Matt C. Abbott
'Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves'
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By Matt C. Abbott
October 12, 2012

Below is the introduction to the book Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, edited by Helen M. Alvaré, an associate professor of law at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. She's also a consultor to Pope Benedict XVI's Pontifical Council for the Laity, a consultant for ABC News, and the chair of the Conscience Protection Task Force at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Thanks to Professor Alvaré and Our Sunday Visitor for allowing me to reprint this excerpt in my column. Click here to order a copy of Breaking Through.



Introduction

Helen M. Alvaré

So I'm sitting in the chair at the hair salon getting my hair cut by a stylist I've known for a long time, when his friend walks in and sits beside us. My stylist brags to his friend: "Helen here just came back from Pope Benedict's first Mass. She went over as part of the U.S. delegation." His friend doesn't miss a beat: "I'm so sorry," he says. "I hear this guy is terrible on the whole woman thing." I do miss a beat, but then I'm ready: "Wow," I say in a dangerously silky voice, "you're amazing." The friend is not getting it. "What?" he replies. I repeat, "You're amazing. I don't know three people who have read everything Pope Benedict has said about women, but apparently you have...."

All right, so this isn't the nicest way to make a point. But it has the virtue of being true. Vast numbers of people have made up their minds about all sorts of things pertaining to the Catholic Church without reading or listening to actual Catholic sources. This is ridiculously true when the subject turns to women in the Catholic Church. Observers can't seem to decide whether Catholic women are mouthpieces for a celibate male hierarchy, unthinkingly clinging to home and hearth, or card-carrying feminists who, if they knew what was good for them, would leave the Church, shaking its ancient dust off their sneakers, or pumps, or whatever-the-hell shoes they felt like wearing that day.

On the positive side, the amount of ink devoted to Catholic women indicates that we are doing something possibly fascinating and likely countercultural. Peggy Noonan, writing about the avalanche of press attention to the death of Pope John Paul II, observed a similar phenomenon. Everyone, she wrote, seemed to feel entitled to express an opinion about Pope John Paul, as if he were some kind of public property. She found this reassuring, confirming the Catholic Church's claim and call to be "catholic"/universal. Apparently the public — even if only dimly — perceives this.

The same is apparently true regarding the Catholic woman. Maybe it's because our Church still boasts thousands of women who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — and like it. Maybe it's our long (pre-feminist) tradition of women running major institutions such as universities, hospitals, and social services — and doing it without a lot of blather about "striking blows" for women's equality. Their focus has rather been in the nature of "servant leadership" and serving the least among us. Maybe it's because one is just as likely to see a Catholic woman praying at a nuclear-test site or a prison as at an abortion facility, or to see her working at a university as in her home or her own business. Undoubtedly it is due in part to so many Catholic women's refusals to buckle under the reigning ideology that the sexual revolution — particularly its divorcing of sex from babies — is an unmitigated good, or even the sine qua non of women's equality. This, in particular, seems to drive a lot of people crazy.

On this last point, divorcing of sex from babies, the Catholic stance has come under a microscope recently due to the federal government's order to religious institutions (with a few exceptions) to provide for their employees' health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and drugs that can act as abortifacients. Catholic opposition to this mandate unleashed a recent flood of public and political opinions about whether it makes sense for Catholic women to stick with the Church. Immediately, some female members of Congress asserted that this was a girls-versus-celibate-guys matter. Never one to resist a good ole gender war, leading media jumped in, most capitalizing on the claimed "98 percent" of Catholic women who disagree with Church teaching on birth control (a figure later proved to be sloppily calculated, although the number is undoubtedly very high). At about the same time, a secularist group commissioned an advertisement in the The New York Times, responding to Catholic resistance to the Health and Human Services mandate and headlined "It's Time to Consider Quitting the Catholic Church." It asked Catholics: "Will it be reproductive freedom or back to the Dark Ages? Do you choose women and their rights, or bishops and their wrongs?" (March 9, 2012) In short, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that Catholic teachings about human sexuality are particularly provoking.

