a long complicated saga into all of the details.
Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about the “Nuns on the Bus Project”?
Sister: When the Vatican came out with the “censure” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, they named our little organization NETWORK as a bad influence that promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Gospel.” This was Vatican politics and “payback” for our winning on healthcare. My prayer became: How do we use this moment for our mission? The result was that on May 14, 2012, we hosted a meeting in our office of about 30 folks representing different secular organizations. It was like Pentecost! After an hour and a half meeting, we were going on the road in a “wrapped” bus, lifting up the work of Catholic Sisters and pushing back against the Ryan Budget. We held town halls, rallies, did visits to service sites, lobbied members of Congress to vote against the budget. AND we lifted up the USCCB press release that said that the Ryan Budget failed a basic moral test. One of my favorite lines that we had was: We stand with our bishops in opposing this budget. Since then our format has stayed the same over six in-person trips and now with our virtual trip.
Dr. Knight: You stated as you supported the Affordable Care Act that “From my perspective, I don’t think it’s a good policy to outlaw abortion. I think, rather, let’s focus on economic development for women and economic opportunity. That’s what really makes the change.” Was that supported by your congregation?
Sister: This is my position, not my community’s. A couple of our Sisters work very hard to outlaw abortion. However, they have worked at it for almost 50 years and the poles don’t seem to be coming together. I’m a person that would rather get something done and that means engaging caring for pregnant women so that they can carry their pregnancy to term and then raise the child with the resources they need.
Dr. Knight: In 2017 you stated that you found it “outrageous” that the church was failing to sufficiently address sexual abuse and clerical accountability. How can we re-establish accountability?
Sister: I think that the Church leadership should take the dealing with the issue of sexual abuse in the Church out of the hands of attorneys. Yes, follow their advice for future safety, but this is not such a legal issue. It is a moral issue and our leadership should weep and atone for the lack of attention and belief about predatory behavior. I know too many people who have been traumatized by clergy abuse and they only dealt with attorneys. Lawyers paper over the issue with a layer of power and until there is atonement I don’t believe that we can really change our church. This also goes to the treatment of women generally in the church and the failure to move forward into the 21st century.
Dr. Knight: As we wind up the interview, could you share the prayer from the Democratic Convention?
Sister: You can find the prayer here: https://networklobby.org/082120prayer/
Dr. Knight: In closing, here is one of my favorite video presentations
that you have on YouTube.
Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS - Stirring the Waters - Making the Impossible Possible