The big deal in signing a little form

What some see as "hair-splitting," the Little Sisters of the Poor view as a violation of their faith
(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

“All the available compliance methods would make [the Little Sisters of the Poor] morally complicit in grave sin,” said a brief submitted this week by the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty to the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The following comes from a July 27 Aletaia article by John Burger:

The Little Sisters of the Poor claim that the federal government has given them the “impossible choice of either violating the law or violating the faith.”


The federal government is saying, in response, “Don’t worry. All you have to do is sign a form or write a letter stating your objection. We’ll take care of the rest.”

And yet, the Sisters, and other non-profit religious groups, are still pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the US Department of Health and Human Services and insisting that it isn’t so simple as signing a form.

Churches are exempt from the requirement that employers provide coverage for “preventive services” for women, including contraception, but religious non-profits, such as Catholic colleges, hospitals and nursing homes, are not. The Obama Administration has several times revised an accommodation allowing those non-profits to wash their hands of the requirement by filing a form stating their objection and providing the name of their insurer. Earlier this month, HHS issued yet another revision, allowing a religious institution to merely write a letter stating the objection.

But objectors insist that even writing such a letter would involve them in the mechanism to the point that they would be, according to Catholic moral theology, complicit in the provision of contraception.

In the first place, they say, signing a form or writing a letter would be a “trigger” that sets the process of providing contraceptives in motion.

“All the available compliance methods would make them morally complicit in grave sin,” said a brief submitted this week to the Supreme Court.

That brief, filed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty days after the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled against the Sisters, asked the high court to review the case.

The sticking point for the Sisters and others objecting to the HHS Mandate hinges on the concept known in Catholic moral theology as “formal and material cooperation.” It’s not an easy concept for the general public to grasp.

The Becket Fund brief filed this week noted that courts considering the challenges to the HHS mandate have misunderstood “the true nature of the religious objections.”

“These cases are not about whether HHS may force religious employers to execute ‘routine and minimal administrative paperwork,” it said. “Nor are they about whether religious employers may prevent employees from obtaining access to contraceptives.”

The brief continues:

They are about whether HHS may force objecting religious employers to comply with a mandate to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees in a “seamless” way, by interjecting that coverage into the employer’s own “insurance coverage network” and utilizing the plan’s own “coverage administration infrastructure.”

The form or notice that HHS requires objecting employers to sign is essential to “ensure…that there is a party with legal authority” to make payments for contraceptive services, the brief points out  A third party administrator “would have no contractual authority to pay claims without it—or legal authority to either use plan information for that purpose or seek government reimbursement for doing so. It is that ‘gate-opening act’ of executing that instrument—not the independent actions of any third parties—that petitioners sincerely believe would violate their religious beliefs.”

In spite of the accommodation, the Becket Fund explains on its website, the law “still forces the Little Sisters to participate in providing access to the drugs…. The ‘accommodation’ still forces the Little Sisters to find an insurer who will cover sterilization, contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and will provide related counseling and education to promote those things.”

A group of 67 theologians filed a friend of the court brief in a case last year in which they explained the problem from a theological perspective. The Little Sisters, they said, “can reasonably conclude, based on the Catholic moral tradition, that compliance with the Mandate would involve them in ‘formal’ cooperation with wrongdoing, which is never permissible under Catholic doctrine.” The brief continues:

”Formal” cooperation in wrongdoing occurs when one commits an action that contributes to or assists another’s wrongful act, in such a way that the cooperator shares in the wrongful intention of the other actor. … The Little Sisters may reasonably conclude that, by obeying the Government’s directive to execute and deliver the Form, they would come to share in the Government’s intention to achieve the wrongful objectives of providing coverage for, and promoting the use of, abortifacients, contraceptives, and sterilization. … The Little Sisters may reasonably infer from the Catholic tradition that executing a form whose sole purpose is to designate and authorize another to perform a forbidden action would necessarily involve sharing in the intention to perform the action.”



  1. It makes little difference on the outcome of this case as the government will have made the point that religious liberty does not reside with individuals but only with religious corporations. It will give the government the ability to tell individual which rights they can exercise based on their state in life. Any employer should have the right to limit coverage on any plan without having to explain the reasons for his decision or demonstrate his religious objections.

  2. Gratias says:

    God bless the Little Sisters. We should resist and give the Liberal/Commies nothing, nothing at all.

  3. Linda Maria says:

    The churches must train everyone, from babyhood, in Faith and Morals– or the country will be filled with atheists, and many criminals, too– who have no understanding at all, of Good and Evil, nor responsibility to God, for one’s actions– and no moral conscience, either! Birth control is a sin! Abortion is MURDER!! Americans all used to understand, that you MUST live right, obey God, and that is your lifelong responsibility– with NO EXCUSES!! Doesn’t matter, whether or not you show up in a church on Sunday– or stay home! America was based on belief in God, and Judeo-Christian morality! The sickening liberal leftists, have all been on a big rampage, since the 1960’s, to destroy our Nation!

  4. Linda Maria says:

    I will continue, with my above post. Why does our Church have to meekly demand “freedom of practicing religion,” in our country?? That is just CRAZY!! And why the involvement, since the 1960’s, in politics?? The Church never used to do that! Instead– the Church did her job, in inculcating religious Faith and Morals, in the Catholic Faithful, and other churches did the same thing, with their flocks! That is the job, of religion! Then, you have a strong Nation, of citizens with a moral conscience, respect for God, and a sense of responsibility! Our Nation can then flourish, and accomplish great things, for God and mankind! But first– we need a strong religious and moral backbone, developed by the clergy!

  5. St. Christopher says:

    Catholic Readers — two points:

    1. Forma and Material Cooperation Not Difficult To Understand: The Beckett lawyers are too kind here; the concepts involved are not difficult. Instead, they are rejected by the corrupt judiciary, that has decided to be complicit in smoothing the path for Evil (and the Evil One) to be victorious (for now).

    2. Church Leaders Do Not Care: When Cardinal “chuckles-bravo” Dolan decided to co-host the Al Smith Dinner, he symbolized a Church whose leadership pretty much can live with the demands that the government places to provide the pinch of incense to its Gods. Remember: there would not be any of this if the entire Catholic Church leadership said no, and acted on that belief.

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