Reverse Mission: Transnational Religious Communities and the Making of US Foreign Policy
By Timothy Byrnes.
Georgetown University Press, 2001.
216 pp.

by Frances Kissling

Timothy Byrnes is an engaging academic political scientist who has written extensively and wisely on religion and politics, particularly the political role of the institutional Catholic church (see Transnational Catholicism in Postcommunist Europe, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001; Catholic Bishops in American Politics, Princeton, 1991; Abortion Politics in American States, co-editor, M.E. Sharpe, 1995; The Catholic Church and the Politics of Abortion, co-editor, Westview Press, 1992). In a recent lecture at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Byrnes discussed his latest book Reverse Mission: Transnational Religious Communities and the Making of US Foreign Policy. It marked, he noted, a shift from his longstanding interest in the politics of religion to a more intense look at how the character of transnational religious groups affects the ways they seek to influence foreign policy. Perhaps he, like many of us, has about had it with the perverse mission of the Vatican and US bishops. The Vatican squanders its moral authority on protecting bishops from criminal charges for covering up clerical sexual abuse while US bishops lobby against marriage equality laws and contraceptive insurance for Catholic hospital and university employees.

Most relevant to the book is the Vatican’s current attack on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for being too outspoken on poverty and not outspoken enough against abortion and homosexuality. Byrnes’ analysis of what the Maryknoll sisters call their “reverse mission” perhaps restores a sense of Catholicism as on the side of the poor and oppressed rather than as oppressor. The term reverse mission was coined by Maryknoll Sisters who would come back from foreign missions to educate fellow Catholics about their work—and raise funds. It is most benignly described as educational on the Maryknoll website; but more accurately described by Byrnes as the hard core effort it became when the sisters stopped trying to baptize pagan babies in China and committed themselves to live with and share in the lives of the people they served, often for a lifetime. This role, which was called “accompaniment,” sometimes put sisters at odds with the US government—and even their own order. Byrnes details the role played by Maryknoll sisters in Nicaragua who were horrified by US support for the contras’  efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government—a  government democratically elected and widely supported by the rural people with whom the sisters lived and worked.

Byrnes tells this story through the eyes of two women, Sister Nancy Donovan and Sister Peggy Healy, Maryknollers with decades of service in Nicaragua.  They became in the US—in Peggy Healy’s words—the “voice for people who didn’t have a voice.” Both women testified before Congress. Donovan in 1985, after witnessing the attacks on her community by contras, declared “As a Christian and a US citizen, I am deeply pained by the fact that my government has been responsible for arming and training those forces who have systematically caused the deaths of so many unarmed innocent Nicaraguans for no reasonable purpose.” Byrne details the connections the sisters had with members of Congress, particularly then-Speaker Tip O’Neill. The dominant role played by the Democratic Catholic members of Congress in the 1980s cannot be overlooked. About 25% of the US Congress is Catholic; in the 80s, those Representatives had been educated by the sisters and had great respect for them and their work. They were straightforward working class women, much like the members themselves, and it was clear they were not motivated by power. That in itself was a source of power. The sisters provided “texture and context” for a position that Tip O’Neill and other members of Congress felt strongly: it was wrong to fund the contras. The sisters put a human face on the matter and contributed to the eventual cut-off of funds to the contras.

Maryknoll sisters pray beside the bodies of their murdered colleagues, Nicaragua, 1980. Source: Associated Press.

Byrnes details two other efforts at transnational influence by religious orders, one by the Jesuits following the 1989 murders by the Salvadoran Army of four Jesuits and two lay workers from the Universidad Centroamericana, in San Salvador.  The other, a project in cross-cultural hospitality and political education operated by Mexican Benedictine sisters in Cuernavaca, Mexico in collaboration with monks from the Weston Priory in Vermont, brings Americans to that city to experience the lives of poor people and particularly the effects of NAFTA.

Byrnes’ account of each project reads more as anthropology than political science. His central thesis is partially sociology and partially psychology: the specific ways in which transnational religious groups engage in efforts to change US policy is largely driven by deeply-held identities. For the sisters, it is solidarity with ordinary people—the people of Nicaragua, their fellow villagers, were being killed and the US was providing the guns. For the Jesuits, the murder of four of their own was an attack on all Jesuits. And for the Benedictine monastics, the experience of offering Benedictine hospitality and sanctuary to Central Americans led to an act of solidarity consistent with those values. If people can share the lives of others, the thinking goes, it becomes possible to act on behalf of others as well as in solidarity with them.

Byrnes also addresses other influences on the different orders—the men who run universities and play golf with Senators have a different way of lobbying than sisters who live in villages and care for basic needs.  In his conclusion Byrnes returns to political science for a brief moment. Whatever foundations inform the various approaches to US policy, in the end one must ask if they’ve been effective. Leaving aside the Benedictines, whose goals are far less specifically policy-oriented, Byrnes concludes that both Jesuits and Maryknollers had some direct—but more indirect—success in their push to cut off funds to the Salvadoran government and to the contras. They were aided, Byrnes notes, by the media’s fascination with religious actors, which resulted in a harsh spotlight on US support for dictators and murderers.

For advocates of a secular state and for progressives, who tend to hold that policy is set on the basis of the will of the governed rather than by appeals to higher authority (whether gods or kings or even presidents), Reverse Mission is challenging. It is, after all, the same Jesuits who fought to end funding for the Salvadoran government who today fight for the “right” to discriminate against students and faculty by denying insurance coverage for contraception. Do we applaud them when they enter the public square with positions in line with our own, and seek to ban them when they disagree with us? Are Sisters OK, but Jesuits not?  Perhaps in his next book, Byrnes will grapple with these questions. If his approach is as thoughtful and balanced as that in Reverse Mission, it will be well worth the read.


Frances Kissling has just finished a three-year stint as visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at University of Pennsylvania. She is working on a book on ethics and abortion and was the president of Catholics for Choice for 25 years.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.