Little Sisters have day in court

Nuns say they should not have to choose

Before a looming federal courthouse building in downtown Denver, the provincial superior of the Little Sisters of the Poor said in a press conference earlier this week that the order of nuns is not seeking “special privileges” in its lawsuit against the HHS mandate—the nuns only wish to continue to serve the elderly and dying.

Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, l.s.p., gave public comments Dec. 8 following the Little Sisters’ oral arguments before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals contending the federal contraceptive mandate is a violation of religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“But now the government demands we choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith,” Mother Maguire said during the conference. “We cannot do that and we should not have to. It is a choice that violates our nation’s historic commitment to ensure that people from diverse faiths can freely follow God’s calling in their lives.”

Attorneys from The Becket Fund for Religious Freedom presented the nuns’ case in a lawsuit challenging the mandate, a part of the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare. The nuns argue the government is forcing them to act against their religious beliefs because of its requirement to provide free contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs to employees, or pay steep fines.

“The government forces us to either violate our conscience or take millions of dollars that we raise by begging for the care of the elderly poor and instead pay fines to the IRS,” Mother Maguire said.

Churches are exempt from the mandate, but charitable organizations like the Little Sisters are not. Mother Maguire said the Little Sisters are seeking the same exemption.

“The government exempts huge corporations, small businesses, and other religious ministries from what they are imposing on us—we are simply asking to carry on our mission to serve the elderly poor as we have always done for 175 years,” she said.

The Little Sisters operate 28 nursing homes for the elderly poor across the U.S. The order makes up one of 126 nonprofit plaintiffs who have filed suit against the mandate.

Mother Patricia Mary Metzgar, l.s.p., who oversees the Little Sisters’ Mullen Home for the Aged in Denver, was also at the hearing, along with other nuns from the order.

After filing an appeal in February in Denver federal court, the nuns were granted a temporary injunction, which shields them from the mandate and its fines. If the sisters do not win the appeal, they would be fined $6,700 a day and nearly $2.5 million a year, which is a third of its $6 million budget.

The Little Sisters of Denver employ about 67 full-time employees. If they do win the appeal, their case could be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Becket Fund’s Mark Rienzi, lead attorney for the Little Sisters, called the government’s mandate on the nuns’ “ridiculous.”

“A year after losing at the Supreme Court, the government’s aggressive pursuit of the Little Sisters of the Poor continues,” Rienzi said at the conference. “Untold millions of people have managed to get contraceptives without the involvement of nuns. The idea that the most powerful government in the world cannot come up with a way to distribute these products without forcing the Little Sisters to participate is ridiculous.”

Mother Maguire said the Little Sisters said they are grateful the appeals court heard its case and “prayerfully await the judges’ decision.”

For more information about the Becket Fund and the Little Sisters case, visit www.becketfund.org/hhsinformationcentral.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.