Little Sisters of the Poor v. Sebelius – the title of the lawsuit is chilling. A self-sacrificing order of Catholic nuns is involved in a lawsuit against the nominally Catholic Secretary of Health and Human Services. A lot had to change in America to bring about such an absurd conflict.
The lawsuit, as most of us know, has to do with the insistence of the Little Sisters that they are a religious organization and therefore should be excused from the HHS regulation requiring that their health insurance plans provide coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures without copayment or deductible. This mandate is a regulation imposed by Sebelius under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). It is not part of the law, as news reports sometimes indicate. The conflict could be ended with the stroke of a pen, but in spite of the unseemly spectacle of this lawsuit and dozens like it, the administration holds firm.
There are certainly political reasons for the administration’s position, but politics is downstream from culture, as the saying goes. Political systems and the governments tend to reflect the most widely held values in the culture. And that’s why the Little Sisters of the Poor, known and loved in this diocese, are in hot water with the government. They dare to swim upstream against the culture.
For decades now the culture has embraced the sexual revolution with its conviction that no sexual activity or arrangement is ever intrinsically wrong, so long as those involved are consenting adults (or adolescents for that matter).
What Pope Benedict before his election in 2005 called the “dictatorship of relativism” is on full display here. Nothing is good or bad in itself; whatever the self really wants it is entitled to have. And the uninhibited modern self demands unlimited access to safe sex (The idea of “safe sex” is a magnificent bit of male chauvinism, but that’s for another day.)
The sexual revolution depends on reliable contraception. Otherwise babies might interfere. The promise of reliable contraception was fundamental in creating the notion that sex, marriage and reproduction could and should be separated. But since people and contraception tend to be unreliable, the sexual revolution also requires abortion as a back-up to escape from consequences and responsibility.
The sexual revolution has brought catastrophe in its wake. Out of wedlock births have passed the 40 percent mark in America. Fatherless children, especially boys, face a much higher risk of failure, violence and criminality, while their sisters grow up with no idea of a husband and father.
Marriage rates decline, and in spite of the number of out of wedlock births the birthrate sinks below the replacement level putting the social safety net at risk. Sexually transmitted diseases proliferate.
Marriage itself is redefined as a contract between adults who happen to be in love, and children become a mere accessory, fine but only if they are necessary for adult happiness. Men are freed from any sense of obligation to the women they have sex with, and many are thereby rendered perpetually adolescent.
And polls show female unhappiness at historically high levels. The hook–up culture is fueled by drugs and alcohol, and the news media have finally noticed that rape on campus may be as common as in the military. There is little to indicate that people who are freed from sexual restraint are in any way happier or that society is better off as a result. The sexual revolution is a false god, and all false gods are murderous.
In few areas is the Catholic Church more countercultural than in this one. The beautiful vision of marriage as permanent, exclusive, and open to new life is foreign to the mindset of the sexual revolution. Our belief that marriage is built into nature for human good looks quaint. The idea that marriage is sacramental, that it brings grace and aids us on the way to salvation, is incomprehensible.
Powerful forces find this Christian understanding of marriage and sex not just odd but intolerable. For them not even the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion may be allowed to slow down the sexual revolution.
The lack of free birth control would inhibit the imperial self’s unalienable right to sex. Therefore, the Little Sisters of the Poor must pay. Never mind that the pill is cheap. Never mind that all sorts of necessary medications are not mandated in the same way, like insulin or antibiotics.
The HHS mandate makes no sense apart from the sexual revolution. The medications involved are legal, inexpensive, widely available and often subsidized by the government. Sandra Fluke, the cover girl for the mandate, manages to pay $50,000 a year in tuition at Georgetown Law School, but her need for free contraception is so absolute that the First Amendment must yield to it. She must get her way, for then the sexual revolution is cheered and the Little Sisters are forced to cheer along.
It’s the cheering that the opposition demands. The church has no stake in controlling private behavior. In the words of Blessed John Paul II the church never imposes but only proposes. The church has learned to live and indeed to thrive in an open, pluralistic culture. And even in the Middle Ages and early modern era when the church sometimes did impose, it was never imagined that everything immoral should be illegal. We neither impose nor propose anything of the sort today. We simply propose the beauty of marriage.
Why, then, can the sexual revolutionaries not leave us, and the Little Sisters, alone? The answer is quite clear. They demand to be cheered and enabled because at some level they are uncertain.
The culture is desperately afraid that it might be wrong. Promiscuity may be widely celebrated and giggled about, but there is a deep insecurity abroad, for God never meant sex to be safe and it cannot be domesticated by education and technology. The audacity of those stubborn nuns challenges the status quo. And the very existence of the Catholic Church threatens the dictatorship of relativism with the possibility of truth.
But if we can be forced to cooperate, if we can be co-opted, if we can be pushed into silence, then the hazard of the truth is removed. To live and let live is not enough. Tolerance is not enough. If that were the case, the HHS mandate would never have been considered. Approval, endorsement and cheering are required.
There is a scarcely concealed secularist totalitarianism behind all this. Our opponents do not seek liberty; they already have it. They want control. Religion, conscience, and dissent and disrupt the smooth movement away from the noble American tradition of ordered liberty toward managed libertinism.
It’s not a matter of a few dollars more going to a health insurance plan. What is at stake in the Little Sisters’ courageous stand and that of the many other plaintiffs, Catholic and Protestant, is freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of association and freedom of conscience. What is at stake is the established American commitment that some things are outside the power of the state and that it’s better for everyone that they are.
On that the church too has always insisted. Early Christians died rather than place a pinch of incense on the altar before the icon of the emperor. The same principle is at play today. God bless the Little Sisters for their refusal to offer incense to anyone but God. They deserve our ardent support. They deserve our prayers. And they deserve from us the energy and the courage to recognize what is at stake.
Father Klein is director of Pro-Life Activities for the Diocese of Wilmington.