Who are the Little Sisters of the Poor, and why should you care?
March 23, 2016
If you were totally avoiding the internet today, or if you live under a particularly pleasant and comfortable rock, maybe you don’t know that the federal government and a bunch of nuns are duking it out before the Supreme Court over birth control.
More to the point, they’re fighting over the Little Sisters of the Poors’ refusal to subsidize contraception and abortion-causing drugs for their employees via their health insurance coverage, all of whom, by the way, are mandated by the President Obama’s signature eponymous government overreach law to purchase their own health insurance.
Well, fair’s fair, right? I mean, the law’s the law. We’ve all got to play by the rules.
Except that fully one third of Americans – including major corporations like Exxon, Pepsi, and Visa – flipping Visa – are exempted from the mandate.
I’ll let that sink in for a minute.
(I’m being a little bit dramatic actually. Because the Little Sisters of the Poor aren’t actually nuns; they’re sisters. Nuns are cloistered women religious who spend their lives away from the world, physically hidden behind convent doors and engaged in lives of quiet contemplation, prayer, and sacrifices.)
Sisters, on the other hand, are women religious who have vowed to live out their vocation to serve Christ in an active apostolate. They still vow poverty, chastity, and obedience, but they work in the streets and in hospitals and schools. They can be doctors and lawyers and social workers and professors, but who are married to Jesus and His Church.
These specific sisters, the Little Sisters, have a commitment to serve the elderly poor. It’s the entire mission of their order, and they run homes and hospices and clinics all around the world providing dignified, life-giving care to those who have no one to care for them, and no means to pay for it.
Some of their employees are not consecrated religious women, but laypersons. And the federal government is taking exemption to the Sisters – the Catholic, celibate, married-to-Jesus sisters, not subsidizing contraception and abortion-causing drugs for their lay employees.
And if the good sisters refuse? A crushing fine, somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million dollars, annually, effectively destroying their ministry.
I’m going to try my hand at an analogy or two, but they’re all going to fall short in one way or another.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are an avowed atheist, and a school teacher. Your entire career is dedicated to opening and instructing the minds of children. You find the notion of God abhorrent, and even destructive to young imaginations. But the government disagrees with your personal position, and even though you’ve chosen to serve in a public institution of learning, you will now be forced to provide government-subsidized Bibles and rosaries for your students. And you’ll be asked to distribute them personally.
But, the government assures you, you won’t be directly responsible for the promulgation of religious mythology in your classroom, because they’ll see to it that a portion of your annual salary for is directly subsidized for “proselytizing materials.” Also, they’ll stock a shelf in your classroom with the religious materials for you, so you won’t have to touch them.
“But, you might rightly protest, “I’m still being forced to participate in something I fudnemtnally disagree with and find morally reprehensible!”
“No, don’t be silly!” Say the Feds. “We’re providing the money and buying the sacred items ourselves. You can just pretend it’s not happening.”
You: “but that’s not how reality works…”
Perhaps the Hallel butcher shop down the block being forced to accept SNAP and, as such, being required to carry non-hallal meats and food products is a better example?
Here’s the thing, and it’s essential that we keep this foremost in our minds: we are all the Little Sisters of the Poor.
And while we may not yet be called before a court of law to defend our rights and livelihoods before a government intent on seeking increasing control and punitive intervention, make no mistake, the day is coming.
If the Little Sisters of the Poor can be forced to choose between their life-giving mission of utter self denial and service to some of the poorest and most vulnerable among us, and their conviction to follow their properly formed consciences and the law of God, what makes any of us believe we won’t eventually be asked to do the same?
The irony of a bunch of celibate women being forced to plead their case before the highest court of the land over their refusal to fund condoms and Depo Provera during Holy Week is almost farcical. But we who dwell in the land of reality tv know that truth has indeed become stranger – and cruder – than fiction.
I am reminded of two quotes that I want to leave you with. The first, often attributed to Voltaire but more probably coined by a biographer of his, Evelyn Beatrice Hall:
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
And, this from Pastor Martin Niemöller, who did time in both Sachsenhausen and Dachau:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Will you speak for the Little Sisters? Get on social media and get the word out, using the hashtag #letthemserve.
And may God deliver to them a swift victory, and protect their mission to the elderly poor.