When we observed the Fortnight for Freedom in 2012, I naively thought it would be a one-time event. I assumed that the HHS Contraceptive Mandate would soon be overturned and our congregation of Little Sisters of the Poor would quickly fall out of the public eye. But this month marks our third Fortnight, and our lawsuit against the federal government over the HHS Mandate is still pending as I write this.
In May, a group of Little Sisters attended the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s annual gala in New York (the Becket Fund represents us in our lawsuit). Many people commended us for our courage in taking a public stand against the HHS Contraceptive Mandate. I felt a bit embarrassed by all the attention, since we are mere newcomers to the cause of religious liberty. Interestingly, hearing so many edifying stories led me to a new appreciation of our own history. As a 175 year-old, international community, our congregation has seen its share of ups and downs related to religious intolerance. Our history has helped us to take the long view on our current situation.
Our foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, was born during the French Revolution and began her work among the needy elderly in its aftermath. When the first Little Sisters arrived in England in 1851, they faced jeers from a suspicious, “anti-Papist” Protestant majority. These pioneers persevered, allowing their selfless charity and radical poverty to convert the hearts of those who were hostile toward Catholicism.
In the 1930s, anti-Catholic factions threatened the Little Sisters in Spain during that nation’s civil war. Two decades later, communist forces took over our homes in China, expelling the foreign Little Sisters and imprisoning the native Chinese, some of whom eventually died in captivity.
In the early 1990s, our superior general responded vigorously to a proposal before the European Parliament to legalize euthanasia. Although the measure failed, our Little Sisters in Europe remain vigilant in protecting the frail elderly from insidious advances of the culture of death. The experience of these Little Sisters helped us to realize the importance of taking action against the HHS Mandate, because if the government succeeds today in forcing us to provide our staff with contraceptives and abortive services, we fear that they could someday compel us to participate in assisted suicide and euthanasia.
As Little Sisters of the Poor living and ministering in the United States since 1868, we thank God that we have never been confronted by war or religious oppression. Nevertheless, we celebrate this Independence Day under the cloud of evident religious intolerance. As I write this, I am reminded of St. John Paul II’s homily on religious freedom during his visit to Baltimore, our nation’s first Catholic diocese, in 1995:
“Sometimes, witnessing to Christ will mean drawing out of a culture the full meaning of its noblest intentions, a fullness that is revealed in Christ,” he said. “At other times, witnessing to Christ means challenging that culture, especially when the truth about the human person is under assault.”
As we celebrate our independence, let us vow to do all we can to uphold the dignity of every human person, especially those most under assault. Let us vow to keep God, who is at the heart of our nation’s founding documents, at the center of our lives.
Sister Constance is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.