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

Administration 'blind to religious exercise issue,' say lawyers

Karna Swanson
A Little Sister of the Poor arranges flowers with residents of the order's Mullen Home for the Aged in Denver in this DCR file photo.

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.

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Cardinal Robert Sarah is one of the adornments of the Catholic Church, although it’s very unlikely that this man of faith, humor, intelligence, and profound humility would appreciate my putting it that way. His 2015 book, God or Nothing, is selling all over the world, currently available in twelve languages with more to come. The book tells his story, that of a contemporary confessor of the faith who accepted episcopal ordination knowing that he might well be killed for his witness to Christ by the madcap Marxist dictator who then ran his West African country, Guinea. But the point of God or Nothing is not to advertise the virtues of Robert Sarah: the book is an invitation to faith, addressed to everyone, but with special urgency to those parts of the world dying from a suffocating indifference to the things of the spirit.

The cardinal, who was appointed by Pope Francis as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments with the mandate to continue the reform of the liturgical reform accelerated by Benedict XVI, was in Washington recently to address the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. Cardinal Sarah is not a showman, but he made a deep impression on the 1,300 in attendance by the depth of his faith and the lucidity of his presentation. He spoke movingly of the solidarity of which human beings are capable because we’re made in the likeness of the original communion of solidarity – the Holy Trinity. And in that context he defended the weakest and most vulnerable among us, in all stages of life, calling his American audience to live the truths on which the nascent nation staked its independence.

He then warned, quite rightly, that the “death of God” too often results, not in God’s burial, but in the “burial of good, beauty, love, and truth” through their inversion: “Good becomes evil, beauty is ugly, love becomes the satisfaction of sexual primal instincts, and truths are all relative.”

This accurate description of one root of today’s culture wars earned Cardinal Sarah the usual rebukes in the left-leaning Catholic blogosphere, where that shopworn parade of horribles – Manichaeism, culture-warrior, not-with-the-Pope Francis-program, etc. – was dusted off and trotted out yet again. Ironically, however, Cardinal Sarah’s address and his portside critics’ predictable response more-or-less coincided with a striking blog post by a Harvard Law School professor, Mark Tushnet, who seems not to have gotten the memo from the Catholic left that we should all just get along. Thus Professor Tushnet, writing in a post entitled “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Liberal Constitutionalism:”

“The culture wars are over; they lost, we won….For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (‘You lost, live with it’) is better than trying to accommodate the losers who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War…And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945….”

There is intolerant, aggressive, God-burying secularism in a nutshell: those of us who believe in marriage as it’s been understood for millennia, the right to life of the unborn and the elderly, men using men’s bathrooms, and religious freedom in full are the equivalents of post-Civil War lynch mobs, Nazis, and kamikaze-inducing Japanese militarists. Instead of berating Cardinal Sarah for speaking truth to dominant cultural and political power, might it not behoove his carping critics in the progressive Catholic blogosphere to challenge those in their political camp, like Mark Tushnet, who commit such calumnies – as some of us on the other side of the aisle, so to speak, have challenged the calumnies of Donald Trump? Is there no courage to be different left on the Catholic left?

Leon Trotsky, the old Bolshevik eventually liquidated by Stalin, famously said that “you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.” Change “dialectic” to “culture war” and you’ve got the truth of our situation, as Cardinal Sarah understands. Recognizing that truth is the beginning of any serious effort to follow Pope Francis and heal, evangelize, and convert the culture today.