On the negative side of this fascination, the press covers the subject of Catholic women largely through the figures and voices of people who refuse to credit our countercultural teachings on sex. Or via those who believe that the faith should really stay in the four walls of a church, or in the space between our mouths and the crucifixes hanging on our walls at home. The former — those media figures who explicitly reject Catholic teachings — are more than a little prone to distort these teachings and attribute nefarious motivations to any male hierarchy who dares to articulate them. The latter — those who believe religion to be a purely private matter — are anxious to avoid any whisper of Catholic teachings in the public square or even in Catholic institutions which happen to hire and serve non-Catholics as well.

"So the Church Hates Women, Right?"

Presently, America is flirting with the idea of ending its dialogue with, and reliance upon, religion as a credible, trusted source of wisdom and values in the wider society. Catholic institutions have become a particular target. Driving this, in no small part, is the idea that religion is out of step with "freedom," especially women's. (An attorney I debated from the vociferously pro-legal-abortion Center for Reproductive Law and Policy opined that "voices like ours" should not be heard any longer in the public square.) Catholic women in agreement with this perspective get ample media play. The rest of us have to create our own opportunities. Thus this book.

If you want to know who believing Catholic women are, and what we think about being Catholic and female today in connection with a host of hot-button issues, listen to engaged Catholic women, not commentators with little genuine curiosity. Listen to women who are honestly trying to grapple with how their faith might inform their thinking and their acting. Let Catholic women speak for themselves.

Of course, like women in general, Catholic women are not univocal. The women in this book differ not only in age and occupation, but also in socioeconomic and educational background. They tend away from assertions about "all women" or "no women" thinking or doing this or that. Furthermore, they avoid "triumphalism" in favor of humility. They share how, by taking their faith seriously — by reading, praying, thinking, and talking things over with women and men they respect (who are often further along in their spiritual lives) they came to some wisdom. Not all the wisdom there is ... but some. They also share their exploration of different possible paths — secular feminism, careerism, materialism, scientism, individualism, and so forth — but how, in the end, they came to the same conclusion as a famous apostle: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68).

In this book, nine Catholic women are asking themselves the questions we thought you might be asking too. Questions about the times you live in and about the faith. How did I determine the questions? Certainly I scanned leading headlines. I also thought about the questions I get from reporters almost weekly and the questions posed to me during my travels around the United States. A lot of questions emerged from women who had signed an open letter I drafted in concert with friend and fellow author Kim Daniels (Chapter Ten) in response to the claim that there were no women standing with the Catholic Church's demands for religious freedom in opposition to the "contraception mandate" issued by the Obama administration in early 2012. (That letter, signed as of this writing by over 30,000 women, can be found at womenspeakforthemselves.com.)

Freedom and Other "Women's Issues"

Thinking about all of this, it seemed to me that many people want to understand "what freedom looks like" for women today, and how Catholic women in particular understand freedom. There are some very new situations facing women, situations for which there are virtually no historical precedents to guide us. How do we respond to these situations?

The authors in this book have been turning just these kinds of questions over in their minds for a long time. They can't seem to stop asking themselves what freedom means in connection with the Church's teachings on contraception, for example, or on children, or on same-sex marriage. They have been challenged to explain how women's freedom is coincident with the vowed religious life or dedicated service to one's local parish or neighborhood, especially given the way late twentieth-century feminism gave "service" by women a bad name.

Other authors have felt personally challenged to harmonize their faith with some of the very new questions and situations facing women today. The sex, dating, and marriage market in which younger women live today, for example, is a market shaped in large part by the separation of sex and children, made possible by modern birth control technology and legal abortion. How do Catholic women respond to that?

Others have experienced the lure of materialism and the phenomenon of the female breadwinner brought to us via women's successes in both education and employment over the last few decades. Single motherhood is also a fact of life for more and more women: Today more than 40 percent of all children born annually in the United States are born outside of a marriage. Catholic women have experienced this. What are some possible reflections? Finally, given the rhetoric about the "failure" of the celibate male priesthood in light of the clergy sex abuse scandal, how does a Catholic woman think simultaneously about that scandal and her faith?

This timely book is designed to showcase the ways that some Catholic women have drawn upon the resources of their ancient faith to face completely modern situations. You will see sometimes that the authors have explicit and well-communicated Church teaching to rely upon. Other times they do not. Consequently they are often faced with confronting historically new circumstances as best they can, with the aid of their faith, with prayer, their best understanding of whatever guideposts they can find in Catholic teaching, and the example of loving and more spiritually mature role models.

