The Little Sisters of the Poor: Religious Conscience and Government Mandates

When you’re poor for your entire life, it’s possible to become somewhat inured to misery. If you keep your line of vision low, keep from looking too far to the right or left, and manage your expectations properly, then—through practice—it might even be possible to control the thoroughly natural desire to possess more.

“What you’ve never had, you never miss,” I’ve heard it said.

But I wonder about the likelihood of such a thing when the poor grow old. For at that time, the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune are sure to be felt more keenly. When the labor required merely to exist is no longer possible, sufferings are more acute, as the meager distractions that toil provides are gone as well. The aged poor have a unique plight, caged mentally and physically within a prison of need.

Like most inadequate Christians, I do a bit here and there to provide for them. For instance, there’s a nursing home nearby that’s run by an order of nuns, The Little Sisters of the Poor. I’ve been known to volunteer there every once in a while, helping with yard work and assisting at their Christmas Bazaar.

But ordinarily, I just send money. On the whole, my corporeal acts of mercy are known by the ease with which they’re accomplished: One: Place pen to check. Two: Write name and amount. Three: Sign at bottom. Four: Mail.

I never break a sweat.

But that’s all right, because the Little Sisters do it for me. They’re very good at such things.

They’ve practiced heroic Christianity for a long time, going back to the French winter of 1839. St. Jeanne Jugan carried into her home a blind, paralyzed old woman who’d been left in the street to die, thus founding an order whose charity now covers six continents. They’ve been in America since 1868, with thirty homes and over three hundred nuns.

If you ever get a chance to visit one of these places, do. Because they’re the nicest, cleanest, most pleasant you’ll ever come across. Best of all, they exist only for the poor, in hopes that some of their bruised lives can be healed by the gentleness with which they’re attended.

One of the most touching things the sisters do is to make sure that no one ever dies alone; when residents are near death, the nuns assemble at the bedside and pray them to a better place.

It came as a blow when I heard that the Sisters might have to leave America. Because of the Obama administration’s HHS mandate—the Health and Human Services Agency’s requirement that all employer health insurance plans cover contraception and abortifacients—the good the nuns do was and still may be under threat.

Like thousands of such institutions, up until this week the Little Sisters of the Poor didn’t fall under the government exemption for compliance because—in a supreme perversity—the government did not consider them religious employers. Only groups with fifty or more employees that “inculcated religious values” as their purpose, and both employed and served members of their own faith exclusively were considered religious.

The nuns’ vocation is to provide a home for the low-income elderly regardless of faith, race, or religion. But with dystopian hubris, the HHS said this was precisely what disqualified them as a religious organization.

Unless they tended only to those who shared their creed, they would have had to pay a crippling cost: drop employee health insurance (which the Sisters feel bound to provide) and pay a $2,000 penalty per employee, or offer insurance without the objectionable coverage and be fined $100 per day, per employee, totaling nearly $2 million per year.

Either they betrayed their religious conscience or paid up for not doing so. As a mendicant order—vowed to beg for bare subsistence—this would break them.

And while the administration has proposed a changed definition this week, due to outrage, the Sisters and similar groups are likely still affected. Regardless, it is not for the federal government to decide when their conscience should be implicated or what accommodation should satisfy them.

Spare me the red herring about how unpopular contraception is among Catholics. Of what relevance is the popularity of a doctrine?  It is not the most unpopular of all doctrines among mass-attending Catholics, but even if it were, that would not change the fact that the Church holds it as such, and so do the Little Sisters.

Their personal conscience is what the First Amendment protects, and being required to mount a defense of religious conscience is itself an abomination.

When did the administration become the arbiter of such matters? Our country’s very foundation was motivated by just such tyrannical oppression: the state’s mandating a particular religion and showing intolerance toward others.

Even those who don’t hold the Catholic view should fear this power. If the government can require secular adherence now, then it can certainly target something that you do believe in later. Funny that those who would otherwise be screaming about the First Amendment are strangely quiet about what’s happening here.

I doubt my last days will be easy ones; few are so lucky. Nevertheless, I’ve amassed enough for some modicum of comforts at the end.

But there are many who have not, and if I were one of those—confused and uncertain and frail, hungry and unable to feed myself, cold and unable to find warmth—I would hope for a place like that of the Little Sisters, where all these things would be provided for me, plus a gentle hand upon my brow as the nuns sang me to a kinder world.

