What women really want is to speak for themselves

This story continues a periodic Denver Catholic Register series on the theology of women.

During a visit to Denver last week, Helen Alvaré, law professor at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia and longtime pro-life and pro-family advocate, spoke with the Register about Women Speak for Themselves.

WSFT is a grassroots initiative Alvaré co-founded in February 2012 as a response to the Health and Human Services mandate forcing religious institutions to provide contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs to employees through health insurance. In an open letter to President Barack Obama, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and members of Congress—drafted with friend and fellow attorney Kim Daniels, spokeswoman for the president of the U.S. bishops—Alvaré indicated that “no one speaks for all women on these issues” and she put a spotlight on religious liberty issues.

The letter quickly spread, signed by thousands of Catholics, some non-Catholics; Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

“The fact that it caught fire shows that there was an untapped market for this set of messages,” Alvaré explained. “It is a set of  messages.”

What provoked the letter wasn’t only the HHS mandate, she said, but the associated claim that women’s freedom is encapsulated in sexual expression.

“(It was about being) free from the potential for relationship and I don’t just mean a child,” said Alvaré who has served as a consultant for the Pontifical Council of the Laity at the Vatican and an advisor to the U.S. bishops. “The way the administration was promoting it, it meant sexual expression free of the potential of a relationship with a man.”

It was telling by people who “came out of the woodwork” supporting it, including Planned Parenthood leadership, the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., activist Sandra Fluke and actress Lena Dunham—each indicating it was “about time” somebody paid for “really good, expensive birth control.”

“The emphasis was never just on not having a child,” Alvaré said. “It was on being a person who sexually expresses yourself because it’s about you, it’s your identity, it’s your freedom; maybe it’s your equality with men, who also have sex without bearing children.”

The message was clear, she said, and insulting.

“Equating women’s freedom with expressing oneself sexually was so ridiculous, so insulting, for many, many reasons,” said the wife and mother of three. “Where have they been while the rest of the intelligent world has been assessing the fallout of the sexual revolution?”

Laws of economics, psychology and sociology have shown the number one losers in that scenario are women, she said.

“It’s since the introduction, not only of the pill, but of wide-scale programs to push it, you have more unintended pregnancies, more out-of-wedlock births, more single motherhood” she said, “and, therefore, more poverty.”

If that was the best the federal government could do for women, she’d had enough. It was then that she drafted the letter with Daniels.

“We sent it out to about 30 of our friends and it went to 42,000 without even trying,” she explained. “We just want (the administration) to stop lying about what a women’s agenda would look like.”

If you ask women what they really want, she continued, they want to make contributions to the public square, equal pay, equal opportunity in education and to “make all the vocational contributions the Creator has made them capable of.”

“But it turns out 50 years after the pill, they actually want to get married and have children in most cases too,” she added.

Alvaré, who participated in an international gathering of women in Rome Oct. 10-12 hosted by the women’s section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, is encouraged by Pope Francis’ call for a deeper theology of women.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “You’ll notice when he says that, his next statement is usually that we need to think about bringing  women into positions in the Church. One thing he seems to intend is to see what it’s like when men and women are working side by side, in a complementary fashion, inside the Church.

“That’s clear from his remarks,” she said and she intends to be part of what she hopes will be the Church’s complementary model to the world. “I think that’s coming and I’m very excited.”


COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.