WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was during the late 1960s that Adrian Dominican Sister Carol Coston felt the energy unleashed by the Second Vatican Council in the call from church leaders to engage the world with the richness of Catholic teaching.
She was teaching at Tampa Catholic High School in Florida at the time. Before long she relocated across the state to Fort Lauderdale to work on housing rights and racial equity issues.
Coston was not alone. She was among hundreds of women religious nationwide who moved from traditional ministries in teaching and parish work into social ministries alongside poor and marginalized people.
By 1971, a movement was afoot to bring women religious together to effect changes 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 convene and then stepped back to advise them when they had questions.
When Coston heard about sisters gathering 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 that was very appealing,” Coston, 87, told Catholic News Service.
In all, 47 women religious 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 been working on anti-Vietnam War activities. Farmworker rights was another group. It was a way of taking the issues we cared about and looking at them from the lens of public policy,” Coston said.
To seed the movement, the sisters collected a modest $147 among themselves. They also appointed a 13-member steering committee; Coston was among them.
The committee met in January 1972. Coston quickly became the choice to head the effort that soon would be known as Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying organization.
“It was like I couldn’t say no,” Coston said. “But then there was a little anxiety because we didn’t know what we were doing and that was kind of a big leap.”
Using office space and phones donated by other organizations and gaining modest monthly financial commitments from religious congregations, Network embarked on a ministry that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
One of Coston’s first tasks was to connect with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, forerunner to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to determine which issues needed the most attention. She was invited to review files summarizing the bishops’ legislative priorities.
Looking through a four-drawer cabinet, she found that more than 75% of the contents was devoted to contraception, abortion and public funding for parochial schools. She had found the answer for Network’s direction.
“I figured 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 files) didn’t go beyond those issues.”
Deciding which policy 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 original weekend gathering at Trinity College.
She described an “urgency” among the sisters to address poverty, economic justice and racism. Abortion, she said, was not yet a hot-button issue because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized it was still more than a year away.
“The issues they chose were the issues they could actively lobby Congress in terms of legislation and abortion was not on Congress’ legislative agenda,” explained Hayes, 86, who is a retired professor of history and archivist at Trinity Washington University.
To help raise interest and knowledge of the issues confronting millions of people, Network held summer legislative conferences for the next 21 summers. Sister Nancy Sylvester, a member of the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, joined Network in 1977 as a legislative researcher and served as executive director from 1982 to 1992. She said the summer sessions, limited to women religious at first and 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 recalled. “It was an exciting time, even though we had different presidential administrations, you had people seeing the Gospel values.”
Network continues to focus its legislative priorities on economic justice focusing on poverty, housing, welfare reform, racial equality, voting rights, and federal investments in families and local communities, including extending the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Mary Novak, who became the first lay executive director of Network in March 2021, said she and the staff, which now numbers about two dozen, have turned to those early days in an effort to root the organization’s current legislative efforts in the vision of the 47 women who gathered in 1971.
“We are replicating what Vatican II invited religious orders to do in the ’60s, and that is to study your history, getting in touch anew with your founding charism and bringing that forward for the 20th century, (and) for us in the 21st century,” Novak told CNS.
Among Network’s priorities is working for comprehensive immigration reform. The organization collaborates 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 sharply divided Congress and the White House to develop a plan whereby immigrants receive just treatment.
Over the years, Network has worked in partnership with diverse organizations as well as Republican and Democratic members of Congress to achieve significant legislative wins. Among the most prominent was passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, a complex law which expanded access to health care for millions of people.
Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director at the time and who retired in 2021 after 17 years in the position, said the effort required collaboration among numerous 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 for getting the bill through Congress.
The ACA remains in place. The USCCB has since opposed efforts to rescind it, urging Congress to enact a replacement law first so that millions of people do not lose access to health care.
In 2012, Network began a series of Nuns on the Bus nationwide campaigns that addressed a variety of economic justice initiatives. Through 2018, six bus tours traveled the country meeting with people to discuss everyday concerns and shape the organization’s political agenda. The tours also raised Network’s national profile.
Campbell said the tours were important because people wanted someone to listen to them.
“Our focus is on economic justice and the impact of our economy on the most marginalized. It’s following the Gospel, responding to the needs of those who have been left out,” Campbell said.
“There are many, many organizations that work on the issue of abortion in a variety of ways and hardly anybody works on the issue of poverty. So while it was true at our founding, it is still true that the biggest need is the promotion of Catholic social teaching on the issue of poverty. As Pope Francis says, equally sacred, equally sacred is the care for the poor,” she added.
Today, at 50, Network claims 100,000 members, who are regularly invited to urge members of Congress to support economic justice-focused legislation. Novak said, however, that gaining bipartisan support for bills is difficult because of the political polarization that exists in Congress and the nation as a whole.
That won’t stop Network’s political ministry though, Novak said.
“It’s a political ministry in that we accompany our elected officials in all their political seasons, being a constant presence, calling them to put the well-being of people, communities and our earth first in their legislating,” she told CNS.
“And then also understanding our work as political ministry where our advocacy is informed by its centers, the voices and demands of those of us most impacted by the federal policies we work on. We are very intentional about who we listen to before we set our agenda. That is what we realized in doing our history what the early sisters did.”