The War on the War on Women

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It was standing room only at the Catholic Information Center three weeks ago for the publication party of Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, a collection of essays by Catholic women and edited by Helen Alvare.

Alvare is a brilliant woman and a writer of graceful precision, and the book is worth its price for her essay "Fear of Children." It always amazes me that detractors profile Catholics as people living stunted lives in some kind of fantasyland, when it is thinkers such as Alvare who repeatedly show the courage to strike at the heart of questions about human existence. But then, those same detractors don't read books by Alvare or any other Catholic thinkers.

In the introduction to Breaking Through, Alvare, a well-know public intellectual and law professor, recounts being approached in a hair salon by someone who sighed that Pope Benedict "is terrible on the woman thing." Alvare replied that she was amazed -- she didn't know three people who had actually read what the pope has said about women, and here was one right in front of her. Of course, the person had never read a word Benedict has ever written.

In her contribution, Alvare writes what many people think but are afraid to talk about -- human beings have not only a biological but a psychological and spiritual need to empty themselves in love for another person, and that other person is usually a child. Alvare advocates not just love, but "loving in truth" -- the way to find yourself is to make a gift of yourself.

This is why women, Alvare included, begin to feel anxious at the sound of their biological clock. It's just the way God made us. Alvare finally put aside her fear and had children, and it opened her up to genuine self-giving love.

Of course, people who do not have children can also experience "spiritual maternity." That phrase is from the essay "Finding Joy: The Mystery of Religious Life" by Sister Mary Gabriel of the Sisters of Life. Sister Gabriel is, like Alvare, a wonderful essayist -- intelligent yet understated. She explores how her "spiritual maternity" affects her every time she goes out into the world: "it doesn't matter whether it's the daily Massgoing grandmother who slips me a paper with the names of her grandchildren; the non-Catholic young woman filling her gas next to me who,without hesitation, asks me about her friend who just died on cancer; or the heavy-metal band member on a plane who introduces himself to me....I'm theirs. I'm theirs because I'm God's."

Sister Gabriel explores the history of Catholic women running schools, hospitals, and even parishes. To anyone, like me, who grew up in a Catholic house, it always seems odd when liberal talk about how the Church represses women, when I grew up with Catholic women who were doctors, who ran the school, who both coached and played sports, and on more than one occasion could drink us under the table.

One such strong woman is Dr. Marie Anderson, M.D. Anderson's contribution to Breaking Through is "Contraception: Wrestling with Reality." Anderson is an ob-gyn who had completely rejected the Catholicism of her youth, only to find herself troubled by the the callousness towards life expressed by many of her colleagues, as well as the depression and post-traumatic stress suffered by many women who have abortions.

Like the other contributors, Anderson did not have a spiritual transformation because of some irrational urge to flee from reality, but because she got tired of denying that the reality that she saw in front of her face was showing her evil. She changed because the science and the facts pointed her in that direction. Of course, grace was also involved. But faith and reason worked together. Secular society seems to have lost both.

Most of the other essayists in Breaking Through are as strong as Alvare -- Elise Italiano on Catholic dating (Italiano a first-rate high school teacher whose students rave about her), Rebecca Vitz Cherico on the sex abuse scandal, and Michelle Cretella on same-sex attraction.

I wish I could say that it was some kind of revelation that orthodox Catholic women are sharp reasoners and elegant and perceptive writers. But to anyone familiar with names like Teresa of Avila, Peggy Noonan or Flannery O'Connor, it's just not news. And at its best, Breaking Through belongs in their company.

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