Catholic Women Speak for Themselves

Even as an adolescent, I perceived that the “world outside the Catholic Church” seemed to have a great many opinions on Catholic women, particularly concerning their status in a Church which opposed the use of birth control, and which led the movement against legal abortion.

Many of these opinions, forgive me, did not seem terribly well informed.  

But I understood then, and still now, that it was nearly impossible — in a world awash in curiosity about human sexuality — for people to abstain from expressing themselves about the Catholic Church’s bold teachings about matters concerning male-female relationships, sex, marriage and parenting. Today, I also understand that it is the Church’s claim to be speaking the truth about these matters — truth it claims is accessible by all human beings — that attracts such sustained attention … and criticism. 

Before the present time, various interest groups such as the National Abortion Rights Action League or Planned Parenthood lobbed the most grenades at the Catholic Church’s teachings involving human sexuality and women. Today, these groups are joined by a frighteningly powerful actor — the federal government. The Executive Branch and its agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development are asserting — both in legal and in purely political venues — that anyone who does not wish to cooperate in providing contraception to all women of all ages, and anyone who does not accept a woman’s “right” to abortion, is the enemy of women. To use their language then, the Catholic Church is  waging a “War on Women.” 

Knowing my own life, and the lives of countless Catholic women I have met over two decades of traveling the U.S. and abroad …

Knowing Catholic teaching, as well as the empirical data on correlates and causes of female happiness and equality …

I couldn’t sit by while this claim was broadcast.  It is also frightening when one’s government starts down this path.

Also, I hate untruths. So I gathered some of the marvelous women I know –and my own thoughts — and worked with a talented editor at Our Sunday Visitor and published Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speaking for Themselves.  The point was to demonstrate with lives, not with ideological claims, and not even simply with the empirical data (though it is included), how the Catholic faith set these women free in areas which are most neuralgic today: contraception, abortion, same-sex attraction, the dating market, the struggle against materialism, the sex-abuse scandal, etc. 

Each chapter in the book speaks for itself (pun intended) but the message is clear: when we avoid or contradict the meaning of life as loving self-gift, we don’t experience happiness or freedom, but rather a sense of self-alienation. Being open to one’s vocation — whether to marriage, to children, to God and the Church directly via the religious life– is the way to go. For most, this means learning the kind of sacrifices which are endemic to marriage and to parenting, and learning to put these before even very rewarding or intrinsically valuable work. 

Presently, the law regarding women’s equality is increasingly structured to send the following message:  “The government is providing you more equality and freedom by giving you greater access to sex without relationship/contraception and abortion. We may or may not provide ‘exemptions’ for religious entities. If we do grant them exemptions, we are, in effect ‘allowing religions to discriminate against women.’ Therefore these exemptions should be as narrow as possible.”

This is a recipe for increasing the number of people who understand religion, particularly the Catholic religion, as intrinsically discriminatory. It is my contention that unless we show how the  Catholic way of life empowers and frees women, then we are more and more likely to be looking at a future with few to no religious exemptions. We cannot settle for exemption-crumbs, though we will fight for them if that is all we can get. But at the same time, and always, we have to be struggling to assist fellow women and men understand where real freedom lies, so that fewer and fewer are tempted to believe the government’s increasingly narrow and harmful definition. That is my long term project…and this book is a piece of it. It is ambitious, but I’m counting on human nature to be at least a little attracted to it. 

  1. Schrodinger
    Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32

    Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”John 8:31-32

  2. Sister

    Welcome, Helen. Please provide a link for your book.

  3. Brian Rants

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Real freedom is not the absence of limitations on human choice and behavior. Limitations are inherent to the human experience. Freedom is when you’ve made an intentional, informed choice about your behavior…choosing life-affirming limitations over life-destroying limitations. This is true whether you are male or female. 

    True freedom…if there is one thing I want my life, my faith, and my politics to be about, “true freedom” might be a good way to describe it. I needed this article this morning…thank you. God’s ridiculously huge blessing on this book.

    But at the same time, and always, we have to be struggling to assist fellow women and men understand where real freedom lies, so that fewer and fewer are tempted to believe the government’s increasingly narrow and harmful definition.  

