Two nuns and two priests walk into political conventions and…well, maybe that sounds like the opening line of an off-color joke. 

Still, over the course of the last few weeks Americans were treated to two such real life scenarios, as both political parties trotted out “their” kinds of Catholic representatives to promote their particular sides of certain issues.

The result has left a lot of people, me included, wondering just how some of these square pegs fit into round theological and authoritative holes. I don’t know how it’s done. Actually, it’s “above my pay grade,” which, incidentally was also the response of 2020 Democratic National Convention speaker Sister Simone Campbell when she was asked why her organization does not take a position on the legality of abortion.

She then added this nugget, “It’s not the issue that we work on. I’m a lawyer. I would have to study it more intensely than I have.” She may speak like a lawyer, but she is also a consecrated religious sister. That suggests she has plenty of access to authoritative sources that can handle the pay grade. And it helps that the Church’s teaching on the issue of abortion is clear, precise and particularly non-lawyerly.

The Republican convention a week later gave a few minutes of podium time to Sister Deidre Byrne, a seemingly polar opposite of Sister Simone. “Sister Dede,” a medical doctor for nearly thirty years, became a sister to serve the cause of social justice, much like Sister Simone, in faraway corners of the globe and here at home. Besides the superficial differences of one woman in a traditional habit and the other in more civilian attire, they both claimed to be — on their deep religious convictions — promoting the cause of the voiceless and marginalized.

One would think that two Catholic nuns would be in sync with one another in their pursuit of social justice, that their speaking invitations could have been interchanged — at least before watching their two very different appearances.

I know the very word Catholic means universal, and the Church has always had a very large tent with room for different points of views, diverse personalities, and micro-beliefs. Some people are fervently and completely devoted to Church-approved apparitions of the Blessed Mother, yet the Church does not require anyone to believe in them.

But whereas a Catholic in good standing can believe in the apparitions of Fatima, for example, or discount them, the issue of abortion provides no such wiggle room. So how is it that we can have religious sisters occupying the same space telling us they are both promoting social justice in the name of our Catholic faith, but at the same time holding very different views on the devastation that is abortion?

Sister Simone’s prayer at the convention never mentioned the social injustice of abortion. If she was ever seeking advice from me, I might suggest that when she is laboring in the fields of social justice and attending all the seminars, marches and political action committee meetings that she must, it might benefit her to check in with the authoritative sources who have had a pretty good track record with regard to social justice.

Saint Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, as well as Pope Francis have all championed the position that the rights of the unborn remains “ground zero” of any and all human rights and social justice. For what good are human rights if the human isn’t allowed to live in order to partake in them?

As if the matter weren’t clear enough, the Vatican’s point man on pro-life issues reiterated just a few days after the last convention ended that Catholic politicians “must stop promoting laws against the life” of the unborn.

If Abraham Lincoln could advocate charity for all and malice toward none in the aftermath of the horrors of the American Civil War, I should be able to muster some of the same for fellow Catholics who I believe have declared their own kind of secession from authoritative Church teaching. But it isn’t easy. I am weak, and the issue from which we seem to be parting ways can become so strident.

I’m all for nuance, but not to the extent of clouding the truth of an issue beyond recognition. When Catholic politicians do this, I just shake my head and scoff at their ability to chase after votes. But when nuns and priests do it, I tremble a little.