Religious Sister Who Will Pray at DNC: Legal Abortion ‘Above My Pay Grade’
Sr. Simone Campbell is scheduled to deliver the invocation Thursday at the Democratic National Convention.
DENVER, Colo. — Sister Simone Campbell, who is set to offer a prayer at the Democratic National Convention Thursday, has declined to take a stand on the morality of abortion protections, and a CNA examination finds donors to her organization, Network Lobby, have links to pro-abortion rights advocacy.
Asked Aug. 19 whether her organization opposes the legal protection of abortion, Sr. Campbell told CNA, “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,” Sr. Campbell added.
Sr. Campbell, 74, is a member and past general director of the Sisters of Social Service, a Catholic religious community. She is the executive director of the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, and received her law degree from the University of California-Davis School of Law in 1977.
During a 2016 interview with Democracy Now, Sr. Campbell said more directly that “From my perspective, I don’t think it’s a good policy to outlaw abortion.”
“Our agenda is the economic justice issues,” she told CNA this week. “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. A radical thought is that they ought to be able to earn enough from one job to both have time for leisure for a family together as well the capacity to save for the future.”
Sr. Campbell is scheduled to deliver the invocation Thursday at the Democratic National Convention. The convention’s announcement cited her group's work on economic justice, health care, immigration reform, and voter turnout as well as its “Nuns on the Bus” tour.
The Associated Press describes Campbell as a longtime political ally of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Biden, a Catholic, has distanced himself from past support for some restrictions on abortion. He has said he will back legal abortion and funding for abortion providers, as well as regulations requiring Catholic employers like the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception in employee health plans.
The economic agenda of Network Lobby, Sr. Campbell told CNA, is “more aligned with Democratic platforms” but the group considers itself “an equal opportunity annoyer” that lobbies members of both political parties.
“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’,” Sr. Campbell said.
Sr. Campbell was partially quoting 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.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation.”
Sr. Campbell said 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?”
“Our economic agenda is to ensure that everyone can flourish, that all life can flourish, and that we can care for our earth,” she said. “Our niche is economic justice.”
Sr. 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.”
Asked whether her group works with the Democrats for Life of America, Sr. Campbell replied: “No. They’re not working on our economic agenda.”
When CNA noted that Democrats for Life has worked on shared issues like paid family leave, she added “But they're not part of the coalitions we work on. They’re not a lobby, they’re a policy group,” she said.
On Monday Kristen Day, Democrats for Life executive director, said that for the first time at a Democratic National Convention, the pro-life caucus has not been officially recognized at the 2020 convention.
Asked whether her approach might interfere with right-to-life efforts, Sr. Campbell was skeptical.
“I don’t believe we have that much power,” she said. “We are a small operation.”
The 2019 tax forms for NETWORK Lobby reported just over $1 million in revenue, compared to $1.2 million in 2018. Funds came overwhelmingly from contributions and grants.
By comparison, the National Right to Life Committee reported about $4.1 million in total revenue in its 2018-2019 fiscal year, compared to $2.8 million in the prior fiscal year. Its political action committee, the National Right to Life Victory Fund, spent about $1.2 million in 2018. The Susan B. Anthony List pro-life advocacy group reported about $12 million in its 2018 fiscal year.
According to CNA’s review of foundation grants to Network Lobby, a review which has not accounted for a majority of the group’s funds, Sr. Campbell’s organization has taken grants from major funders who also focus on abortion rights.
From 2012 to 2015 the Ford Foundation gave three grants totaling $350,000 to the Network Education Program to train faith leaders and to elevate their voices regarding “federal budget and tax debates and on policies affecting low- and middle-income populations.”
Cecile Richards, who headed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 2006 through 2018, has been a member of the Ford Foundation's 15-person board of trustees since 2010. Ford Foundation president Darren Walker was a longtime member of the board of the Arcus Foundation, which has funded pro-abortion groups, LGBT advocacy within Christian denominations, and efforts to limit religious freedom in cases where it conflicts with abortion rights and LGBT causes.
In response to a CNA question, Sr. Campbell said that if Network took a stand against legal abortion she thought it wouldn’t lose donors.
“I don’t think so. For one, we don’t have a Ford Foundation grant right now,” she said. “Do you know how big the Ford Foundation is? It’s huge. And we’ve had small money. I don’t believe they’ve changed our mission.”
The Ford Foundation has net assets of $13 billion, and gave out some $500 million, its 2018 tax forms show. The organization has historically backed the Catholics for Choice group. Since 2006, the foundation has given over $5 million to the United States, Mexican and Brazilian branches of the pro-abortion rights organization, whose claims to be Catholic have been repeatedly rebuked by the U.S. Catholic bishops.
