Little Sisters of the Persecuted
Some months ago, my husband and I found ourselves at Mass on Sunday morning in the cathedral of Santo Domingo, in Cusco, Peru. We stood out like sore thumbs, my husband and I, surrounded by throngs of worshipers, most of them of indigenous descent. Many of the women wore their incongruously charming fedoras, with their thick woolen mantles and colorfully embroidered skirts. The hands of the men and women were calloused and their faces baked and lined by the Andean sun.
Moving amongst the faithful were little groups of nuns in white habits, their eyes cast down, some making their way to one of the side altars to pray before an image of the Virgin, or stopping to hear one of the back to back masses at the main altar. The other natives parted for them respectfully, some with a little bow: "Pase usted, Madre," I heard again and again. It was wondrous to me that in that land of bare subsistence living, there existed these nuns, who choose to live an even more perfect poverty and humility.
I thought of them this week, when I saw some pictures of other nuns in white habits, this group in the United States: the Little Sisters of the Poor. They are part of a large order that serve in 31 countries, which was founded in 1817 by a kitchen maid who could not bear the sight of an old paralyzed and blind woman who begged in the cold and had no one to care for her. St. Jeanne placed the woman in her own poor bed. The order she formed, dedicated to the care of the indigent elderly, grew and spread, a boon to the poor they served, but also the rich who learned compassion and the meaning of human dignity from their actions.
Why does a young woman take a vow of poverty and obedience, not to mention chastity, and dedicate her life to caring for our abandoned grandparents? She does it out of religious conviction; a certainty born of faith that her sacrifice is pleasing. She takes the Christian belief that all life is valuable, and lives it to its logical conclusion.
The Obama administration does not seem to understand that kind of faith. I say this because the Little Sister's social outreach does not qualify for a religious exemption under the ObamaCare's current regulations. The exemption to providing the contraceptive and abortifacient coverage that is embedded in the Affordable Care Act only applies to houses of worship, not to Church-affiliated social service organizations, like the Little Sister's homes for the indigent elderly. These organizations do great work, work done with love and for faith, not for pay. And they do it because they are Catholic and Christian. Sister Lorraine Marie, superior of the order, explained that complying with the HHS mandate was impossible for them. "Like all of the Little Sisters, I have vowed to God and the Roman Catholic Church that I will treat all life as valuable...We cannot violate our vows by participating in the government's program to provide access to abortion-inducing drugs."
On Friday, the second highest court in the land, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, struck down the birth control mandate in ObamaCare, saying that it inhibits religious freedom. Judge Rogers Brown wrote that "The burden on religious exercise does not occur at the point of contraceptive purchase; instead, it occurs when a company's owners fill the basket of goods and services that constitute a healthcare plan." The Supreme Court will soon, it is hoped, pick up an appeal on the birth control requirement and rule on its constitutionality. They have many to choose from. I hope they choose the class action suit filed by the Becket Fund for Religious liberty on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor and hundreds of Catholic nonprofit ministries who cannot in good faith comply with the mandate.
If the members of the administration responsible for writing the very limited religious freedom exemption from the mandate could visit that church Peru, and see the humble little nuns who chose to be more poor and more humble than the poor around them, they might get an inkling of the value of religious institutions. The faith that moves men and women to tremendous generosity and sacrifice should be protected and preserved, not attacked and endangered with the threat of massive fines.
If that's not possible for them, they might just want to take a quick look at the First Amendment. They should find some guidance there.