Bioethics,  Catholics Do What?,  Culture of Death,  politics,  Women's Rights

Who are the Little Sisters of the Poor, and why should you care?

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.

little sisters cartoon

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.




  • jeanette

    Yes, there is a bit of irony that this is happening during Holy Week. Maybe God can make use of that through us. You urge speaking out publicly, which is very good, but we can do something else: pray, fast, give alms. The three work together, and here is the response to the irony that it is Holy Week: we have to FAST on Friday…offer up your fasting that day for them and for the Supreme Court justices. You also can raise them up in prayer, especially during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If you hope for justice, give alms as you are able.

  • Ellen

    Do you know why those other companies are excused? I haven’t followed the case that closely but I’m shocked at how much it is looking like religious persecution.

  • Fang

    This is really shocking and unfair!

    Except you forgot to mention the fact that The Little Sisters can simply sign a Religious Employer Exemption form, and they will be exempted from the mandate.

    If you had known about the exemption and the REE form, perhaps you would like to share with us how you were exempted by The Lord from the duty to tell the full truth to his followers.

    Here is more coverage of the case going to Supreme Court.

  • Melissa

    But no one is forcing them to have sex or take birth control… Just offer their employees access to reasonable and legal medical care. If they don’t want employees, great! But if they want to hire an employee off the street, they can’t force their religion on their employee. And if we are talking about health care for the sisters, then no, access to birth control does not violate their religion or their vow. Having more medical care than you need is not a bad thing. Actually, just think of the millions of people that used to have no health care or health care that covered just about nothing, but now they are covered with decent minimum standard. Praise God for the spirit of the beatitudes being put into law!

    • Jenny Uebbing

      But they already have access to free birth control and abortion causing drugs because of Obamacare. Why should the Little Sisters of the Poor, themselves celibate women practicing a religious faith, be forced to violate their consciences and participate in harming other women?

      Nobody is preventing – or seeking to prevent – medical care. Contraception is not medical care, and it’s already freely available for any American who desires it, so that argument is a straw man.

      • LeAnn Anderson

        Do you have any idea hat that “decent minimum standard” is?

        Let me tell you what it is, based on my experience as one who wasn’t covered before but now is covered by that “decent minimum standard.”

        Birth control and abortion.

        That’s IT. That’s all I’m allowed to have as a 33-year-old Catholic woman suffering from PCOS, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, insulin resistance, and infertility, simply because I stay home to care for my disabled husband and attempt to make a living as an indy YA fantasy writer.

        I will not be allowed pap smears or breast exams until I am 35. I will never be allowed real treatment for the painful cysts on my ovaries or bleeding for six months at a time. If I fall and break my arm or something, I have to pay 100% out of pocket and hope and pray that the financial assistance program at the hospital will cover it. AGAIN. I do not have access to yearly exams or a general practitioner. Eye exams are also 100% out of pocket. So is dental, meaning I have no way to fix my two broken teeth because I can’t afford it.

        If I become ill and require basic antibiotics (and I am prone to ear infections), I cannot see a doctor and get the medication I need, so I have to resort to taking a teaspoon of honey as a natural antibiotic. If I need surgery, I’m not covered. If I get cancer, I’m not covered. If I step on a rusty nail and need a tetanus shot, I’m not covered.

        Concussion? Not covered! Flu? Not covered! Pneumonia? Not covered! Pelvic exams? Not covered! Basic wellness checks? Not covered!

        But if I want dangerous artificial hormones or, if I miraculously get pregnant and I want to murder my unborn child, that’s covered plenty!

        So much for “decent minimum coverage.”

        • Salha

          Hey Leann,
          First of all, I want to say that I hope you are able to connect to the providers and procedures you need to live a healthy life.

          I also have PCOS, and it is a very difficult thing to manage. Prayers for your health.

          I have been on medicaid, and at another point in my life purchased my own insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace. On my Humana Obamacare plan (purchased on Ohio) all preventative care was covered. That includes PAP smears and breast exams and at the time I was 27. No charge for my physical, no charge for bloodwork, no charge for my annual well-woman exam, and a free flu shot. An ER visit was $100, generic prescriptions were maybe $15-$45, it’s been a few years so I’m not sure about that. I was also very fortunate not to have a serious medical event happen during my time there.

