Health-care Mandate Puts Ministries in Jeopardy

March 26, 2012

Here is a reprint of a column that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on March 23, 2012.

One of the highlights of my first year in Indianapolis has been meeting many of the religious sisters in our city and seeing how their good works improve the lives of so many people. Their dedication to their ministries has inspired me and given me an even deeper appreciation for the religious liberty that is a core value and fundamental right we all share as Americans.
It’s hard to imagine how much life in our state would be diminished if these sisters weren’t here. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see the federal government unnecessarily trying to force virtually all private health-care plans to cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
All people who cherish the freedom given to us under the First Amendment should be alarmed by the precedent President Obama is establishing with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate for “preventive services.” Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience.
I recently celebrated Mass for the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration in thanksgiving for their nearly 100 years of providing health care in Beech Grove at St. Francis Hospital. The story of how these Franciscan sisters came to Indiana holds a lesson for us today.
The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration was founded in Olpe, Germany, in 1863 by Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel. They served God by looking after the educational and health-care needs of the poor and neglected children. Staying true to the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, the sisters worked for the common good and cared for anyone in need, not just Catholics.
The sisters willingly worked with the German government to carry out their ministry, but when anti-clerical laws enacted in the 1870s made it difficult for them to continue their work or receive new members without compromising their religious beliefs, they looked for a place where they had the freedom to practice their faith without government interference.
Bishop Joseph Dwenger of Fort Wayne knew of their predicament and invited them to establish a convent in Indiana. Six sisters settled in Lafayette in 1875 and within three weeks they were operating a temporary hospital. Their community flourished and soon they were founding numerous hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the aged and centers for social work.
Given their history it’s not surprising that the good sisters are shocked to find themselves 137 years after coming to the United States once again fighting a battle to carry out their ministry without government intrusion and pressure to violate their religious beliefs.
“As Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, we cannot and will not comply with this mandate and ask you to please join us in offering prayers and sacrifices for this very important intention,” the sisters wrote in a recent statement concerning the recent Health and Human Services mandate.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate St. Augustine’s Home for the elderly in Indianapolis, faced religious persecution in their native France during the French Revolution and fled for other countries. For more than 140 years the Little Sisters have cared for the elderly in the United States. They’ve carried out their ministry by working together with volunteers and benefactors in their local communities and employed a lay staff, without discriminating on the basis of race or religion. Their health insurance offered to employees has always explicitly excluded sterilization, contraception and abortion. It has never been a matter of controversy.
The Little Sisters have said they will end their service to the elderly before being forced to violate their religious beliefs.
Catholics know many people do not agree with what our faith teaches concerning contraception, sterilization or abortion and we would never try to force anyone to accept our beliefs. All we ask is that we be allowed to operate our schools, hospitals and many charitable ministries without being forced to violate our religious beliefs.
The Catholic Church has a long tradition of effective partnership with government and local communities in the service of the sick, children, elders and the poor. We hope to continue to serve people everywhere regardless of their faith or if they have no faith. This mandate, however, puts all of our ministries in jeopardy.
I ask all people who believe in the religious freedom guaranteed under the Constitution to take a stand during this critical moment in our nation’s history.