Politics & Policy

Speaking Out

Helen M. Alvaré, author of Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves
Catholic women answer Sandra Fluke.

‘Women looking for happiness are searching for ways to live that might genuinely deserve the name loving,” Helen M. Alvaré writes in Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves. “But we live in a world,” she continues, “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.” The true love we seek, she suggests, “actually allows us to be the person God meant us to be, and . . . reflects the way we would want to be loved ourselves, the way God loves us.” And the Catholic Church, including “families, scholars, holy women and men, priests and lay people,” has been “thinking about these questions for thousands of years,” she offers. “There is a wisdom, there is truth here.”

#ad#Breaking Through expresses a movement born of the rising of Sandra Fluke. Democratic women asked, “Where are the women?” when they manipulated a House Government Oversight Hearing on religious freedom into a “war on women.” Well, here they are, in this collection edited by George Mason University law professor Helen Alvaré, which includes works by other lawyers, medical doctors, a religious sister, and teachers. Alvaré talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book and the petition movement (which first appeared on NRO) that it is an outgrowth of

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “Let Catholic women speak for themselves,” you implore. Isn’t that what Caroline Kennedy, Kathleen Sebelius, and Sister Simone Campbell were doing at the Democratic convention in Charlotte?

HELEN ALVARÉ: Two points: We are responding to the claim made by Secretary Sebelius and others that the campaign against religious institutions’ being required to provide health insurance that violates their conscience is a campaign against women; she called it a “war.” The Obama administration claims, in short, that the Catholic Church — the leader in the religious-freedom fight here — is waging a war on women. That’s the context for Women Speak for Themselves: that women who take Catholic teaching seriously, as distinguished from the group of women you referred to, will not be told that Catholic teaching and the Church are their enemies.

LOPEZ: What does freedom mean in the life of a Catholic woman living in the United States in 2012?

ALVARÉ: What it has meant to Catholics for centuries: the freedom to grow in love, to enjoy the gifts we have been given qua women, and to give to others from what we have received. This is such a vast concept. But in the current context, a few things need to be said. Freedom is emphatically not what the current administration is calling it and reducing it to: the freedom to steadfastly refuse or destroy a connection with another person, via contraception — which has increased the amount of “nonrelationship” sex among women and men — and with a child, via abortion.

LOPEZ: Can a woman be free if she cannot manage her fertility?

ALVARÉ: Women have been and continue to be able to oversee their own fertility. The administration’s Health and Human Services mandate was a political move, not a health-care move.

LOPEZ: Doesn’t the Catholic Church have a real messaging issue on women and sex? The much-cited statistic that 98 percent of Catholic women use contraception is a shoddy one, but one doesn’t have to look around for too long to suspect Catholics aren’t exactly walking in lockstep with Church teaching on sexual morality.

ALVARÉ: You are correct. But we have the tools to do it right. It is tempting to look back at the last 40 years and wish the Church had always effectively communicated its teaching. But between the Theology of the Body, the theology of marriage, and the legions of Catholic women and men who have come of age learning and experiencing the Church’s teaching on these issues, we are seeing a real hunger and willingness today to speak out.

#page#LOPEZ: Why are some so threatened by the proposals of the Catholic Church?

ALVARÉ: It is very difficult to pinpoint the origins of the mentality that freedom equals expressing myself sexually however I want and with whomever will consent. One could go as deep as the question of original sin, or to the historical development of the notion that freedom means freedom from God, from relationships, from suffering, from sacrifice. Each of these would yield wisdom regarding why Catholic teaching involving respect for objective human nature, discipline, purification . . . is so resisted. Legally speaking, I can trace the development of this idea from the birth-control and abortion Supreme Court cases, and the Lawrence opinion in which the Court held that liberty and privacy regarding sex are a matter of determining the shape of your own universe.

#ad#LOPEZ: In what way do “debates about women still operate largely according to . . . seriously flawed dynamics”? Is that situation improving at all?

ALVARÉ: More women who have lived during a time when women can choose almost any lifestyle are determining that the old-style-feminist sexual liberation and the new-style “gender ideology” did not prove true or liberating in their own lives. It is their experience and their reflections on it that will change the dynamics of the debate.

LOPEZ: The women in your book, you write, “avoid ‘triumphalism’ in favor of humility.” What do you mean by that and why is it important?