  4. Mollie Hemingway
    C
    Sister: Welcome, Helen. Please provide a link for your book. · 25 minutes ago

    Here it is!

  5. doulalady

    I’m with you all the way Helen.

    May I strongly suggest that you use the CWC as a mechanism to reach a large constituancy within the church.  

    Through lack of your sort of leadership they are adrift and starting to fall prey to other groups, such as those who sponsored the Nuns on the Bus.

    They tend to be Marthas who through good intentions are vulnerable to being led astray. On the other hand with wise council they would be a very powerful force indeed.

  6. Mel Foil

    Modern Natural Family Planning, where couples abstain from sex during one part of the month (based on scientifically-determined cues)–if they’re not anxious to conceive right now–seems like a great thing for women. Their bodies provide the cues, so they’re the ones in charge of timing. What the birth control pill actually does is take power away from women. If you REALLY want to love and appreciate food, fast for a few days.

    If Catholics are about anything, they’re about dignity for every person–male and female, born an unborn. There’s nothing about artificial birth control that increases that dignity. Just the opposite.

  7. KC Mulville

    Let me throw a question at you, Helen, mostly to let you hit it.

    How can you stay in a church that won’t ordain women as priests?

  8. Western Chauvinist
    KC Mulville: Let me throw a question at you, Helen, mostly to let you hit it.

    How can you stay in a church that won’t ordain women as priests? 

    Tee hee. /rubs hands in anticipation

    I love you, KC Mulville. It’s no secret. You can even tell your lovely wife.

  9. KC Mulville
    Western Chauvinist

    Tee hee. /rubs hands in anticipation

    I love you, KC Mulville. It’s no secret. You can even tell your lovely wife. · 51 minutes ago

    You’ve made my day.

  10. Mel Foil
    KC Mulville: Let me throw a question at you, Helen, mostly to let you hit it.

    How can you stay in a church that won’t ordain women as priests?

    How can you stay in a country that won’t send women into special forces combat? It’s the same question. And, actually, even Pope is not the highest position in the Catholic Church. Saint is, and that’s open to everybody.

  11. Nanda Panjandrum

    KC, in my experience as a certified, non-ordained chaplain I had more freedom to serve than my Protestant female colleagues who had to be ordained in order to be certified…Just a thought.

    Helen, your book will be Advent reading.  (Thanks for the link, Mollie!)

  12. KC Mulville
    Nanda Panjandrum: KC, in my experience as a certified, non-ordained chaplain I had more freedom to serve than my Protestant female colleagues who had to be ordained in order to be certified…Just a thought.

    Whoa! The point of the question wasn’t to make any assertions on my behalf. It was to prompt a terrifically intelligent Catholic woman speak from her own perspective.

    I’m a little selfish here. We have a lot of outstanding women on the site, and I’d like to hear them discuss the role of women and faith and culture, in conversation with a woman who’s at the front of the fight. And yet, the fact that the Catholic church doesn’t ordain women is seen, by many, as an obstacle.

    Nobody owes me an answer, but I’d love to hear from women’s collective experience – how do we address that obstacle?

  13. Kermadec

    Opposition to capitalism grounded in scripture (usury is a sin) and social values (concern for the poor and downtrodden, and that capitalism leads to rapid change) led many Christian intellectuals in the 20th century to make common cause with the Left.

    There is a need for a more evolved teaching here, but I can’t see what it  looks like.

  14. Helen Alvare, Guest Contributor
    C

    I started up a new conversation with my  pretty long response to the women priests question put to me.

    Hope you find it helpful!

  15. Nanda Panjandrum

    KC: Not a rebuke, just addressed to you as the person who posed the question…Sorry.  My response was really meant as a general one, not as a rejoinder.  Mea culpa!

  16. KC Mulville
    Nanda Panjandrum: My response was really meant as a general one, not as a rejoinder. 

    No problem – Nanda … when I first read it, I thought that I might have been the one to cross the line. The whoa was for me; the last thing I wanted to do was spark a theology battle with our guest. I owe you an apology.

  17. Nanda Panjandrum

    Not at all, KC!

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