It has arguably been the most high-profile Catholic news item in the United States for years. The Little Sisters of the Poor became the poster children in the fight over over religious freedom in America during the Obama administration and the roll out of the so-called Affordable Care Act. The administration’s refusal to allow conscience exemptions to the HHS mandate that the nuns provide contraceptives to their employees is a battle that has been in the public eye — and in the courts — for half a decade. In 2012, I reported:
The Little Sisters of the Poor, first recognized as a Pontifical Institute by Pope Pius XI on July 9, 1854, is a religious congregation dedicated to the care of the elderly poor. According to their website, this mission means that the sisters “welcome them into our homes, form one family with them, accompany them from day to day and care for them with love and respect until God calls them home.”
In the United States alone, the Little Sisters operate 33 homes where the elderly poor are cared for. They also carry out their apostolate in some additional 30 countries around the world. The Sisters are mendicant — they beg for their funding and resources — and yet despite the financial difficulties inherent in such a charism, the order continues to carry out its important work. They make no distinction among those they care for. They are of every race and creed. They also employ support staff from across the spectrum of belief.
Which means that they have no chance at an exemption from the HHS mandate. They will be forced to provide health insurance that covers contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs, or face crippling fines. Neither option is viable for the Little Sisters, so those who will be penalized are their employees, and more importantly, the elderly so in need of their care.
This past Sunday, the Little Sisters of the Poor were invited to speak at Masses in our area. Their message? If something doesn’t change, they will be forced to leave the United States, as they have left other countries (such as China) where religious persecution has made it impossible for them to operate ethically.
When the sister speaking at the Mass I attended mentioned this, it both made me angry and broke my heart. When did we become a country mentioned in the same breath as nations known for oppression, human rights violations, and an environment hostile to freedom of conscience? We’ve all been fighting this battle against the coming darkness for quite some time, but something about this small, unassuming nun telling the parish that they would be forced to discontinue their care for the elderly poor, and even worse, to leave the country altogether, really drove it home. This is what it has come to. We are no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have become something else.
This is not the America I grew up in. This is not the America I want for my children.
— Rorate Caeli (@RorateCaeli) May 4, 2017
The reality of the story may be somewhat more complex. In section 3 of the order, we see language that is considerably less forceful than many had hoped:
Sec. 3. Conscience Protections with Respect to PreventiveCare Mandate. The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventivecare mandate promulgated under section 300gg-13(a)(4) of title 42, United States Code. [emphasis added]
Ryan T. Anderson from the Heritage Foundation is not impressed. Anderson is a noted speaker on life, family, and religious liberty issues, and he thinks Trump doesn’t go nearly far enough:
Today’s executive order is woefully inadequate. Trump campaigned promising Americans that he would protect their religious liberty rights and correct the violations that took place during the previous administration.
Trump’s election was about correcting problems of the last administration, including religious liberty violations and the hostility to people of faith in the United States. This order does not do that. It is a mere shadow of the original draft leaked in February.
Anderson argues that religious liberty is “the birthright of all Americans”. He says that Trump can and should do more. So does John Zmirak at The Stream — but Zmirak pushes back on all these executive orders, saying these things should be accomplished through a more durable and appropriate process of legislation.
Catholics, of course, have a historically complicated relationship with the concept of religious liberty. But Anderson is right that for citizens of the United States, their right to religious liberty is enshrined in the Constitution, and that does make it a legal right, even if it’s not necessarily a God-given one. (Let’s see how many times the phrase “error has no rights” shows up in the comment box!) And while some Catholics still pine for a confessional state, in a secular, pluralistic nation like America, religious liberty is an essential measure to protect both conscience and worship.
The good news is, Trump’s appointments to Health and Human Services (HHS) — long the main villain in the battle between the Little Sisters and Washington — have been impressive. Just last week, Charmaine Yoest, former president of the pro-life organization Americans United for Life, was made the assistant secretary of public affairs for HHS. She replaces Kevin Griffis, an Obama-era appointee who was recently named Planned Parenthood’s vice president of communications. She will join HHS Secretary Rep. Tom Price, whom Claire Chretien of LifeSiteNews described after his February confirmation as “pro-life, pro-marriage, and anti-Obamacare”.
This means that kicking the responsibility for the Little Sisters and cases like theirs over to an agency like HHS to “consider issuing regulations” is probably going to turn out just fine. The question is whether it will be forceful enough to endure when the political winds shift again.
It’s a big day for pro-life stories in Washington, with the House voting to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal Obamacare — a bill that passed by just three votes. It now goes to the Senate, where it needs only 51 votes to pass.
Meanwhile, President Trump is preparing for his first meeting with Pope Francis. With a history of ideological conflict aired out in public by indirect means, that’ll be a meeting to watch.
Image: screengrab of today’s White House press conference.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.