WASHINGTON — During an election year dominated by a partisan drumbeat heralding a “war on women," Helen Alvaré will provide a welcome reprieve: She is the editor and co-author of a new book of essays — stories by Catholic women that challenge the assertion that unrestricted access to contraception is essential to women’s happiness and well-being.
Currently a professor at George Mason Law School, Alvaré has dedicated her life’s work to the defense of the unborn and making a public case for traditional marriage. Her involvement in pro-life and pro-family causes has been a tour de force — beginning with work at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (which would later become the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), then eventually in academia and, now, as a leading voice challenging the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring Catholic institutions to provide insurance for contraception and abortifacients.
Richard Doerflinger, the bishops’ conference’s chief lobbyist on life issues, describes Alvaré as “one of the most knowledgeable and effective advocates for life and marriage I have ever known, an ideal combination of style and substance. … She is a leading spokeswoman for Catholic pro-life feminism and a model for many young women emerging as leaders in the Church today.”
Now, Alvaré is gearing up for the release of her new book, Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, a book-length compilation of stories from Catholic women of all backgrounds, which will be released on Sept. 20. She edited the stories and also provided essays for the book..
The emerging religious-liberty battle, fueled by the federal contraception mandate, has offered her a fresh opportunity to tackle the arguments presented by the mandate’s supporters. Just maybe the book’s readers will find their own worldview shaken up — and they will see that the Catholic Church isn’t waging a war against their true freedom, but is offering a path toward relationships that, in the words of Pope Benedict, “give them the look of love which they crave.”
For Alvaré, this journey begins with an honest reassessment of the sexual revolution and its efforts to “divorce sex from babies.” Breaking Through encourages women to find and live out their own vocations in harmony and union with the Church, even when its teachings on fidelity, chastity and obedience demand real sacrifices. The outcome, she promises her readers, is an abundance of grace and love that manifests itself in our own lives and the lives of those around us.
Making the Church’s case for true human fulfillment is no easy feat in a culture increasingly shaped by individualistic and secular forces.
But Alvaré has spent her career doing just that, and she is unlikely to be deterred by temporary setbacks. Indeed, she predicts victory for the pro-life movement and, in her words, “a continuing consolidation of the realization that abortion destroys what we all know — from common sense and, increasingly, from scientific advances — is a unique, human life, with his or her own personal dignity, origins and destiny.”
While many Catholics look to Alvaré as one of the Church’s most articulate and reasoned voices in the public square today, her critics have reviled her as a “mouthpiece for a male hierarchy” and, as the title of a June 2012 profile on Salon.com put it, “birth control’s worst enemy.”
Despite such partisan attacks, Alvaré wouldn’t change a thing. She’s far more interested in the struggle to live a life of faith with integrity in family life, as a professor engaging students and as a prominent scholar on family-law issues.
And as she continues that pilgrim’s journey, she attempts to provide answers to the hard questions and challenges that women face in modern life.
New Feminism in Action
Alvaré was born in 1960, the daughter of a Cuban immigrant father and mother from Philadelphia. She describes her parents as “very knowledgeable Catholic parents — and both devoted to the Church on a personal, spiritual and an intellectual level.” Growing up, she was the youngest of five children, one of whom was disabled.
After completing her undergraduate work at Villanova University, she attended law school at Cornell.
The decision to earn a law degree gained traction as she witnessed her disabled sister’s vulnerability in society and solidified over a summer during college when she worked with the poor in West Virginia.
“These experiences,” she remembered, “led me to want to have a skill set that would allow me to be an advocate. I kept experiencing the desire to ‘do something’ useful and helpful when I encountered people on the losing side of powerful forces. In the United States, the people often doing something like this were lawyers.”
After finishing law school, she went to work for a private law firm in Philadelphia that had a long Catholic history. During that time, she became intrigued by the memos on social issues produced by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).
“They were taking up the coolest questions at the intersection of law and morality,” she recalled. When Alvaré received a scholarship to study graduate theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, she jumped at the opportunity and left her work in private practice. Providentially, a lifelong friend of her mother’s also worked for the NCCB, and that contact helped her secure a part-time position at the conference.
