WASHINGTON (RNS) — Catholic social justice lobby Network has chosen Georgetown University law professor Mary Novak to take over the group when its longtime leader, Sister Simone Campbell, steps down later this month.
Network announced the change on Monday (March 22), noting Novak will officially take over on April 1.
“Sister Simone is a champion for justice and has been for so long,” Novak told Religion News Service in an exclusive interview. “I am just honored to be invited to help build on that great work she has done — and the great sisters before her.”
Novak joins Network after serving as associate director of mission integration at the Georgetown University Law Center, where she also works as an adjunct professor. She also boasts a background in Catholic advocacy: She was the founding board chair of Catholic Mobilizing Network, helping lead advocacy efforts to abolish the death penalty.
“Mary is the perfect choice to lead Network in the next step to ensure the well-being of those most marginalized people among us. This is the mandate as we build this nation anew,” Campbell said in a press release. “I could not be more proud of what Network has accomplished, and I am excited to join the entire Network membership in the work ahead.”
Unlike Campbell, a well-known figure in Washington’s Democratic circles and a member of the Sisters of Social Service, Novak is not a Catholic nun — although she previously worked for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group for most nuns in the U.S.
“(The nuns) were like no leaders I had ever met before,” Novak said, reflecting on her time with the group. “They were prayerful, they were playful and they were faithful. They were brilliant, they were disciplined and they were discerning. It has been my goal since then to follow their lead in the work of justice.”
Although Novak acknowledged the art of lobbying is a “growing edge” for her personally, she and Campbell — who are working together this month as part of a transition period — also have notable points of intersection. Like Campbell, who once ran a legal clinic in California, Novak has a legal background: She has practiced and taught law for years, and advocated for men on California’s death row.
“We’re both lawyers, and all that comes with that: the discipline in our thinking, legal practice training and the discipline in our action,” Novak said.
Novak’s skills were celebrated by renowned anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean.
“I am delighted that Mary Novak — faith-filled and passionate for the common good — will be taking the helm at NETWORK,” Prejean said in a press release. “Mary is the living embodiment of ‘faith that does justice.'”
Novak said she and Campbell are also “contemplatives in action.”
“(My spirituality) is grounded in the Ignation tradition, which is also the spirituality of the Congregation of St. Joseph, of which I am an associate,” she said.
But Novak said she hopes to bring unique attributes to Network, which often forges close connections with public officials and lawmakers. She pointed to her experience as a spiritual director and a peace builder, saying, “That kind of presence could possibly be helpful on Capitol Hill these days.”
She noted that roughly 30% of Congress claims a Catholic identity, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has spoken at Network events in the past. Network also forged a relationship with Joe Biden when he served as vice president under President Barack Obama: Campbell spearheaded efforts by Catholic nuns to express support for the Affordable Care Act, actions that earned her praise from Biden and Obama and helped ensure the bill’s passage.
More than a decade later, Novak seeks to continue a relationship with the newly inaugurated President Biden, who has been vocal about his own Catholic faith.
“Network is very excited about President Biden being the second Catholic president of the United States, and who tries to live out his Catholic social justice in his daily life,” she said. “I was heartened that the 2020 election showed Catholics are not just single issue voters.”
Asked what Catholic public witness should look like in the current political era, Novak made reference to Pope Francis and what she described as his emphasis on “starting with encounter.”
She aspires to bring a similar approach to her own advocacy: “You start where you must: in the lives of real people.”
Novak demurred when pressed about her policy agenda, saying she plans to engage in a discernment process with staff before laying out a comprehensive plan. In the meantime, she intends to shepherd projects Network already has in place, such as a broad-based “Build Anew” policy project designed to help dismantle systemic racism.
In the immediate term, she said, she intends to glean what she can from Campbell and Network staff. And while she may be a newcomer to the inside-the-Beltway lobbying game, Novak said she is already most excited by the same thing that animates other Washington power brokers: policy-heavy briefing meetings.
“I love multi-issue experiences,” she said. “When I was a baby lawyer, I hated it. But all these years later … to be back in it and hearing where things are right now is — well, I’m a nerd. I just love this stuff.”