St.Thomas More, The Little Sisters of the Poor & the Casualness of Conscience

The Duke of Norfolk: “Oh confound all this. I’m not a scholar, I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not but – dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!”

Thomas More: “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

- From Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons

“Why can’t you do as I did, Thomas, and come with us?” Indeed, why not? It seemed foolish, in the eyes of the Duke of Norfolk (who was, after all, a friend and colleague of Thomas More’s in 1500s Tudor England) for such a brilliant and pragmatic man as Thomas More to jeopardize his prestige, his livelihood and perhaps his life all in the name of refusing to take a silly Oath. Why not, Thomas?

In 1534, King Henry VIII demanded all subjects serving in church or public office to swear an Oath of Supremacy recognizing him as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The puppet British parliament hastily ratified the king’s intentions through the Act of Supremacy (recognizing the king as sole head of the English Church) and the Act of Succession (recognizing Anne Boleyn as Queen and her forthcoming child, Elizabeth, as the rightful heir to the crown). The Oath began,

“I (state your name) do utterly testifie and declare in my Conscience, that the Kings Highnesse is the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes…”

This Oath, by default, defiantly separated the Church of England from the Pope and the Holy Roman Catholic Church. From a practical standpoint, it freed the king from the permission needed to annul his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon while empowering him to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. And the punishment for failing to take the Oath – the Treason of not taking the Oath – was to be hanged, cut down while still alive, disemboweled, castrated, beheaded, quartered and displayed publicly to the abject humiliation of one’s friends and relations. It was quite simple, really. To be in the good graces of the king, you simply had to take the Oath. Surely, Thomas More, a retired Lord Chancellor, revered lawyer, man of letters and decent family man would not waver in signing such an Oath? Surely not?

And so, 480 years later, we find ourselves witnessing a not entirely dissimilar situation. The Little Sisters of the Poor began in 1839 when St. Jeanne Jugan carried a blind, paralyzed woman she found suffering alone in a cold winter street into her own home, placed the destitute woman in her own bed and began to care for her. Soon, additional neglected and infirm elderly women were brought to her doorstep while several fellow pious young women joined her in her efforts. They served these poor women. They gave them their own beds, while they slept in an uncomfortable attic. They begged on their behalf to spare the elder women such an indignity. Within thirteen years, they had formed a Congregation with Catholic diocesan recognition: “The Little Sisters of the Poor” were one hundred strong and growing. Powered by the Holy Spirit and the fervent desire to serve God and his people, the Little Sisters spread from country to country, finally arriving in America in 1868. In their 146 years in America, the Little Sisters have established 30 homes nationwide, all in the name of selflessly serving the elderly poor regardless of race, religion or gender.

Which brings us to the current, unwanted conflict. Humble and meek, selfless and serving…the Little Sisters of the Poor have never been the types to look for a clash – especially with the federal government. In fact, for years, this Congregation has been regarded as a beacon of light for the cast-offs, the untouchables and undesirables that the government has been self-admittedly incapable of and, frankly, often disinterested in “managing”. The Little Sisters are only too happy to do their part – their loving, holy and sacramental part. But there is one detail that, perhaps, was forgotten: The Little Sisters of the Poor are Catholic. And while they take on a charge that places no conditions on their love and devotion for the elderly poor, they themselves are inspired and enlivened by Catholic Truth. This means, quite simply, that there are certain things they morally cannot do.

The Health and Human Services Mandate (HHS Mandate) was issued by President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (purportedly, a Catholic) requiring employee health insurance to universally provide oral contraceptive, sterilization and abortifacient coverage. The exemptions for those who have religious objections are exceedingly narrow so that religious universities (Catholic University of America, University of Notre Dame, Wheaton College, Belmont Abbey among others), religious broadcasting centers (EWTN), innumerable Catholic dioceses/archdioceses, religious organizations and orders (Priests For Life, Little Sisters of the Poor among others), for-profit businesses (Hobby Lobby, Doboszenski, among others) are NOT EXEMPT and spending countless dollars and hours in court to get injunctions to halt the mandate (to see a comprehensive list of groups and status of their lawsuit, see the Becket Fund’s HHS Information Central site). As the deadline for implementation approached, the courts heard cases, the affected parties pled for exemption and the federal government obfuscated with versions of “accommodations” which did anything but accommodate.

And so as the final deadline of January 1st, 2014 arrived, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed an injunction on behalf of Colorado’s Little Sisters of the Poor and awaited a government response as to why the injunction should be raised. The fine, incidentally, for not implementing the coverage of oral contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients is a crippling $100 per employee per day (translating to millions of dollars per year). The Administration’s anemic answer rebutting Sotomayor’s injunction was that the nuns could simply sign a form that ostensibly “absolves them” of responsibility for condoning the funding of these measures while then assigning the decision to a third-party who will then condone it for them. It seems to be argued, from the Government’s standpoint, that being one further step removed from sin makes the sin not sinful. At the height of haughty acerbicity, the Administration sniffed,

“With the stroke of their own pen…[the Sisters can] secure for themselves the relief they seek…”

Not to be outdone, Administration surrogate and ardent abortion proponent NARAL-Pro Choice America President Ilsye Hogue, intoned this bit of wisdom,

“The government is charged with enforcing a law. We all hate signing forms, believe me. I hate signing forms; we just bought a new house.”

Meanwhile, as the injunction holds and the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments this Spring on similar cases (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius), the work of the Little Sisters goes on. While relieved by the temporary injunction, they realize the juggernaut with which they are contending: ideological government with the powers of the IRS. According to Denver Catholic Register writer, Karna Swanson, when Mother Patricia Mary at the Mullen Home for the Aged (run by the Little Sisters) was asked about next steps, she meekly replied,

 “At this point we are not saying anything. We are just kind of waiting … and continuing to work with the elderly.”

It seems that the dominating thoughts for the Little Sisters is to serve God, to serve their fellow man and woman while avoiding the trap found in the modern casualness of conscience. We live in a world keen on conveniently absolving sin when it is not empowered to do so. We live in a time arguing that our conscience is well-served simply if we feel good and our personal appetites are satisfied. Consequently, Conscience becomes rudderless as Truth is jettisoned. The Little Sisters will have none of this. As the Blessed Pope John Paul once admonished,

“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

Ah, yes. That makes sense. Once again, the Duke of Norfolk asked Thomas More, “Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!” And More said, “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”. Thomas More would be isolated, imprisoned and beheaded (a merciful commutation, no doubt). At least in this modern day and age, The Little Sisters of the Poor can expect better treatment…or can they?

Please consider a donation to the tireless workers at the Little Sisters of the Poor and the intrepid lawyers at The Becket Fund. 

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