The foundation has also supported the U.S. bishops' relief agency Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
Another Ford grantee, Faith in Public Life, has received over $3.5 million in 14 grants from the Ford Foundation since 2007. This included a $225,000 grant in 2013 for an immigrant advocacy campaign, including support for Network Lobby’s “Nuns on the Border” bus tour. Network Lobby continues to participate in Faith in Public Life efforts, and endorsed its 2020 voter’s guide.
At least one recent grant to Faith in Public Life has taken a pro-abortion turn. The Ford Foundation gave $400,000 to the group for its Women of Faith 2020 campaign, which aims “to form a stronger vocal base of support for reproductive justice among moderate women of faith, and actively advance these principles through civic engagement.”
Another Network Lobby donor, the Bauman Foundation, has given grants of $20,000 to $50,000 to the Network Education Program in every fiscal year from 2008 through 2019. While the foundation has two Catholic priests on its board of advisers, another board member is Jenny Lawson, Vice President of Organizing and Electoral Campaigns at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Planned Parenthood Votes.
Sr. Campbell told CNA her group does not ask donors if they are Catholic, but she assumes a majority are Catholic “because we’re a Catholic social justice lobby.”
Among donors who have a relationship with Network, she said, “I don’t know a big donor who isn’t Catholic.” She rejected the idea that NETWORK could be a “dark money” group. That phrase, in her view, is “about money that doesn’t get reported.”
“That’s secret money that gets passed through to candidates and campaigns. Our money is reported in our reporting to the IRS. That’s not dark money.”
“Quite frankly, they’re small amounts over a 10-year period,” she said.
Another donor, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, gave $225,000 to Network Lobby for civil rights, social action and advocacy, according to the fund’s 2018 tax year forms.
Politico has characterized the fund as a “dark money” group. In a November 19, 2019 story, Politico said the Sixteen Thirty Fund spent $141 million on “more than 100 left-leaning causes” in 2018. Only the right-leaning Koch Brothers network and Crossroads network have exceeded those figures in a single year. The Sixteen Thirty Fund gave another $91 million to 95 other groups.
The Nathan Cummings Foundation, another Network Lobby donor, gave a $200,000 grant in 2020 to the group to promote “policies that mend gaps and bridge divides in our country, with a special focus on healthcare, housing rights, and citizenship policies that disproportionately impact women and people of color.” The foundation describes itself as “a multi-generational family foundation, rooted in the Jewish tradition of social justice, working to create a more just, vibrant, sustainable, and democratic society.”
Sr. Campbell has pushed back at objections to Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ 2018 criticism of a federal judicial nominee for his membership in the Knights of Columbus. Harris specifically criticized the Knights of Columbus’ pro-life work and its support for marriage as a union of one man and one woman. She questioned whether the nominee was disqualified due to his membership.
Responding to the incident, a Knights of Columbus spokesperson said membership should not be a disqualifier for public service, describing the order as “a charitable organization that adheres to and promotes Catholic teaching.”
In an Aug. 17 essay in the National Catholic Reporter, Sr. Campbell argued that Harris “voiced her disagreement with some of the political positions of the Knights of Columbus.”
“I'm a Catholic sister, and I disagree with some of the political positions of Knights of Columbus,” she continued. “So let's drop this ridiculous attack and evaluate Harris' record faithfully.”
The Knights of Columbus is the largest Catholic men’s fraternity in the world, with about 2 million members. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in his July 14 letter to the Knights’ Supreme Convention, conveyed the Pope’s greetings and sentiments, and praised the Knights' “strong and courageous defense of the inviolable dignity of human life from its conception.”
Sr. Campbell told CNA said Cardinal Parolin’s remarks were “great” and “good news.” But she said she would not take part in that effort.
“I don’t agree with their stance as regards to the stance of economic justice,” she said. “They don’t work for increasing wages, they don’t work for ensuring that immigration law is fixed. They don’t work for the marginalized. They would say that’s their niche. I think they ought to expand.”
Asked why Network Lobby cannot expand its work on abortion, she said “because it doesn’t fit in economic justice, which is our mission.”
“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. “And it doesn’t. I think we have to have grown-up faith, where we see complexity, just as Pope Francis says.”
The group has previously clashed with the U.S. bishops’ conference. In 2010, when the bishops were working for strong restrictions on abortion and for strong conscience protections in the major healthcare bill known as the Affordable Care Act, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, director of Media Relations at the USCCB, said the group “grossly overstated whom they represent in a letter to Congress that was also released to media.”
Network Lobby has also backed an LGBT advocacy bill called the Equality Act, opposed by the U.S. bishops. The bishops have said the bill would threaten the right to free speech, conscience and exercise of religion, and would redefine gender in a way that could require women to share restrooms and locker rooms with men who say they identify as women.
Network Lobby has had a longtime relationship with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the subject of a Vatican doctrinal assessment published in April 2012 that also mentioned Network Lobby.
That assessment said “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.”
The Catholic view of family life and human sexuality “are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching,” and the conference statements sometimes disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the Church's “authentic teachers of faith and morals,” the assessment said.