          Dental was a separate plan that I paid for, and I hope one day that dental care is covered by standard health insurance.

          Then I moved to CT, where my income was low enough to qualify for Medicaid, and all my expenses were covered.

          My long winded point is that you can find better care. And I sincerely hope that you do.

  • Catherine

    Hi Jenny,

    Thank you so so much for posting about this. My oldest sister is a Little Sister at the home in Denver, and the sisters’ cause and mission is so close to my heart. I appreciate your succinct (as always) explanation of this important case and why it matters. You also depict the sisters in such a caring and accurate light that is often missing in the mainstream media articles that I’ve been reading about the case (what a shocker, right? 🙂

    Anyway, thank you so much and I will be sharing this post with the rest of my family. God bless you during this Holy Week!

  • Maureen

    Amen! The Little Sisters battle is in my prayers.

    Here in the UK we watch, pray, and wait for the trouble to come here, and it is not far off.

    I work in a university. Under the latest prevention of terrorist dictat, I am expected to monitor my students and colleagues for signs of radicalisation. These include strong and/or fundamentalist religious views, views that are contrary to the UK laws and Brittish way of life, and active support of environmentalist causes.
    As a catholic, a member of the SNP, and a supporter for Greenpeace….I am waiting for the knock on the door.

  • Margarita Cart

    I am so sad that an order that call themselves Sisters of the Poor are against birth control. Jesus will not be against birth control because reproductive rights have became only a right for the reach. Do you forgot that Jesus spoke with prostitutes? On his time that will have been a mayor sin that poor people today unemployed cannot afford another mouth to feed , use birth control . Or you believe that gift of sexuality is also only for the rich? Where is your compassion? Remember the words of Paul ? All the virtues are great but without charity they are nothing? I cannot keep my mouth shot before this “political religious correctness. I thank God for my 2 children. How self writegious you that decide not have children or marry try to speak for the millions of us that have decide do otherwise and understand the abuse, misery and poverty and pain of mother seen their children go to bed hungry. I am catholic and ashamed that some Catholics that should be examples of compassion decide to be judgemental and unkind.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      Hi Margarita, and welcome to the discussion. I’m glad you took the time to read this piece.

      You mention that you’re Catholic and have two children. I’m Catholic as well, and have 4 myself. I think perhaps you were addressing the Little Sisters of the Poor (consecrated women religious, like St. Therese, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, etc. the Church has a long and beautiful history of women consecrating themselves and their virginity to the service of the Gospel and Christ’s poorest and most abandoned children)?

      Since you are Catholic, you are perhaps also familiar with (or perhaps not, depending upon how healthy the Church in your area is, and how faithful your priests are) our shared teachings on sexuality, which are powerful, difficult, and life-giving. Much like the rest of the Faith.

      A few references for you from official Catholic teaching on birth control. First, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      2368 A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality:

      When it is a question of harmonizing married love with the responsible transmission of life, the morality of the behavior does not depend on sincere intention and evaluation of motives alone; but it must be determined by objective criteria, criteria drawn from the nature of the person and his acts criteria that respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love; this is possible only if the virtue of married chastity is practiced with sincerity of heart.156
      2369 “By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its orientation toward man’s exalted vocation to parenthood.”157

      2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality.158 These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil:159

      Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.160

      Casti Connubi and Humanae Vitae are also both essential reads for you and I, as Catholics, to properly inform our consciences and conform our hearts and wills to the mind of God.

      It’s not easy to live the Church’s beautiful, ofttimes heroic teachings on sex and marriage, but it is fruitful and worthwhile, as with so many other difficult truths of the Christian life.

      And the Little Sisters of the Poor aren’t trying to prevent anyone from accessing birth control. Our federal government, mandated by Obama, already supplies free contraception to every American citizen, and it is funded by taxpayer money. Even those of us who disagree. All the Little Sisters are asking is not to be forced to personally provide contraception and abortion-causing drugs to their own employees, who already have free access to these materials elsewhere. The United States government has chosen to exempt hundreds of large and medium corporations, including Visa and Pepsico, as I mentioned in this piece, but is cracking down the this religious order precisely because, it would seem, they seek to persecute them for the practice of their faith.

