While all sisters are champions of the underserved and underrepresented segments of our population, Sister Simone Campbell’s outspoken, demonstrative method of pushing her agenda to the forefront of leaders’ minds has garnered her the admiration of President Joe Biden. He bestowed her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House on July 7.
"We are thrilled to see Sister Campbell recognized with the nation's highest civilian honor for her longtime leadership advancing social justice in this country," says Ann McElaney-Johnson, PhD, president of Mount Saint Mary's University.
The official citation, read during the medal presentation, reads: Inspired by nuns in Catholic school, Sister Simone Campbell has dedicated her life to the suffering and the searching. For nearly 50 years as a nun and an attorney, she has led organizations that provide free legal services to the poor and advocate for workers and immigrants. Her moral courage helped pass the Affordable Care Act and guide the Nuns on the Bus tour across America to protect the impoverished. With humility and fearlessness, Sister Simone embodies the blessing of faith in God and our obligations to one another as fellow Americans.
“For so many people and for the nation, Sister Simone Campbell is a gift from God…. Compassionate and brave, humble and strong, today Sister Simone remains a beacon of light. She is the embodiment of a covenant of trust, hope and progress of our nation. And I’m happy to call her my friend.” — President Joe Biden
Born Mary Campbell in Santa Monica, she joined the Sisters of Social Service around the same time that she entered Mount Saint Mary’s, where she graduated in ’69 with a degree in sociology. Campbell adopted the name Simone in 1973 when she took her final vows. In 1977, she received her law degree from the University of California, Davis, where she was the editor of its law review.
In 1978, she co-founded the Community Law Center in Oakland, California, with a fellow Mount alumna, the late Sister Marion Donohue, CSJ, ’58. Campbell spent the next 18 years there practicing family law as its lead attorney. From 1995 to 2000, Campbell was the general director of her order and had oversight over its activities in the United States, Mexico, Taiwan and the Philippines.
In 2004, Campbell was recruited to become the executive director of NETWORK (previously “The Network”), founded in 1971 in the progressive spirit of Vatican II to seek social justice and dignity for all. During the medal ceremony at the White House, President Biden relayed a story in which he visited Pope Benedict, who was a conservative theologian. Biden said that he asked — twice — for Biden’s advice, to which he finally replied, “I’d go easy on the nuns; they’re more popular than you are.” After the laughter died down, he added, “The fact that six weeks later he retired, I don’t know if that [comment] had anything to do with that.”
A self-proclaimed “mischief maker,” and “equal opportunity annoyer,”Campbell wrote the famous “nuns’ letter” in support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, despite the opposition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sixty heads of religious orders and like-minded umbrella groups signed the letter, which was then sent to members of Congress.
In 2012, Campbell launched the annual “Nuns on the Bus” tour (#NunTrouble), in which sisters went on nationwide tours to promote various initiatives, such as the call to vote, tax policies, immigration reform, Medicaid expansion and economic justice. They also visited Republican and Democratic conventions and a tour welcoming Pope Francis. In 2014, then-Vice President Joe Biden helped launch that year’s Nuns on the Bus tour in Des Moines, Iowa.Update and reaction
Campbell left NETWORK early last year and is now working on UnderstandingUS, which aims to end – or at least reduce – political polarization by bringing people with differing viewpoints together to engage in dialogue.
No stranger to media attention, Sister Simone has made appearances on national and international media, including “60 Minutes.” She wrote “A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community” (2014, HarperCollins) and “Hunger for Hope” (2020, Orbis Books). Other awards she has received include the “Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award” and the “Defender of Democracy Award” from the international Parliamentarians for Global Action.
After learning of the Medal of Freedom, Campbell (@sr_simone) tweeted, “I am deeply honored by this unexpected recognition, which highlights the important work of lifting up the experiences of ordinary people in our nation in order to make policy for all.”
As one might expect from a sister, she extends credit for her accomplishments to the many others involved in the fight for justice. Another tweet reads: “We don’t expect awards. But to have it [the work done by sisters] seen is humbling and exciting.” When interviewed about her work leading up to the award, she said, “When so many are struggling economically and still do not have access to meet their basic needs, the work of groups like @NETWORK and UnderstandingUS is being acknowledged for living out faith seeking justice. I trust that our work for economic justice and political healing might receive a renewed focus in these challenging times!”
See a news report on the award and Sister Campbell's reaction.
See a clip of Sister Campbell receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on July 7, 2022.
NETWORK’s YouTube video on the 2014 Nuns on the Bus campaign.
(Updated text: 7.12.2022)