Sister Simone Campbell to be among Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients

Sister simone campbell Sister Simone Campbell. | Bruce Cooper (edit) Thomas Good (photo)/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

Sister Simone Campbell, former executive director of the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom July 7 at the White House.

The White House announced 17 recipients of the United States’ highest civilian honor on July 1.

“President Biden has long said that America can be defined by one word: possibilities. These seventeen Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation – hard work, perseverance, and faith,” read a statement from the White House.

“They have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities – and across the world – while blazing trails for generations to come.”

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is “presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors,” the statement said.

Campbell is a member, and former general director, of the Sisters of Social Service. She has been a leading figure within the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The White House described her as “a prominent advocate for economic justice, immigration reform, and healthcare policy.”

She received a law degree from the University of California-Davis School of Law in 1977.

Campbell was a prominent advocate for the Affordable Care Act.

During a January 2021 panel discussion hosted by the National Catholic Reporter, Campbell said that Biden “has a very developed approach” to abortion. “And for him, it hinges on religious liberty, and that he will not force his religious belief on the whole nation.”

Biden, the second Catholic president, has had unwavering support for abortion rights as president, and has refused to say if he supports any restrictions on the procedure.

Campbell offered a prayer at the Democratic National Convention in 2020. Asked by CNA that August whether the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice opposes legal abortion, Campbell replied, “That is not our issue. That is not it. It is above my pay grade.” 

“It’s not the issue that we work on. I’m a lawyer. I would have to study it more intensely than I have,” Campbell said.

"Our agenda is the economic justice issues," she told CNA at the time. "As the issues of economic justice mean, as Pope Francis talks about so often, the capacity for families to be able to support themselves, to be able to have a roof on their head."

"We don't focus on reproductive rights, we focus on trying to ensure life for everyone. As Pope Francis says 'equally sacred is the care for the born'," Campbell said.

Campbell was referring to Pope Francis' 2018 apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, in which the pope stated: "Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development."

The pope added that the lives of the poor, the destitute, the abandoned, the infirm, the elderly, and others are "equally sacred."

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According to CNA's review of foundation grants to Network Lobby, a review which had not accounted for a majority of the group's funds, the organization had taken grants from major funders who also focus on abortion rights.

Campbell told CNA in 2020 that it is not Network Lobby's mission to be "in the fight for Roe v. Wade," the Supreme Court decision that mandated legal abortion nationwide. While she agreed that the dignity of life is inviolable from conception, she added, "I'm so tired. How long have we fought over Roe v. Wade?"

Roe was overturned last week by a 6-3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Campbell told CNA in August 2020, "Our economic agenda is to ensure that everyone can flourish, that all life can flourish, and that we can care for our earth. Our niche is economic justice."

Campbell rejected any suggestion her approach might undermine efforts to secure legal protections for the unborn.

"We work for the Pregnant Women Support Act, funding for prenatal care, women's infants and children funding, making sure pregnant women get the care that they need," she said. She said there is crossover in ensuring health care for pregnant women, adequate nutrition, and adequate housing capacity "to carry the fetus to term."

She said Network Lobby cannot expand its work on abortion "because it doesn't fit in economic justice, which is our mission."

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"The thing that's so painful for me is the view that only one issue, as important as it is, defines all of Catholicity," she said.

During a 2016 interview with Democracy Now, Campbell had said that "From my perspective, I don't think it's a good policy to outlaw abortion."

Among the the recipients next week of the Presidential Medal of Honor are also Father Alexander Karloutsos, a former vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; Khzir Khan, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from  August 2021 until May 2022; Megan Rapinoe, a soccer player and LGBTQI+ rights advocate; Alan Simpson, a former U.S. Senator from Wyoming and an advocate for same-sex marriage and abortion rights; Simone Biles; Gabrielle Giffords; Steve Jobs; John McCain; and Denzel Washington.

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