The Catholic Sister Who Challenged Paul Ryan on CNN

An Interview with Sister Jordan
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Screen cap from CNN

Earlier this week, Sister Erica Jordan asked House Speaker Paul Ryan a pointed question during a CNN town hall forum with his constituents. Her question—and the Speaker’s answer—attracted a flurry of commentary and social media buzz. “A Catholic Nun Schooled Paul Ryan in Humility Last Night,” read a headline in Esquire magazine. The retired educator and principal has been a sister for 55 years. She is an advocate for immigrants who once a week visits the Kenosha County Detention Center in Wisconsin, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rents space for immigrant detainees. A member of the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, Jordan describes herself as a “news junkie” who watches MSNBC, listens to National Public Radio, never misses PBS Newshour and often records the Sunday morning political shows. “There is something about being a Dominican that makes you want to soak in knowledge,” she said. “My mother said when I started going to a Dominican high school they were ruining me because they were making me so opinionated. My senior year I was thinking of going into a particular convent but then I found out the sisters were not allowed to read newspapers. I said, ‘Oh, no that is not for me.’” Commonweal contributing editor John Gehring interviewed Sister Jordan over the phone.

 

John Gehring: You asked Speaker Ryan a challenging question that called out Republicans for not standing with the poor and working class. Why was it important for you to ask this particular question?

Sister Jordan: It’s unconscionable that our elected officials feel free to do what they’re doing right now taking away health care, threatening Social Security and Medicare. It is just wrong. Speaker Ryan is a leader and he seems to be totally complicit in this way of thinking. I want him to really think about my question. I’ve been so distressed by this Congress and going through what we did during the health-care debate. There is such a disregard for the common good and the poor. It makes me angry. I do believe he is a man of faith, but I think he is misguided.

 

JG: Ryan said he believes that both of you share the same core principles of wanting to help the poor and provide quality health care. But he said there is “prudential judgement in processing our faith.” For him, he said, that means “mobility, economic growth, equality of opportunity.” What did you think of that answer?

SJ: Those are all good things but you can’t take supports away from people who are vulnerable, sick, need health care, and can’t pay premiums. I think he is really naive. Trickle-down economics has never worked. The budget is cutting programs in a way that hurts the poor. I wonder how often he talks to poor people. I don’t think he has much opportunity to really talk to people who are struggling. I felt he was pretty condescending. He started his answer by saying “spoken like a great Dominican nun.” It felt like a pat on the head, which is the way sometimes people treat sisters.

 

JG: Speaker Ryan cited the work of Catholic Charities USA as a “model” for the kind of approach to fighting poverty he endorses. But Catholic Charities gets nearly half its operating budget from the federal government and legislative proposals Ryan has supported would weaken this model. Sister Donna Markham, CEO of Catholic Charities USA, opposed the health-care repeal bill, saying it would “have a devastating impact on the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable in our country.” Is Ryan confused or maybe I’m missing something here?

SJ: His answer made me mad because it felt like he was asking the churches to take care of the poor. Not that the church will ever stop caring for the poor, but the government has to fulfill its purpose. The churches don't have the resources to do it. It’s about priorities. The social teachings of the church talk about community. We take care of the weak and vulnerable. I think he missed something in his Catholic education. It is not just about ourselves or our families. It seems the concept of the common good has been lost.

I think he missed something in his Catholic education.

 

JG: Ryan said we “need to change our approach to fighting poverty. Instead of measuring success on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs, let’s measure success and poverty on outcomes.” Is that a reasonable argument?

SJ: It has to be both/and. Programs like vocational training and education that he talks about are good, but that doesn't mean you pull out the survival mechanisms for people. We can't dismantle the systems that care for people who need to be cared for. I can’t figure out why this wealthy country can’t figure this out.

 

JG: Catholic sisters have a reputation for being fearless and often savvy social-justice advocates. President Obama, for example, said health-care reform never would have passed without the advocacy of Sister Carol Keehan, the CEO of the Catholic Health Association. It takes guts to stand up  and ask a question on national TV. What is it about Catholic nuns? What’s in your drinking water or breakfast cereal?

SJ: It is what our lives are meant to be about. We’re supposed to stand up for what is right. We should be fearless. There is every reason to be outspoken about the Gospel. Saint Catherine of Siena said if you do what you are supposed to do you will set the world on fire. This means being willing to step outside your comfort zone and take risks.

 

JG: What kind of reaction are you getting from people who watched or read about your question?

SJ: At the end of the town hall, I was standing there talking to a CNN producer and all of these young women—college students—came up and told me how much they loved my question and they said someone already did a meme about me and Catholic social teaching. So far the reaction has all been positive. I’ve been surprised.

 

JG: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about politics right now what would it be?

SJ: The most important thing would be for people to have the desire to work together in spite of differences. If we could have the willingness to listen and not expect we’re going to agree on everything, but still have respect and give people a place at the table. If the wand was really magic? I would wave it and there would be a new president for us.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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