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.
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.