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: Catholic leaders urge extreme caution for new Netflix series

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Based on the 2007 young adult novel by the same name, “13 Reasons Why” follows the story of Hannah Baker, a troubled 17 year old who took her own life.

But instead of leaving the typical note, Hannah leaves 13 cassette tapes, explaining the 13 reasons why she took her life – and each of these “reasons” is a person, who either did something to Hannah, or didn’t do enough, according to her.

The creators of the Netflix original series insisted in a follow-up video that 13 Reasons was meant to be helpful – to bring up important conversations about serious topics like suicide, bullying and assault, and to get viewers talking about solutions to suicidal thoughts.

However, suicide prevention groups and youth leaders have raised concerns because the show is particularly popular among a teenage audience, and teenagers are a vulnerable population.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the CDC. Studies show that publicized suicides may also trigger a ripple effect of additional suicides within communities.

The show has also faced backlash from mental health experts, who say it fails to follow several of the “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” a list of guidelines for media outlets developed by suicide prevention experts and journalists. Experts advise against sensational headlines or describing a suicide in graphic detail, which studies have shown can lead to suicide contagion, or “copycat” suicides.

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a U.S. non-profit suicide prevention group, has also said that the show may do “more harm than good.”

Life Teen, an international youth ministry program, released a video and a written message to young people, warning them of possible triggers in the show and of the inadequate ways it addresses suicide and mental health.

In her message to young people before they watch the show, Life Teen’s Leah Murphy warned against the way the show portrays Hannah’s suicide as simply the fault of those around her.

“Nowhere in the series is mental illness explicitly discussed or dealt with and the audience is left having been told that the people around Hannah Baker are responsible for her death because of their actions or lack thereof,” she wrote.

“While bullying, not saying anything when you see depressive or suicidal signs, and sexual assault are serious issues and can drive people to suicide, the reality is that suicide is rarely something avoided by good sentiments alone. It’s been reported that 90% of all suicides are committed by people who experience diagnosable mental illnesses. The vast majority of suicides can be traced to actual health issues, not just bullying or traumatic events. These health issues, actual, mental illnesses require a lot more than the presence of a good friend or the absence of any serious issues or struggles – they require serious, professional help.”

The fact that these aren’t addressed in any straightforward manner in the series is a problem, Murphy said, because Hannah ends up being portrayed as a kind of “heroic martyr” who leaves a lesson and a legacy behind.

Murphy urged anyone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts to reach out and seek help.

Someone who commits suicide “doesn’t become a hero, gain control, and acquire any power by identifying the people around them as reasons for their suicide,” Murphy wrote.

“Suicide will always be incredibly hurtful to countless individuals, but most tragically hurtful to the person who takes his or her own life – a life that was mean to continue, that was full of meaning, purpose, and infinite worth.”

Chelsea Voboril, the director of religious education at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Smithville, Missouri, told CNA that she watched the show and addressed it with her youth group. She was troubled that most of her teens thought the 13 reasons Hannah gave were legitimate reasons to end her life.

Voboril said they were able to discuss how Hannah never approached her parents or a doctor or psychologist about the loneliness and hurt she was experiencing. Voboril was also able to discuss mental health and culpability for sins with her youth group, who asked if everyone who commits suicide goes to hell.

When watching these kinds of shows, Voboril said she tries to take the approach of finding the “wheat in the weeds” or finding the good among the bad – something she’s borrowed from Catholic speaker Christopher West.

The show attempted to have a moral compass, Voboril said, and its “wheat” includes good messages: “Rape is wrong, suicide causes pain, everybody is bearing a cross,” she noted.

“But the weeds are dangerous. And subtle. Sex outside of marriage, turning to substance abuse, free will being limited by others actions or circumstances, let alone the huge issue around how to talk about suicide in a safe yet poignant manner.”

At the end of the discussion, Voboril said she begged her students to watch it with a parent or other adult, if they were going to continue watching.

But “(for) persons whose consciences may not be well formed or who can be triggered by any of the big issues, I would hope that they avoid it.”

Owen Stockden, a spokesman for Living Works, which specializes in suicide intervention trainings, told CNA that one of his biggest concerns with “13 Reasons” was the portrayal of inadequate and unhelpful responses from the adults in the show, particularly the school counselor and teachers.

“In the show, Hannah’s guidance counsellor has a very ineffective response to her thoughts of suicide,” Stockden told CNA.

