Elizabeth Kirk, J.D., is a Resident Fellow in Cultural & Legal Studies at the Stein Center for Social Research at Ave Maria University, and a board member of Sycamore Trust, a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned about preserving the University’s Catholic character. She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband and three children.
Last Wednesday, the Little Sisters of the Poor argued to the Supreme Court that the government, through its Affordable Health Care Act, violates their deeply held religious beliefs by requiring their employee health care plan to include coverage for contraceptives and abortion inducing drugs. The Little Sisters of the Poor, founded over 175 years ago, are dedicated to living with and caring for the elderly poor. They serve 13,000 persons in 31 countries around the world; in the United States, they provide 27 homes for the elderly and dying. If they fail to obtain relief, the Sisters face fines of $70 million per year.
At the Supreme Court and around the country, many gathered in support of the Little Sisters with “Let Them Serve!” as the rallying cry; others engaged in a nationwide day of solidarity and service at the Little Sisters’ homes. Next month, the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame will grant its highest award, the Evangelium Vitae Medal, to the Little Sisters and their Mother Provincial, Sr. Loraine Marie Maguire for their service. The Evangelium Vitae Medal honors those “whose outstanding efforts have served to proclaim the Gospel of Life by steadfastly affirming and defending the sanctity of human life from its earliest stages.” According to the Center’s director, O. Carter Snead, the Little Sisters will receive this award for their “unwavering defense of the unborn in the HHS mandate litigation, alongside their longstanding work to care for the elderly poor, [which] offers a beautiful and powerful witness to the unique, inviolable dignity of every person, from conception to natural death.”
The award to the Little Sisters by the Center for Ethics and Culture, an interdisciplinary academic unit within Notre Dame known for its commitment to upholding the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition, is in marked contrast to Father Jenkins’ grant of the University’s Laetare Medal to Vice President Joseph Biden and former speaker of the House, John Boehner. Critics of the University award argue that the University should not confer its highest honor to a person, like Vice President Biden, who has a clear and unambiguous record in favor of abortion, same-sex marriage, research on human embryos and the very HHS Mandate which the Little Sisters (and Notre Dame) are fighting in court. Some also argue that Speaker Boehner is an inappropriate candidate because of his stance regarding torture as an interrogation technique. Formal objections have been lodged by Notre Dame’s local bishop, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, who released a critical statement, a group of Notre Dame students, who issued an open letter objecting to the Laetare Medal decision, and Sycamore Trust, a group of Notre Dame alumni concerned about the University’s Catholic character, which has called for all concerned persons to join an online petition protesting the award.
According to the University, its Laetare Medal is being conferred for the recipients’ dedication to civility in public life rather than for their particular policy positions. But, as Bishop Kevin Rhoades’ stated, it is not “realistically possible or intellectually coherent” to honor a person for his civility or cooperative spirit if he works tirelessly to support positions that are harmful to the common good. Bishop Rhoades called upon Notre Dame to “choose for honors those whose lives and work are exemplary in witnessing to the Gospel … to recognize and thank authentic witnesses to the Catholic faith for their fidelity. We also lift them up in a way that may inspire others to imitate their example.”
Awarding the Evangelium Vitae medal to the Little Sisters of the Poor perfectly corresponds to this higher standard set by Bishop Rhoades. The mission of the Little Sisters is to “offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.” Wholly embodying authentic civility, they treat those they serve like family, with “a spirit of joyful hospitality embracing all with open arms, hearts and minds; fostering participation in the life of the home and rejecting all forms of discrimination.”
The Center for Ethics and Culture is right to find The Little Sisters of the Poor worthy of emulation. They deserve honor because of their worthy actions in the service of the dignity of all human life and because of their mode of action. There is no dissonance between the end of their actions and their manner. There is no discord between their public “positions” and their personal beliefs. Our nation, with its historical commitment to a robust understanding of religious liberty, has always been a haven for those seeking to worship God as they see fit and seeking to live out that faith in service to others – that is to live a life in which one’s personal beliefs and public actions are integrated. Let us pray that the Supreme Court will allow it to continue to be so, and let us publicly honor the Little Sisters of the Poor for providing a witness of how to do it well.