I did not go to Notre Dame and I don’t even watch Notre Dame football, but I’ve always had on my heart a concern for the university in South Bend, Indiana. Catholic identity is its namesake, with the most important woman in human history at its highest architectural point on campus. We all have a vested interest in it sticking with its mission, given what an iconic institution it is and what influence it has in American cultural and political life and history.

The Center for Ethics and Culture there is one of the gems on campus that give me hope for its future. And this year, there are recognizing the courage and integrity of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have found themselves seeking Supreme Court aid on account of the Obama administration’s insistence on narrowing religious liberty in America with its health-care mandate insisting even women religious like the Little Sisters be in the business of contraceptive and abortion insurance.

“For more than 175 years, the Little Sisters of the Poor have dedicated their lives to humble service of the most vulnerable among us,” the Center’s director, O. Carter Snead, said in the press release announcing the news. Snead, who is also a law professor at Notre Dame, continued: “Their work and witness embody the goods at the heart of the Evangelium Vitae Medal. Their unwavering defense of the unborn in the HHS mandate litigation alongside their longstanding work to care for the elderly poor offers a beautiful and powerful witness to the unique, inviolable dignity of every person, from conception to natural death. Their work is a testament to the radical solidarity and hospitality at the core of the Gospel of Life.”

The Evangelium Vitae Medal includes $10,000 and is awarded in April. The announcement was made on Respect Life Sunday in October.

The Evangelium Vitae Medal, of course, gets its inspiration from St. John Paul II and his encyclical on human life and the Gospel, an encyclical that had a healing power, bringing together Christians who had a love of Christ and innocent human life, ecumenically. I saw this last point most powerfully when John Paul died and press release after press release came into my inbox from evangelical and other Protestant lawmakers and leaders who wanted to pay tribute to his life and witness, especially for the most innocent unborn.

Snead talks more about the award and the witness of the Little Sisters, who serve the elderly poor and will make history later this year, whatever the Supreme Court decides. Pray for the justices!

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is recognizing the Little Sisters in this way important, and is there a continuity in Evangelium Vitae and the life of the sisters? 

O. Carter Snead: The Center for Ethics and Culture aims to promote Notre Dame’s distinctive Catholic mission on campus through student formation, research, and dialogue and exchange, while serving her mission off campus by projecting Notre Dame’s unique and countercultural voice into elite academia and the global public square in the name of human dignity and the common good.

The Center is the primary engine by which Notre Dame pursues its institutional commitment to the dignity of the unborn child. The Notre Dame Evangelium Vitae Medal — the most important lifetime achievement award for heroes of the pro-life movement — is a prominent public manifestation of the Center’s (and, by extension, Notre Dame’s) efforts to build a culture of life where every child is protected by law and welcomed into life (to borrow a phrase from Saint John Paul II).

This year, we honor the Little Sisters of the Poor for their courageous struggle against the federal government’s efforts to force them to facilitate the distribution of drugs that (according to Federal Drug Administration labeling) may function by causing the death of a newly conceived human being. Their steadfast defense of unborn life, alongside their longstanding mission to care for the elderly poor bears beautiful witness to the radical solidarity and hospitality at the heart of the Gospel of Life.

Lopez: Is there a continuity in Evangelium Vitae and the life of the Church — and Pope Francis — today?

Snead: Yes, indeed. Pope Francis’s reflections on the nature of persons and human flourishing go to the heart of the matter. His powerful account of persons as embodied, situated in a relationship of solidarity and reciprocal indebtedness to one another, with chosen and unchosen obligations of care and concern, provides the necessary anthropological groundwork to build a culture of life. The Little Sisters of the Poor embody this beautiful vision of human dignity and what our shared life together can and should be.

Compare this with the impoverished modern vision of the person as merely a radical individual will (whose body is simply and instrument of the will), lonely, striving, and adversarial, focused single-mindedly on the pursuit of the projects of his own invention. This false vision of the person as simply and atomized will bent on rational mastery of the world is the cornerstone of a culture where the weakest and most vulnerable are dominated, used, and destroyed by the strong. The fruits of this ideology is manifest in the recent revelations regarding Planned Parenthood, whose business is not just destroying the lives of the unborn on a massive and staggering scale, but the crass reduction of the human body (and its many parts) into an object of commerce to be bought and sold like any other product. Nothing could be more clearly illustrate Pope Francis’ warnings about the “throwaway culture” and the dangers of rampant and unrestrained markets.

Lopez: Why do you have hope for the future when there are such challenges to religious freedom as the Little Sisters continue to face in court?  

Snead: It is clear to me that the HHS Mandate imposes a substantial burden on the Little Sisters by commandeering their health plan and transforming it into a delivery system for contraceptives and drugs that may cause the death of newly conceived human beings. In so doing, the government prevents the Little Sisters from pursuing their vocation to the poor in a way that integrates and bears public witness to the truths they affirm about the dignity of human life and the gift of human procreation. More galling still, the mandate is wholly unnecessary to realize the government’s goal of maximizing access to contraceptives, sterilization, and drugs that may destroy newly conceived embryos. There are many less restrictive and less coercive means. This creates a substantial burden on religious exercises, and is not the least restrictive means of achieving the government’s purpose. It squarely violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I am hopeful and optimistic that a majority if justices on the Supreme Court will recognize this and strike the mandate down as unlawful.

More deeply, I am optimistic about the future because the vision of the person and human flourishing reflected in the work and witness of the Little Sisters of the Poor is so much more true, good and beautiful than any alternative.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the forthcoming revised and updated edition of “How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice.”