      The faith that you and I hold in common.

      Will you pray for my own deeper conversion of heart on the sanctity and goodness of human life?

      I’ll pray for yours, too.

  • jeanette

    To those people who have commented to Jenny but do not understand why there is any objection on the part of the Little Sisters of the Poor to supply coverage for contraception, etc, here are a few points to consider:

    I have to pay for my own medical coverage every month in an individual plan…more than $700. Yes, that amount makes me wince every month. I have to pay it. Or pay a fine by the government for not having health coverage. Of the plans available to me, I have to pay for a plan that covers contraception, etc, for other plan members, whether or not I want to: there is no opting out. I’m not a “religious organization” just an individual, but I am forced to pay for what I don’t believe in so that others can do what they wish. Essentially, I am required to subsidize their sex lives. Why? They don’t subsidize the medications I must use for my own health issues. I have to pay money out of my pocket, in addition to my healthcare premium. My HEALTH issues, not lifestyle decisions, require medications. There is a real issue here of JUSTICE: people who have real medical problems have to pay for their medications, but if you want to just have sex without responsibility, someone else has to subsidize your freely chosen health decisions. I think there are other health issues that should take a higher place in the ranking of what is important in society and worthy of our collective support. I just don’t think contraception ranks up there at all.

    Free contraception doesn’t make any sense to me. But that’s the way the law stands right now. However, just because it is a law doesn’t make it right.

    • Jane

      There are some problems with your logic. “Essentially, I am required to subsidize their sex lives. Why? They don’t subsidize the medications I must use for my own health issues.” How is it exactly that you are subsidizing the sex lives of others and they are not paying for your?
      “In addition, not all birth control is used to prevent birth but for other medical issue.
      There is a real issue here of JUSTICE: people who have real medical problems have to pay for their medications, but if you want to just have sex without responsibility, someone else has to subsidize your freely chosen health decisions.” The injustice is that you think your health care issues matter more than other people’s. You are so against birth control but not against medication for people with lung disease from smoking or who uses diabetic medication because they are over weight. Using birth control is responsible. It ensures people who do not want to become parents do not become them. It snsures that if you have more children than you can feed, you stop having them.

      • Jenny Uebbing

        There is no medical condition that birth control “treats.” There are certain medical conditions that involve using hormones to regulate imbalances in the body, etc., but no, birth control cannot actually “treat” anything. To claim otherwise is just bad science.

    • Salha

      Hi Jeanette,

      Your response doesn’t make sense.
      “Or pay a fine by the government for not having health coverage. ” Would you rather be uninsured when an unseen situation occurs?

      ” They don’t subsidize the medications I must use for my own health issues. I have to pay money out of my pocket, in addition to my healthcare premium. ”

      I don’t think you understand how this all works. There is no “extra” charge for contraceptives. And yes, other people having health insurance helps bring the cost of your care down.

  • Salha

    I fundamentally do not understand the resistance to the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare.

    Do we want to go back to a time when people were denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions? Do we want to return to a time where sick people reached their lifetime maximum coverage and were kicked off? Is that a pro-life message?

    Until it happens to you, you just don’t understand.

    • jeanette

      Salha: I don’t think there is one answer to your question as many people have many differing points of view, but here are some reasons why someone would reject the ACA:
      1. It is NOT affordable. The cost of my healthcare has MORE than doubled. People who thought they would be paying $0 because of subsidies also got a surprise: a subsidy doesn’t necessarily mean free. The plan prices continue to escalate and the benefits continue to decrease, so you pay more AND get less for your money so your out of pocket expenses increase. The reason you are paying more is that is what funds the subsidy. By the way, there are income thresholds but not asset thresholds for subsidies. So not all subsidies go to “poor” people.
      2. Just because the concept of healthcare reform is an excellent idea does not mean the ACA carried out that idea perfectly or that no other possible plan could have been devised. Just because you put legislation together to do something particular does not mean every detail in the legislation got it right. Free contraception is just one little case in point.
      3. Many people who were already eligible for and should have been covered by MEDICAID or other government plans that already exist at the state level were simply not enrolled before ACA. ACA did nothing to change their eligibility; they were already eligible. It just meant they needed to access what was already there for them in the first place.
      4. Yes, there are good things in the ACA, such as not being turned down for health coverage because of a pre-existing condition. But ACA is not the only way that could have happened; legislation could have been passed at any point in time for that issue and any other issue (such as the lifetime cap) that is important to address. We didn’t need a 2,000 page bloated piece of legislation with obscuritities to solve some of the most obvious issues.
      5. More people enrolled in health plans does not mean more resources are made available. In fact, some resources will be rationed, and you could still end up with the scenario of someone not getting the medical care they need. It already happens that way and will only happen more often. ACA did not solve that issue.