All of the contributors are Catholic women who have struggled, successfully and with integrity, to figure out how the demands of their faith allow them to live freely and even with joy in the context of some very pointed and current challenges. Their stories and reflections — told in everyday language — should help clear up some of the mystery surrounding Catholic women's continued attraction to their faith and demonstrate what they might bring to American culture.

Loving in Truth

While the stories and thinking in this book are as varied as the women who contributed, you might also discern an underlying theme. I would call that theme "love in truth." Honestly, I do not mean here simply to copy Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical by the same name, Caritas in Veritate ("Love in Truth"). I just believe he was onto something, that he was reading the signs of the times correctly.

Women looking for happiness and freedom are searching for ways to live that might genuinely deserve the name loving. But we live in a world that has regularly adulterated the meaning of the word: loving as taking care of number one; loving as sexual license; loving as doing what is emotionally satisfying; loving as never judging; and loving as avoiding suffering. We are, rather, looking for love that will bring genuine goodness, wholeness, happiness, and a spirit of generosity — in a word, love in truth. Love that actually allows us to be the person God meant us to be, and loving that reflects the way we would want to be loved ourselves, the way God loves us.

Developing the capacity to love this way is the work of a lifetime and involves grappling with all the questions raised in this book and with others that space does not permit me to cover all at once. The Church — families, scholars, holy women and men, priests and laypeople — has been thinking about these questions for thousands of years. There is wisdom; there is truth there. But to make progress in each of our lives, it is not sufficient to point to what others have accomplished in the past. Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate (see Nos. 11, 23, 24, 70) and in Spe Salvi ("In Hope We Were Saved," No. 24) reminds us (brilliantly, I might add) that progress in personal goodness and real freedom does not follow the same path as progress in technology, where each successive explorer can build upon what others accomplished before. When it comes to goodness, and freedom, and becoming a loving person on an individual level, each woman and man must begin at the beginning, and build from the ground up.

Another aspect of this book's theme of love in truth concerns the way to succeed at loving in truth. That way is to "find oneself by making a sincere gift of oneself." It was a favorite theme of Blessed Pope John Paul II and remains a favorite of Pope Benedict XVI. This is not a way of living that necessarily comes naturally or easily to us. The Second Vatican Council's document on the Church in the modern world (Gaudium et Spes) says that reason alone is insufficient for grasping this truth. Rather, we have to open our minds and hearts to "vistas closed to human reason" (No. 24). We have to open ourselves to grace and to the wisdom that comes from above.

I believe the essays in this book will help you open your mind and heart to these vistas. Certainly, in my own life, in my own experiences traveling nearly every state (hey Wyoming, you never call, you never write...) and many, many countries, I have seen numerous good people who have done just that. I have tried to learn from them.

There was the pro-life director who told me the story of her husband who was building his much longed for "man-cave" in the basement at about the time his last child, a daughter, was scheduled to begin college. He learned that she was pregnant when his wife approached him during construction, carrying in her hand a pack of prenatal vitamins bearing his daughter's name on the prescription. At that instant, he turned around and began tearing down the walls he had just erected. "Honey, it will be all right!" the panicked wife called out. "What are you doing?" "I'm building a *&^%ing nursery," he replied. And he did, and went on to help care for that child every week while his daughter attended college between weekends home.

There was also the married couple in my own parish who agreed without a backward glance to adopt the child of a pregnant woman who was deeply fearful of giving birth to a baby who would be "born dying." The wife had met the pregnant mother while praying outside an abortion clinic and, without even a call home to her husband, offered to adopt the baby. After a year of round-the-clock care in their living room for a child never long removed from medical equipment, Christian died. The wake and funeral of that child were a combination of loss and celebration of life the likes of which I have never seen: the photos displayed of the smiling adoptive parents, their friends and neighbors and extended family, holding Christian and feeding him; the now deceased child, dressed in a tiny, beautiful suit, a look of complete peace and sweetness on his face.

In my life and work, I can honestly say that I've experienced hundreds of these stunning moments. One by one, they called out to me to take the lesson: decide to love; decide to give; try mightily to learn the truth; then leap. It is my outsized hope that the stories offered by the women in this book will help you to understand that there is abundant life and freedom on this path.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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