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No One 'Does Catholic' Like the Nuns on the Bus

06/27/2014 10:34 am ET | Updated Aug 27, 2014

When we think of Pope Francis, what ideas come to mind? Above all else, he stresses love of neighbor. And this love is made manifest in many ways. He speaks prophetically to the rich in their temples of wealth and precincts of privilege. He reminds them that "we are in a world economic system [that] is centered on money, not on the human person."

And so we must tend to the needs of the poor. We do this, the Pope stresses, not only through individual acts of charity but also through reform of the system. As he has put it, "it is an inhumane economic system" that destroys whole classes and groups of people -- young people looking for employment, the elderly, the weak and the frail, the vulnerable and all those who inhabit the margins. Pope Francis knows well the evil of structural sin -- pervasive sin that can infect an entire economic and legal order. And he calls us to do social justice, to transform, in other words, the flaws of the system.

Love, Pope Francis insists, must also manifest itself in welcoming the stranger into our midst. And so, in the early days of his papacy, he traveled to Lampedusa, where so many thousands of African migrants have died, their lifeless bodies washing up in the surf. He reminded the comfortable that they must live for others: "'The other' is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply someone who disturbs my life and my comfort." We look on the tragic plight of refugees and shrug our shoulders: "Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters." He means to rouse us from this complacency and calls us to act with mercy to these men and women who only want a decent life.

Pope Francis is summoning Catholics -- and all persons of good will -- to heed this message and to take action. And in the United States, no one has taken this call more to heart than the Nuns on the Bus.

Who are these Nuns? They are an outgrowth of an organization known as Network, which was created by a small group of socially conscious Catholic sisters in 1971. From humble beginnings -- they started with a $187.00 bank account and the dream of making a difference. Network has grown into the most visible and vibrant voice of socially responsible Catholicism active in the world today.

The Nuns on the Bus are the trusty road warriors of Network, calling attention to America's yawning social injustice and calling us to do better. Consider their message on poverty. They recognize that hunger is a widespread and growing problem in the United States. And they know that in a rich country like ours, the only reason some people go to bed hungry is because of flaws n the system -- or, in other words, the structural sin Pope Francis has so eloquently criticized.

And hence the Nuns have worked hard to oppose budget cuts that would worsen Americans' access to affordable food. Not only that, they recognize that food and income are linked. People who are paid inadequate wages cannot afford decent meals, no matter how strenuous their efforts to help themselves. Hence, the good sisters have begun a campaign to raise the minimum wage. Child poverty is a sin in a nation like ours. And child poverty is worsened by poverty-level wages. Raise the minimum wage and you begin to address the root cause of childhood poverty. "Worker justice" is a moral imperative. It is a way of curing structural sin.

Health care is another concern the Nuns have addressed. In America today, people die at different ages based on their social and economic class. A recent report by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies found that "while mortality gaps in socioeconomic status have existed for centuries, the magnitude of these differences has grown substantially over time in the United States."

And while a lessening of the conditions that give rise to income inequality would doubtlessly contribute to closing this gap, recent studies indicate that improved access to health care also saves lives. In 2006, the State of Massachusetts reformed its health-care system by subsidizing and mandating its citizens' purchase of health insurance. A new study has found that this reform has reduced mortality rates by around three percent.

Adequate health coverage, in other words, saves lives. Pro-lifers where it counts, the Nuns on the Bus understood this nexus even before it was documented. And so they endorsed the passage of the Affordable Care Act and did so on pro-life grounds. And while they find the law imperfect in some respects, they continue to emphasize its many positive features: pre-existing conditions can no longer be a ground for denying coverage; life-time caps on coverage are eliminated; coverage is subsidized; community access to clinics and doctors is improved.

And now the Nuns are taking on the cause immigration. For America is faced with its own Lampedusa, the crisis of child-refugees congregating on our Southern border. Children in tens of thousands have fled to the United States, escaping the threat of the endemic organized crime and economic upheaval in their home countries. The Pope's message resonates just as loudly here as it does on the shores of the Mediterranean: Who is our brother? Who is our sister? We cannot remain indifferent to this human catastrophe.

Just a few days ago, Sister Simone Campbell, the public face of the Nuns, spoke out on this crisis. We must confront the xenophobes and the nativists whose outsized voices dominate political discourse. We must avoid the temptation to build walls around the border, thereby "creating a virtual fortress America." Comprehensive legislative action is called for. The criminal gangs that have instigated much of this crisis must be confronted. And above all, the innocent children who are suffering so grievously must be comforted and given adequate food and shelter and health care. Jesus would expect no less.

There are probably no more effective witnesses for their faith today than Sister Simone and the Nuns on the Bus. They've even attracted the interest of Hollywood, which is contemplating a movie. No American bishop can make a similar claim.

In carrying on their mission, however, the Nuns have faced opposition, some it, regrettably, coming from members of the American Catholic hierarchy. The Leadership Conference of Women's Religious, of which Sister Simone's group is a part, has been under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

There is no question that the Nuns are carrying out God's work, in the best sense of that term. They are meeting the needs of the least among us, working actively to improve social conditions and, like Pope Francis at Lampedusa, standing for justice in the face of indifference. Let us hope and pray for the best.