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.