Fr. John's Letter Archives

Enjoy re-reading Fr. John's weekly bulletin letters for the past year.

Little Sisters of the Poor

03-13-2016Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

The US Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in the case Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. The Sisters are requesting exemption from the contraceptive mandate (which is not a law passed by Congress but a regulation concocted by unelected bureaucrats) that requires some health insurance plans to provide no-cost birth control. I say some health insurance plans because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has exempted one out of three health insurance plans from the contraceptive mandate. These include, Houses of Worship, Pepsi, Exxon, Chevron and many other large corporations as well as the US Military. Even though HHS is perfectly fine with making no provision for no-cost birth control for all the tens of thousands of women who have exempted plans somehow making sure a few hundred women on the Little Sisters Health Insurance get no-cost birth control is of the highest importance and magnitude to the national interest. An interest so compelling that HHS is hoping to sterilize the ministry of the Little Sisters of the Poor at the Supreme Court.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are not asking HHS not to provide no-cost birth control or to change the mandate, merely to exempt them from the mandate as they have so many others. The reason for the requested exemption is based on the Sisters sincerely held religious beliefs. The Sisters are also requesting that HHS use the already established ACA Healthcare Exchanges to provide for those who wish no-cost birth control. This would seem to be the least restrictive means available to the government to accomplish what they see as a compelling governmental issue.

The Sisters use an apt analogy to explain their position: "Many schools have decided not to offer soda and remove soda machines from their halls because they don't think soda is good for their kids.  The question isn't whether the soda companies offer to pay for the vending machines and the school's decision doesn't prevent children from getting soda elsewhere.  But the schools don't want to provide or support something they believe is bad for their kids." The Sisters do not want to offer what they consider morally unhealthy services to their employees or give permission for someone else to set up the "vending machine" within their health insurance plan.

What HHS is asking the Sisters to do is to sign a form giving the government permission to access their Health Insurance Plan and use the structure of that plan to provide the no-cost birth control to the employees who work in the Sisters' nursing homes. The Sisters Insurer is the Christian Brothers Insurance who the Sisters originally contracted with because their by-laws require them to offer only insurance plans that are consistent with Catholic healthcare ethics. So even if the Sisters signed the form their insurer would not comply and the Sisters would still not be in compliance with the mandate.

The point the Sisters are making is that to sign the form giving the government access to their Health Insurance Plan is formal cooperation with evil. Something that Catholic moral teaching states is gravely wrong to do. While HHS is claiming this is merely a piece of paper you have to sign so what's the big deal? HHS considers itself magnanimous in the extreme for coming up with the form as a solution to the Sisters objections. The Sisters position is that they should not be forced to change their healthcare plan to offer services they have a moral objection to when those services could be provided just as effectively through the government's ACA Healthcare Exchanges. This would allow the government to accomplish its goal while allowing the Sisters to not participate in an action to which they conscientiously object. HHS is not buying it. Apparently in their view separation of Church and State is a one-way street.

The Little Sisters of the Poor have been serving the poorest of the poor elderly for over 100yrs in the US. They operate nursing homes that offer dignified, loving and high quality care to those who most need it and cannot afford it. I had the opportunity to work with the Sisters many years ago. I can tell you they are extremely self-sacrificing women who are strongly committed to the Catholic Faith in all its fullness. For all that our government is hauling them into court, threatening them with ruinous fines if they do not comply. What a fantastically gross insult.

At the heart of the debate is the definition of religious liberty. Will we retain a robust and expansive definition of the First Amendment as we have for our entire history as a nation? Or we will be more like the Democratic Republic of North Korea, which clearly states in its constitution that the people have a right to religious freedom. Obviously meaningless words…

Love, Fr. John B.