It will be a crime black as Hell if they have to leave America—of all places—because in the eyes of the state they are not—of all things—sufficient practitioners of their faith.

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  • Betty Alia

    Wonderful post.

  • JMS

    AG, your words always pack a punch…in this essay they’re a punch-in-the-gut. (I never dreamed our government would wield such blatant oppression).

  • matilda

    A great post, one that should be shared far and wide, for few people know about these wonderful sisters who beg so that old people can die in dignity, and fewer still that they may be forced to pack up and leave a country founded in religious freedom.

  • I’m a little sad to see what seems to me essentially an op-ed piece posted in Good Letters.

    • Donald Seiner

      Cheer up. It “makes a fresh connection between the world of faith and the world of daily life.”

  • Rose

    This is a very informative piece based on true facts. Thank you for bringing this message to us.

  • Sandra

    They aren’t planning to leave because of HHS, if you look at their website. I think it’s important to realize that many of their employees are young, relatively low-income women whose well-being is seriously impacted by their reproductive choices. I fail to see the difference between their Catholic employer telling them what to do and the US government telling their Catholic employer what to do. Catholic medical institutions allow their employees to prescribe contraceptives for “medical reasons”. So why shouldn’t they include them in their employees’ insurance coverage? Political posturing, that’s why.

    • Pat

      You are correct that the Little Sisters are not planning to leave because of HHS. Nor do they “tell their employees what to do.” Providing guidance, as the Catholic church does, on what is considered moral behavior is not the same as fining them for failure to comply. Technically speaking, the government doesn’t tell people what to do either. But the government has the coercive power of law to extract fines from non-complying organizations. That’s the difference. Anyway, employees of the Little Sisters or any religious group can choose to purchase contraceptives as they wish.

    • matilda

      First, Sister Constance Veit, the Communications Director of the Little Sisters, has stated in interviews last December that the future of their homes in America is in doubt because of the mandate. Second, the Little Sisters do not “tell” their employees what to do. Their employees are free to do what they will with their reproductive choices, as you put it; but those employees (about whose socio-economic status you seem remarkably informed) are not allowed, nor is the federal government allowed, to force the Little Sisters to finance such choices when they contradict the nuns’ beliefs. The First Amendment protects against forcing such practices against the religious conscience of its citizens. You would not force Jewish or Muslim employers to pay for non-Kosher or non-Halal foods, regardless of whether the HHS decides them to be beneficial to the health of their employees, would you? Of course not. Catholics who follow the teaching of their Church are worthy of as much respect and tolerance as any other religious group. Finally, as the essay makes clear, it is irrelevant what some Catholic institutions or individuals choose to do vis-à-vis their employees. It is the personal conscience of the Little Sisters that the Constitution protects; it is not your right to tell them that they should be satisfied with what these or other groups find satisfying. Finally, no orthodox Catholic institution—Catholic Hospitals, schools, etc.—would forbid the coverage of a prescription that was for medical, not contraceptive or abortifacient, purposes. The Church has been more than clear about that. There is all the difference in the world in the Church making exceptions for proven medical purposes—exceptions the granting of which are within her control–and the federal government forcing the Church to underwrite every conceivable use of contraceptives and abortifacients, effectively trumping the Church’s teaching vis-à-vis her faithful.

      • jdens

        I don’t think insurance should be tied to employment at all. However, this whole discussion seems ludicrous to me. If an employer pays the employee directly, it is between the doctor and the patient only what procedures and medication that money goes toward. Same with insurance. The insurers are the ones who are required to cover contraceptives. Whether that cover is being taken advantage of should, again, be strictly between doctor and patient. The fact that the employer pays the insurance company is just cutting out one of the middle men.

        We pay money for things all the time that we don’t necessarily support. I agree with a previous commenter: this is political posturing.

    • Thomas Flynn

      You pay money all the time for things you do not support? You are either an imbecile or morally indifferent. For the sake of your soul, I hope you are an imbecile rather than an indifferent secularist. A large group health plan such as the one at issue here will be self-funded by the employer with an insurance company only serving to adjudicate claims, not bear the risk of claims. So there is no “middleman” if that is the thin reed upon which you rest your conscience.

