Why Are Catholics Turning on the Little Sisters?

Connor Semelsberger is FRC's Legislative Assistant for Pro-Life Issues. This article appeared in Crisis Magazine on May 11, 2020.

Today, the Little Sisters of the Poor were back at the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping finally to bring their eight-year legal battle to an end. While several of the justices seemed inclined to side with the Trump administration’s expanded religious exemptions to the contraceptive mandate, I’ve been surprised to see much of the opposition to the Little Sisters and other religious entities who adhere to the teachings of the Church coming from some of my fellow Catholics. This odd trend raises troubling questions about the November election: how many Catholics will vote for or against Catholic politicians whose policies contradict our faith?

This observation is not well-known because it did not happen all at once. In 2012, then–Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, mandated under the threat of crushing fines that all employers provide health coverage for contraception. The administration that enforced this oppressive government mandate included then–Vice President Joe Biden, another Catholic, who is now projected to become the 2020 Democrat nominee for president.

In 2017, under the newly-formed Trump administration, HHS broadened the regulation’s exemptions to include religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Sisters thought this would finally bring their drawn-out legal battle to an end, but more Catholic politicians intervened. California Governor Jerry Brown led the charge by several states to sue the Trump administration and stop the regulation so that these states could bring financial ruin on faith-based groups. He was replaced by fellow Catholic Gavin Newsom, the current Governor of California, whose administration argued the case in district court.

The latest Catholic to join the bandwagon against the Little Sisters of the Poor is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called the exemption for religious employers “despicable” and an “outrageous attack on women’s health.”

Some Catholic politicians have long supported contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage—in direct contradiction to Catholic teaching. But how did we arrive at a situation in which Catholic political leaders are willing to use the full force and power of the government against some of the most charitable and pious women of our faith?

The Catholic Church is known for its traditional doctrine and clarity on moral issues; it is not a faith that conforms to each member’s personal beliefs. Yet, some Catholic politicians are embracing positions that contradict their faith. Why? I wish I could see an explanation besides pure politics.

Deciding that political gain is more important than publicly living out the faith leads down a slippery slope. At some point, out of fear of becoming an outcast from one’s own party, a politician may not only renounce the religious beliefs he or she once held, but may even oppress those still holding these beliefs.

Such is the predicament in which presidential candidate Joe Biden currently finds himself. He may talk about his Catholic background in an attempt to win over moderate voters of faith. But as the presumptive Democrat nominee, the time will come when he may need to renounce and even attack the faith and teachings of the very pope he proudly celebrates meeting.

These actions by Catholic politicians like Joe Biden are in stark contrast with President Trump’s actions. Although not a Catholic himself, within the first few months of taking office, he issued an executive order calling on various government agencies to promote religious freedom, and a year later HHS followed through with the regulation exempting Catholic and other religious organizations from the contraception mandate. Now, at the Supreme Court, his administration is defending the right of the Little Sisters of the Poor to practice their faith without fear of government punishment.

Even if Catholic politicians embrace anti-Catholic values as a political calculation, it may not be a sound one. A recent poll of Catholic voters conducted by EWTN and Real Clear Politics reveals that one of the strongest predictors of a Catholic’s vote is the degree to which they accept Church teachings. Interestingly, a majority (56 percent) of all Catholics surveyed accept most or all the Church teachings, and 18 percent fully accept the Church’s teaching and reflect it in how they live their lives. It seems that Catholic politicians who ignore Church teaching are pushing the most devout Catholics to find alternatives, as 63 percent approve of President Trump and 59 percent plan to vote for him in 2020.

This is the quandary facing us Catholic voters: either we can vote for candidates who are Catholic but openly attack those who adhere to the faith, or we can vote for candidates who aren’t Catholic but boldly protect our religious freedom. The question ultimately comes down to this: can we in good conscience support a set of policies (like the Democrat platform) that claims to care for the poor if the Little Sisters of the Poor—a religious order founded to provide hospitality to the most vulnerable—are targeted by our fellow Catholics who have placed political power over the principles of the faith?