WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – The Little Sisters of the Poor received an unexpected visitor Sept. 23 when Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop at their community in Washington, D.C.
The move, according to Vatican officials, was a show of support for the nuns who are entangled in a lawsuit with the federal government over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, known to the public – sometimes derisively – as "Obamacare."
In July, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Little Sisters – based in Denver, Colo. – must comply with procedures for opting out of the birth control mandate in Obamacare because the process did not impose a "substantial burden" on them.
But the Little Sisters argued that the mandate does just that. Under the rules established for religious organizations, those which object to providing contraceptives must notify the federal government of their claim of conscience in writing.
Once the objection is received, the government makes arrangements with a third party insurer to make contraceptives available to the organization's employees at no cost to the religious organization. The federal government describes the process as an "accommodation."
It means, however, that the nuns would still be, in a way, responsible for making contraceptives available to their employees, and they wish to offer none.
"All we ask is to be able to continue our religious vocation free from government intrusion," Mother Provincial Sister Loraine Marie Maguire said in July.
Father Federico Lombardi, who oversees the Vatican's press office, said the "short visit was not in the program," the Catholic News Agency reported. "This is a sign, obviously, of support for them."
Pope Francis's schedule was tight for the day. It included a visit to the White House, midday prayers at St. Matthew's Cathedral and a mass of canonization for St. Junipero Serra, the first Roman Catholic missionary to California.
Francis is known for breaking security protocols and months-long plans to carry out unexpected visits with crowds, children, the homeless, and even to see local sights. Lombardi said the visit to the Little Sisters was a "little addition to the program," but one of importance.
He also said the visit was connected to "the words that the Pope has said in support of the position of the bishops of the United States in the speech to President Obama and also in the speech to the bishops."
During his speech on the White House lawn, Pope Francis said the right of religious liberty was the key component to American democracy and "one of America's most precious possessions."
"And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it," the pontiff said.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he appreciated the papal visit and the support Pope Francis offered.
"As you know the last thing the Little Sisters of the Poor want to do is sue somebody. They don't want to sue in court," Kurtz said. "They simply want to serve people who are poor and elderly, and they want to do it in a way that doesn't conflict with their beliefs."
According to Reuters, the Little Sisters operate more than two dozen "homes" nationwide. The homes provide food and shelter for the elderly, medically needy and indigent.