July 28, 2014

WASHINGTON (CNS) - The National Organization for Women has put the Little Sisters of the Poor on a list that it calls the "Dirty 100."

These are organizations that have objected for religious reasons to the government's order that they provide their employees free coverage of contraceptives and early stage abortifacient drugs. The list made me wonder who's really conducting a war on women. It's one thing to disagree with your opponent's legal positions or religious beliefs. It is something else entirely to call them "dirty" for holding them. I keep hearing in my head the words Boston lawyer Joseph Welch spoke to Sen. Joe McCarthy, who was trying to smear another attorney: "Have you no sense of decency?"

I know something about the Little Sisters. They are our neighbors in my part of Washington, D.C. A number of our students at The Catholic University of America go to their home after classes to help care for the residents. I sometimes go there for Mass, or just to say hello -- it's almost right across the street. If I were old and in failing health and had no family to take me in, there is no place I would rather be than in their care. That is the work of the Little Sisters -- to give food and shelter to the abandoned elderly.

St. Jeanne Jugan, their founder, began her mission by caring for a blind and partially paralyzed old woman. She gave the woman her own bed and moved into the attic. She soon took in two more and then a dozen. Then she acquired an abandoned convent and gave a home to 40 more. By the time of her death, there were 2,400 Little Sisters caring for thousands of homeless across Europe and North America.

St. Jeanne envisioned the order as being the sisters -- the little sisters -- of the poor people they cared for. The rule of their order asks the sisters "to share in the beatitude of spiritual poverty, leading to that complete dispossession which commits a soul to God." That's not exactly a group I would call "dirty." Then again, this is not the first time the Little Sisters have been criticized.

St. Jeanne was born in 1792 amid the French Revolution. That fall, several hundred priests and bishops were killed in what's now called the "September massacres." Two years later, Robespierre's Revolutionary Tribunal sent 16 Carmelites -- the Martyrs of Compiegne -- to the guillotine for holding religious views that the revolutionaries wanted to replace with a civil cult. The French Revolution is a frightening lesson about what can happen when we shove religion aside to press on with the state's priorities. When the Little Sisters expanded their charity to Great Britain in 1851, they encountered similar anti-Catholic sentiments. They would later be forced out of China, Myanmar and Hungary because of religious intolerance. That has not been the case in this country -- at least not until now.

It is sad to see an American organization such as NOW so convinced of its own rightness and so heedless of our traditions that it would not only deny religious freedom to a kindly order of nuns, but call them "dirty" for wanting to carry on their work of charity in a Catholic spirit. There will always be boundary disputes, over where our rights end and the state's powers take up. But when we despise the very people that our system of ordered liberty is meant to protect, just because they claim their rights, we set off down a very different road. That is the spirit that animated Robespierre and Saint-Just -- the notion that those who do not share one peculiar and narrow view of the world are enemies of the people.