  • jeanette

    Obviously there is no extra charge, I understand that point perfectly. That is my complaint. I think they SHOULD pay for their own use of contraceptives, not pass the cost onto others.

    Why does the government decide that contraception merits the status of FREE (regardless of ability to pay, by the way, so it is not an issue of affordability) when other prescriptions come with a copay, full price or not available at all on the formulary? Are you able to come up with a justification? It is a drug that is not medically necessary.

    Unlike filling a prescription for a pair of glasses or an antibiotic for strep throat, contraception also has moral implications, which is what is at issue in the lawsuit.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      yep, exactly this. Nobody is shelling out $$$ for my diapers, the consequence of my sexual behaviors. It’s crazy how quickly we’ve gotten to a place, culturally, where it’s perfectly acceptable for people to put their hands out to the government and demand compensation for their own lifestyle. Very Euro. Very troubling.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      I would imagine they pray for their conversion, if they know about it. But other than that? Nothing. They’re simply asking not to be forced to participate in someone else’s sin.

      • Eric Hinkle

        Thank you for your reply, jenny. I find this an interesting topic. I understand the LSotP position, and it is one that is quite nuanced. Perhaps I feel this way because it has resulted in a legal battle. I respect the teachings of the Catholic faith, (raised Catholic), but there is a touch of hipocrisy in the LSotP’s employment practices that are contradictory to their position. It doesn’t weaken their legal position, but it shines some light on the sincerity of their conviction.

        The employment page of their website does not even hint that they expect employees to behave in accordance with Catholic teachings. Their application for employment is not posted online, so I can’t say whether they filter out unsuitable applicants. Why does this matter? If they are not dutifully screening their applicants, they are hiring people, women and men, that may be using contraceptives. I think you might agree that hiring such people is contradictory to the idea that they want no part in providing contraceptives. LSotP pays their employees a salary, which is then used to purchase contraceptives, if not provided by the insurance carrier. LSotP cannot distance themselves from their employee’s use of contraceptives, simply by not offering them through their insurance provider. By way of employment with LSotP, the sisters cannot escape participating, “in someone else’s sin.” Maybe the sisters will come to recognize that intrusion by goverment, or employer, are never desirable by the victim.

  • Janet Donohue

    No I don’t live under a rock but the only reason I actually found this article was because I am interested in The order as I am writing a story about them begging in my neighbourhood as a child. Living in Canada we do not have the same issues with Medicare as Americans, certainly when I was employed I had a medical plan t subsidize what was it free through the government. While I can appreciate the order wanting to stand up to their beliefs they certainly have no right to impose these on their employees by wanting to opt out of birth control prescriptions or devices if they employ non-sisters. A catholic friend of mine said as a nurse she should not have to care for someone who was having an abortion (legal here) and I suggested to,her then she should work in a Catholic hospital, as a nurse she is expected to care for all patients not pick and choose. Janet

    • Jenny Uebbing

      But forcing them to pay for their employee’s coverage of abortions and contraception is a grave violation of the sister’s moral rights and an injustice to their sincerely-held religious beliefs. What about forcing them to pay for euthanizing elderly? Wouldn’t that be the next thing, especially since they care specifically for the elderly poor? When our government wants to subsidize killing old people instead of caring for them, which I’m certain is coming down the pike in the not-too-far off future, will you stand up for the Little Sister’s right to refuse? Or will relativism dictate that the sisters must fall in line with the new religion of secularism and participate in killing old people as well as the unborn?

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