      • Monimonika

        There’s a thing called “taxes” that we tend to pay and that tends to get spent on lots of stuff that not everyone supports.
        If the employees are such good Catholics, then they wouldn’t even use that part of the insurance and the Sisters wouldn’t have to pay a dime toward any actual medicine/procedures anyway. This is, of course, assuming that the Sisters actually trust their employees and don’t feel the need to micro-manage their employees’ health choices.

        • Trevor Mandola

          The health care law says you have to pay for an abortifacient for your employee. So you have to fund your employee’s abortion. Your role is that of an instrumentality by serving as the means to an illicit action.

          When you pay taxes to a government that funds killing, whether as punishment, warfare or population control your funds are not statistically necessary for the government’s actions. It would be absurd to say YOUR money was a proximate cause of the government’s actions.

      • rumitoid

        @Flynn, for the sake of your soul, try being a little more civil and show some respect. Disagree, fine, but that doesn’t make the other an “imbecile.”

  • Rick

    “Dystopian hubris” = conservative evangelicals tend to use the rhetoric of Jack Chic tracts to frame debates and describe things they disagree with. The same people who waved away waterboarding are deathly concerned that a receptionist in their office will start taking the Pill. Please.

    • Colin

      The Sisters don’t care whether you take the Pill or not, but they shouldn’t have to compromise their religious principles to pay for what you do. The First Amendment protects people from being forced to pay for things they find morally repugnant or from providing insurers that will provide those things.

      • Chris Buchholz

        Actually it does not.
        Can Catholics refuse to pay taxes because a huge % of it goes to pay for war: killing of humans? When the church is pacifist?

  • What I see here is the Sisters making a choice on applying their conscience. According to your article, the group began in a act of charity, and continues on primarily to serve the poor. They are now faced with a challenge to their beliefs that they refuse to accommodate. The result of this change in secular law, is resulting in them abandoning those they originally chose to serve.

  • BT

    Too much black-and-white thinking leads one to a place where it seems to make ethical sense to abandon the poor because one’s receptionist might have cheaper access to something she already has access to on her own.

    I find this entire post a red herring.

  • Catherine

    I don’t understand. When you pay your taxes, some money goes to fund the death penalty and unjust wars…both condemned by the Church. What is the difference? Should we stop paying our taxes or should we emigrate as to not violate our consience? I’m lost here…

  • Chris Buchholz

    “I find this entire post a red herring.”
    It wont’ be any more expensive to provide such coverage, and no one need know. The institution is not a person, and therefore CANNOT have religious scruples to violate. Only the employees can violate their own beliefs if they want (or decide those aren’t their beliefs). The employee’s freedom trumps the organization because the employees are actually PEOPLE who have religious freedom.
    It is ridiculous to say “we can no longer help the poor, because we don’t want to support the religious freedom of our employees” that is anti-poor, anti-employee, anti-freedom.

  • rumitoid

    “Dystopian hubris” was an unfortunate comment and damaged the article; it is one of those buzz words used by the neo-cons. Trying to be both sufficiently broad, repsonsible and fair in any given law covering a nation is very difficult to do because of situations like this: exceptions that do not fit into neat categories. Instead of making it the usual anti-Obama rhetoric of the Evagelical marriage to the Republican Party, you could have simply noted the problem and the crying need for immediate action to save this wonderful organization. Why does there always have to be an enemy? It became difficult to know whether the blog was an anti-Obama ad or a concern for this fine organization.

    • Colin

      I’ve been following this comment thread with interest as it hits close to home for me. I’ve been disappointed to see that the debate has centered more on word choice and other superficial concerns rather than the true substance of the post.

      Were it not for the HHS mandate, this piece would be unnecessary. The president’s administration is mentioned only once. Unfortunately, it has pushed for legislation that requires these sisters to violate their consciences or shut their doors (to society’s detriment). So, this piece notes the problem and the cause of the problem. What’s wrong with that?

      Your comment provides much in the way of hand wringing sensitivity and little in the way of substance. There’s no need for literary criticism here. Did you just drop by to offer comments for a second draft of the post or do you see a solution for the Little Sisters and those who benefit from their charity?

  • peggy spiwak

    I pray sdaily to Saint Jeanne Jugan for old,sick and poor people and for The Little Sisters of the Poor. I will pray harder.