Obama to Little Sisters: It’s just a piece of paper

Administration 'blind to religious exercise issue,' say lawyers

Karna Swanson

When the Obama administration refuted on Friday the temporary injunction granted to the Little Sisters of the Poor protecting them from the controversial Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate, the sisters couldn’t be reached for comment. They were at Mass, praying with the elderly residents of their home in Denver.

Within hours, dozens of news stories appeared online that put the sisters at the center of a contentious national debate on what constitutes strong-arming a religious congregation to provide contraceptives and other abortion-inducing drugs to its employees.

The sticking point for both sides is a waiver/authorization form that the Little Sisters must fill out to take advantage of a so-called accommodation for non-profit ministries. The form, however, has a dual purpose—it signals opposition to the mandate, but also authorizes a third-party to provide the services it finds morally objectionable.

“The Little Sisters and other applicants cannot execute the form because they cannot deputize a third party to sin on their behalf,” stated the Becket Fund, which represents the Little Sisters, in a brief responding to the Obama administration. The group added that the administration is “simply blind to the religious exercise at issue.”

The Obama administration minimalized the importance of the form, enticing the Little Sisters to “secure for themselves the relief they seek” …“with the stroke of their own pen.”

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the nuns, said in a statement Friday that the administration was “trying to bully nuns into violating their religious beliefs.”

If the sisters don’t sign the waiver/authorization form, or if the courts don’t uphold the injunction, they could be subject to devastating IRS penalties that could add up to millions of dollars a year.

After checking back later with the sisters, who run Mullen Home for the Aged in Denver, Mother Patricia Mary stated, “At this point we are not saying anything. We are just kind of waiting … and continuing to work with the elderly.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor have served the elderly poor in Colorado since 1917, and the congregation has been in the United States since 1868. They currently run 30 homes for the elderly across the country, and one in Canada, which are characterized by hospitality and a dependence on Divine Providence.

The mission of the Little Sisters began in 1839 when their foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, invited a blind, paralyzed old woman into her home, and cared for her. From that day onward, the Little Sisters have offered “the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family, and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.”

Following in the footsteps of Jugan, two Little Sisters go begging daily for basic necessities on behalf of the elderly. This was a practice that Jugan began in the early years of the congregation, thus saving the residents the indignity of having to beg for themselves.

In an interview last fall with Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online, Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor, stated quite clearly that the sisters simply want “to take care of the elderly poor without being forced to violate the faith that animates our work.”

For more than 100 years, the Little Sisters have been able to do just that here in the United States. The contraceptive mandate, however, puts the ability of the Little Sisters to continue their mission and work in jeopardy.

“All of this is sad and unnecessary,” said Rienzi. “Our federal government is massive and powerful. It can obviously find ways to distribute contraceptives and abortion pills without forcing nuns to be involved.”

Preliminary injunctions had been awarded in 18 of the 20 similar cases in which relief had been requested.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is the justice assigned for emergency applications from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, gave the Little Sisters a temporary injunction Dec. 31, and gave the federal government until Jan. 3 to respond.

After the Obama administration’s request that the injunction be lifted, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty urged Sotomayor to keep the injunction in place as it protects “religious exercise.”

Currently, there are 91 lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate. The Becket Fund represents: Hobby Lobby, Little Sisters of the Poor, Guidestone, Wheaton College, East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University, Colorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television Network, Ave Maria University, and Belmont Abbey College.

COMING UP: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.