Friday evening I had the great pleasure of attending the book launch for “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves” at the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C. Dr. Helen Alvaré of George Mason University Law School – who by the way will shortly be publicly debating a woman named Sandra Fluke whom you might have heard of – is both the editor of and a contributor to this new collection of essays by Catholic women. Dr. Alvaré moderated the event which included presentations by several of the book’s contributors, as well as a Q&A discussion with the panel afterwards. It was a great pleasure to be able to hear from thoughtful, faithful Catholic women themselves, about how they integrate their Faith into their lives, wherever they happen to be personally and professionally.
Dr. Alvaré began by making some observations on the origins of the project, including a letter to the present Administration which has now been signed by over 30,000 women, and how she approached the women who contributed to the book. She noted that one of her greatest concerns, as someone who has worked in the Pro-Life movement for many years, was that what used to be viewed as the opinions of interest groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL seem to have been taken on board by the present Administration as policy. Thus, the sound bites of these organizations have in many cases become the government’s talking points. Dr. Alvaré noted that the continued thinking of these organizations is that children are a damper on a woman’s possibility of success, and that the availability of abortion and contraception makes a woman as “free” as a man – a line of thinking based on an underlying assumption that somehow the woman was either flawed or not free to begin with.
The book covers many subject areas, including the relatively new phenomenon of a woman being the major breadwinner in the home, the sex/mating/marriage market, and the challenges of motherhood. Other topics include the continued draw of the religious life in the modern world, and ways of living Catholic life to its fullest every day. In addition to Dr. Alvaré herself, four other contributors to the book spoke about their subject areas, as well as their own experiences as Catholic women from different backgrounds and different age groups, including an Ob/Gyn, a college preparatory school theology teacher, an attorney in private practice, and another attorney at a non-profit.
What was remarkable in the presentation of each of the women was that none of them were shrinking violets laboring under the yoke of an oppressive male patriarchy. Rather it was clear that each was unafraid to speak about her own experiences, and both the pleasant and difficult aspects of the path that she was on in her life. This was not a panel of holier-than-thou church ladies, sitting on a dais and casting disdainful glances at the imperfect, but rather real people, who have joys and sorrows, achievements and disappointments, as we all do, and are trying their best to make their way toward sainthood, instead of presuming they are there already. As one of the panelists pointed out, even saints who lived a century or five centuries ago suffered many of the same fears and doubts that any of us do today.
Moreover, there was a common recognition among the panelists that each felt she was able to exercise her God-given freedom in her life to make decisions and seek answers. None expressed a sentiment that she was somehow being prevented by any external, supposedly anti-woman force from pursuing her own aspirations or the fulfillment of her own identity. In addition, the very good point was made that this book itself was not a part of a “war on women” but rather an invitation to witness to other women, rather than seeking to win some sort of battle. This leads us to an important consideration.
As a man, I will admit as I did on the Catholic Weekend show the following day that at times I did feel ever-so-slightly the interloper at this discussion. This was not because I was in any way made to feel unwelcome, I hasten to add. Rather it was because I felt angered by some of the things these women spoke of experiencing first-hand, in contemporary society, which so often tries to make them seem out of touch or propping up some sort of evil organization by their remaining faithful to the Church.
If you have read me lo these many years, gentle reader, you know that anti-Catholicism is something I will not quarter, though I do confess I could be a bit gentler and perhaps thereby more productive in my reactions to attacks on the Church, at times. As Dr. Alvaré herself mentioned during the Q&A session, sometimes you have to send in the Marines, but sometimes you have to send in the Peace Corps. I have no question that she herself would be fully capable of both choosing and leading either option. However that bit of wisdom on her part, that sometimes seeking to have a conversation rather than an argument will yield better results, was definitely something I need to chew on.
That being said…
Over the past year or so since the present Administration rather foolishly decided to have a go at the Catholic Church, we have learnt much about what it is that women, and particularly Catholic women, allegedly want for themselves. We have been told that a tiny, select group of half-wit activists and theological contortionists collectively represent the views of Catholic women everywhere. To dare to disagree with this intellectual flea circus is viewed as tantamount to advocating the collective subjugation of, or indeed the making of war upon, all women.
The women whom I listened to at this presentation were not subjugated or enchained, but rather very much free. They were free to seek light and nuance where others seek hyperbole and clichés. More importantly, they are able to exercise their freedom within the context of both their faith in God AND from within His Church. They do not need anyone to tell them how to think for themselves, as those crying “war on women” so haughtily and presumptuously do.
It was a distinct pleasure for me to be able to spend an evening listening to and learning from such a grounded, smart group of women, each individually bringing something unique and beneficial to the conversation, and collectively impressing me with how very much more I need to reflect upon my own Faith and its integration into my personal and professional life.