ALVARÉ: Triumphalism implies almost a fan worship of one’s religion, a desire to be “on top” as the world understands that. The reflections in Breaking Through are not about winning the “whose religion is best” contest, but rather, they are stories of women who came to understand in humility how it was that their religion answered their own searches for truth, for freedom, and how the prevailing feminism did not. And as an outgrowth of their humble journeys, these women, through their reflections, seek to have a conversation within the Church about what Church teaching means in the context of their current lives, not just tell the world about how the Church’s teachings assisted their freedom.

LOPEZ: John Paul II talked about the “genius” of the feminine. Why wasn’t that triumphalism?

ALVARÉ: Again, it’s not about winning, so much as it is about sharing, about telling human beings of either sex that they have particular, even outstanding gifts meant to be given, not gloated over.

LOPEZ: “Progress in personal goodness and real freedom doesn’t follow the same path as progress in technology, where each successive explorer can build upon what others accomplished before,” you write, echoing Pope Benedict XVI. Isn’t that just an excuse to turn back the clock?

ALVARÉ: No, it’s a call to realism. In short: Just because the iPhone 5 exists doesn’t mean we are a better, more virtuous people. That comes from decisions each person and each society makes from the time they are born to the time they die.

LOPEZ: How did your children make you?

ALVARÉ: By calling me out of my own selfishness to the way of life human beings are called to: the way of loving service.

LOPEZ: How did having sons make you appreciate men more?

ALVARÉ: Aside from the fact that I adore their wild senses of humor and admire their disdain for fussing over material things like clothes and furniture? It would have to be because one can observe firsthand the gifts they have that are different from female gifts . . .  and one can see what they can bring to women and society and how they need women, too.

LOPEZ: How is “the flourishing of women and of society . . . closely tied to getting marriage and motherhood right”?

ALVARÉ: Because society and all people in it are made to love as closely as possible in the way God loves. Marriage — a reflection, we are told, of the relationship between God and his people — and motherhood are about learning to love particular people, including very dependent people, in your house, in your face, day to day, relentlessly. Some are called to love this way outside of marriage and family, but it’s not all that common. Marriage and parenting are particular, intense, and not easily duplicated ways of learning this.

#page#LOPEZ: What does it mean to “acknowledge the longing for communion, but talk straight”?

ALVARÉ: There is no real relationship between people, no real love, unless there is truth. Love and truth have to go hand in hand.

LOPEZ: Can you assert that “sex makes babies” when today we have so many technological ways to make that not so today?

#ad#ALVARÉ: This phrase is a counter to the modern mantra of government programs: “Unprotected sex makes babies.” It’s intended to reassert the amazing fact that although God could have put procreation anywhere — anyway He wanted — He put it into sexual intercourse. Into a loving, intimate, private, person-changing, body-uniting act. This must mean something, and we need to think about this. The government mantra, on the other hand, breaks this chain of thought and says instead that a technological failure while you’re doing things with your sexual organs makes babies. What an awful view of this most beautiful, creative reality! Yuck.

LOPEZ: Culturally speaking, is there something alarmingly unprecedented about our current resistance to the whole “finding-oneself-in-losing-oneself way of life”?

ALVARÉ: I think it is a hereditary human flaw. Every generation suffers from it. But with unparalled prosperity and technology for satisfying the self, and this new sexual ethic, we are suffering a particularly ugly form of it right now.

LOPEZ: What do you mean when you write: “decide to love; decide to give; try mightily to learn the truth; then leap,” and is it relevant to a people facing a presidential election and challenging economic times?

ALVARÉ: There is some happiness in loving and committing to a relationship and being able to defend your positions no matter the economic times, no matter what is out of your control. Loving and gaining knowledge to do the right thing are things you can do, things no one can take away from you. Changing governments, making more or less money . . . all these things are important, obviously, but do not have to determine the shape of our lives. Life is still about forming loving relationships and giving good gifts.

LOPEZ: Why is the “pre-feminist” history of Catholic women leaders in the U.S. an important one?

ALVARÉ: It simply points out women’s natural ability to excel, and to excel in service, before excelling as women was reduced to political or gender wars. It is a contribution women make; it does not constitute a war against men, or anything else hostile, when we do great things in the service of others.

LOPEZ: Who do you hope will read this book?

ALVARÉ: Most especially Catholic women who need to remember that Catholic teaching can assist their search for freedom and truth, and skeptics of Catholic teaching as it pertains to women. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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