Days after receiving a hug of gratitude from U.S. President Barack Obama at the signing of his new health-care legislation, Sister Simone Campbell is still fielding her share of angry phone calls. She jots down the names, where the callers live, and how they stand on the issue, but she doesn't bother trying to change their minds. Some people just won't listen to reason.
Sister Campbell - along with more than 50,000 other Roman Catholic nuns across the United States - has already reached the people who mattered, by staunchly supporting Obama's health-care bill in a week when a debate about abortion coverage threatened to derail it completely. The nuns fiercely parted ways with the country's Roman Catholic bishops, who insisted the law would allow the funding of abortion and opposed it on that basis.
Their support - described in one media report as "an eloquent lobby of nuns" - was seen as a key element in the bill's success because it made the legislation more palatable to Catholic politicians.
It's been an emotional two weeks for Sister Campbell, 64. As executive director of the social justice lobby group Network, she has spent years in Washington arguing, on behalf of female religious orders, for change on issues like health care and welfare reform.
When she read that the Catholic Health Association, a group representing Catholic hospitals, was advocating for the bill, she moved quickly within her organization to circulate a letter of support calling for signatures. She was hoping for at least 20 signatures from individual nuns and their orders - instead 60 signed on, representing tens of thousands. Then two days later, the bishops took the opposite stance.
"It had me in tears, quite candidly," she said in a phone interview this week. "I was weeping."
The bishops were wrong to suggest the bill covered abortions, says Sister Campbell, who is a lawyer by training and has studied the legislation closely. Instead, it requires that they be covered by separate private policies.
"We decided we needed to stand up for truth."
The nuns' outspoken position might seem surprising - and it clearly highlights the different agendas within the church hierarchy. It also comes during an uncertain time for female religious orders in the United States, whose practices are currently being reviewed by the Vatican - a process that involved interviews with church officials from Rome.
But Sister Campbell says the nuns have seen too many sad cases to back down on the health-care issue. While working as a lawyer in Los Angeles, representing low-income residents through family issues and divorce, she often struggled to help poor women and children abandoned by the health-care system. She recalls one client working as a self-employed gardener, with no insurance, who fixed his broken leg himself. He'd watched doctors on television, she says, "so he got two pieces of wood and tried to make a cast."
"We're about serving the needs of ordinary people who suffer, day in and day out," says Sister Campbell. "Our response is not always met with understanding by the group that's charged with the institutional protection of the church."
This is a big part of why Sister Campbell became a nun, joining the Sisters of Social Service after fighting for civil rights in college. "Martin Luther King had touched my soul deeply," she says.
Not long after taking her vows, she realized that legal training would help her become a more effective community organizer, so she returned to school to obtain a law degree. In 2004, she became the executive director of Network, formed in 1971.
Certainly, last Tuesday will be a highlight of a long career. Sister Campbell was standing in a receiving line when she introduced herself to President Obama.
"He gave me this great hug and said, 'Thank you for your leadership. It made a big difference.' It brought tears to my eyes. I am still wound up."
The moment puts into perspective those irate callers (she also says some orders who signed the letter have received "warning calls" from various bishops). But she shrugs off concerns about longterm consequences within the church.
"I don't where it will go," she says. "But I do know it was really important to stand up."