Pope Francis made an unscheduled visit to a U.S. community of Catholic women religious that has been fighting against an Obama administration mandate covering contraceptives in health care plans, the Vatican spokesman said late Wednesday.
The pontiff met with a Washington-area community of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said at a press briefing about the pope's day in DC Wednesday.
Lombardi did not provide any further details about the visit.
The Little Sisters are one of a few Catholic and other faith-based groups that have been protesting the administration's mandate, saying it forces them to support contraception and sterilization services that contradict their religious beliefs.
Under a compromise crafted under the healthcare law, religious groups can opt-out of paying for the services, but a third party or an insurance carrier must foot the bill.
The Sisters, who operate more than two-dozen nursing homes nationwide, say that still makes them complicit in providing artificial birth-control services even if they did not directly pay for them.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected the Sisters' challenge, but also put a hold on the ruling to give them time to prepare a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the U.S. bishops' conference, said at the press conference that the U.S. bishops consider religious freedom as something more than just being able to celebrate religious services.
"It's a freedom, it's not a special privilege," Kurtz, the head of the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese said. "It's a freedom to serve others in a way that does not contradict our consciences."
Francis mentioned the issue of religious freedom in a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House earlier Wednesday, expressing hope that the president would be "vigilant" in respecting such liberties.
But the pontiff also said he and U.S. Catholics do not seek to practice any sort of discrimination.
"Together with their fellow citizens, American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination," said Francis.