“As an organization, we train many guidance counsellors and teachers around the world to respond compassionately and effectively to thoughts of suicide. There is always more to be done, and a recent study…suggests that schools would benefit from increased suicide intervention training for staff, but in the vast majority of cases, teachers and counsellors are alert and sensitive to the needs of their students,” he said.

“It would be tragic if 13 Reasons Why led young people to believe that their concerns would be ignored if they approached a responsible adult.”

Having a popular show discussing the issue of suicide provides the potential for helpful conversations and the addressing of important issues, “but only if it is discussed in a thoughtful and responsible way,” Stockden added.

For Catholic screenwriter and associate professor Barbara Nicolosi, another issue with the show is that none of the characters have a sense of or ever mention a transcendent or loving God, something that she says her own students lack.

“The show wants to attribute all the problems of youth to social media and bullying, but refuses to consider that those things are just symptoms themselves.  The loss of faith, the (loss of the) conviction of a loving personal God, the loss of a sense of eternity, all of these things make suicide a logical response to suffering. Our kids are not dumb,” she told CNA.

Nicolosi said she saw the value in the anti-bullying messages of the show, but she also worries it could lend power to suicide.

“…I am worried that the character of Hannah does seem to have some power in wreaking revenge on her persecutors through her suicide. In the end, I think the show is close to a wash in terms of whether it will do good or harm,” she said.

Dr. Jim Langley, a Catholic psychologist with St. Raphael Counseling in Denver, has read the book and seen several episodes of “13 Reasons Why.”

Because of the mature content on several levels – language, sexuality, topics of suicide and rape – he said he would be hesitant to recommend either the show or the book to anyone other than mentally healthy adults.

He also said that there were several things that the story gets right – namely, that people you may not expect in your life could be at risk for suicide, and the devastating impact suicide can have on the people in your life.

However, where the story goes wrong is that it tends to romanticize the idea of suicide and fails to adequately address the impact mental health played in Hannah’s decision to end her life.

Dr. Langley said he also worried that the show went too far in suggesting that the people in Hannah’s life were at fault for her suicide. Bullying, rape and assault are terrible things to have happen to someone, and there is some benefit to showing that your actions “can harm and influence other people.”

“To some degree we all have responsibility to other people, but in some ways the show goes too far, and makes it sound like we have responsibility for the other person. We’re responsible to the people in our lives, to treat them well. But the people who hurt (Hannah) were not responsible for her choosing to commit suicide.”

“Most people who commit suicide – almost everyone has a severe mental health problem. And the show does not portray this girl as having severe mental health problems in the way that somebody who is contemplating suicide almost always has,” he said.

Warning signs for suicide include severe, ongoing depression and social isolation. A suicidal person may mention something about wanting to end their life, or start giving away their belongings as sentimental gifts. Another warning sign includes a deeply depressed person who is all of a sudden very happy, brought about by a sudden sense of freedom if they have decided on suicide.

The show’s ultimate message is that the solution to teen suicide is that everyone needs to treat the people in their lives better, which is a positive message but does not go far enough in addressing mental health issues, Dr. Langley said.

One of the most important things adults can do, Dr. Langley said, it to talk to the children in their lives about this show and about suicide and other issues.

“I think that especially with teenagers, they are exposed to so much in today’s culture, that it’s our job as parents and educators about those things and to provide real, accurate information and to provide them with the truth,” he said.

Often adults can worry that they will over-expose their children to heavy issues by having these conversations, but for the most part, the internet and social media and the culture at large have already done that, Dr. Langley noted.

“So as parents and educators, we’re not overexposing them by talking about the issues, we’re going to help them process it and discern the truth in it. And I think it is really valuable to talk with teenagers about mental health issues.”

One thing that was “starkly missing” from the book and the T.V. show, Dr. Langley said, was Hannah’s parents, who seemed loving but at the same time were largely unaware of Hannah’s experiences at school and her interior experiences.

“So it’s so important for parents to play a really active role in their kids’ lives, even though a teenager’s number one priority is to individuate from mom and dad, which is healthy, you still have to be involved and talk with them and let them know that you care and that you’re invested in them. Don’t be those absent parents that Hannah’s parents appeared to be in the show.”

If you think you or a friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts, ask for help from someone you can trust and/or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available 24 hours everyday). For Catholic counseling, contact your local priest, diocese or your local branch of Catholic Charities.