Soon after, while serving at the NCCB, she was asked to do a last-minute “emergency” appearance on NBC’s Today Show with Bryant Gumbel to talk about the bishop’s newly launched public-relations campaign on pro-life issues. The interview was a success and soon led to appearances on other major network shows.
Before long, the bishops’ conference asked her to become the public face of the Catholic pro-life movement.
Alvaré was initially resistant to the idea. Then, one Sunday, as she was leaving Mass at St. Stephen Martyr Church in Washington, she experienced a powerful urge to drop to her knees and pray about the position. She recalls a moment after time in prayer where she felt she was being told by the Holy Spirit that “I would be accepting the position, and that, yes, it’s scary, but it’s also going to happen — and that it will all be all right.”
The next day she visited the historic New York residence of Cardinal John O’Connor, then chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Pro-Life Committee, and agreed to work for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.
During her tenure at the NCCB, Alvaré traveled the world to speak out against emerging threats to the right to life, testified before Congress on numerous occasions, advised the bishops on matters of pro-life policy and appeared on almost every major news show in the country.
At age 39, after 10 years of service, she decided to shift focus to research, writing and teaching.
This led her first to The Catholic University of America and, now, George Mason Law School, where she spends her time focusing on the demand side of abortion: “Between the amount of time I spent in the company of post-abortive women, trying to find out what they had gone through before and after the abortion, and the amount of time I had spent analyzing the other side’s arguments, it had become clear to me that I needed to think and to write more about the stuff underlying abortion — the ideas about sex, marriage, family, parenting, the roles of men and women, etc. — that lay behind and beneath a woman’s final decision to have an abortion.”
“I felt that until we could get behind the ‘demand side’ [of abortion (i.e., what drives the demand)] we would never ultimately reduce its incidence dramatically,” she said.
“So I asked to teach family law and have continued to teach in that area and write scholarship precisely on those subjects.”
Speaking for Herself
During the 20th century, figures like St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Blessed John Paul II developed a philosophy of a “new feminism,” emphasizing both the complementary natures of men and women, but also the distinct differences between them. In particular, John Paul II used the phrase “feminine genius” to describe the very special contribution of women, who make the nurturing of human life and dignity their primary vocation, in the home and in the workplace.
As Doerflinger and many others have noted, Alvaré and her work epitomize the feminine genius.
She describes daily life as a “drop-and-give-me-50 lifestyle.” Along with her full-time work at the law school, Alvaré also serves on the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Witherspoon Institute’s Task Force for Conscience Protection and various other boards.
All of this, however, is of secondary importance to her role as wife and mother to three children, ages 13, 16 and 18, and her daily routine reflects her priorities.
“When a moment arises when I can do work that should be done, I just drop everything else and start the work,” she described, and “plunge in.”
“When my youngest son goes over to a friend’s house, leaving my house quiet, I start writing a column or a paper that’s due,” she explained.
“Waiting an hour in the car at a soccer practice — I read a colleague’s paper coming up for commentary the next day.”
But despite the intense demands on her time, she keeps an eye on the larger cultural debates that help to shape the personal and moral choices of American women.
In February 2012, in response to the HHS mandate, Alvaré decided that she couldn’t simply sit back and listen to “the ridiculous assertions by opponents of the free exercise of religion — that all women are on their side when it comes to forcing religious institutions to provide health insurance covering contraception.”
One evening, while in the kitchen preparing her family’s dinner, she decided to draft an open letter to the president and the administration, making two primary points: “First, women value religious freedom. Second, we are not stupid enough to believe the claim that ‘free contraception’ is the sum and substance of women’s freedom and equality.”
“In fact, the empirical evidence indicates that it has created a ‘marketplace’ for sex and marriage very much to women’s disadvantage,” she explained.
The letter was co-authored by Alvaré’s friend and neighbor Kim Daniels, a religious-liberty lawyer who also serves as the coordinator of Catholic Voices USA and is the mother of six children. Daniels was more than happy to partner with Alvaré in this initiative, as the two families have shared in each other’s lives for many years, including carpooling every day for the past three years.
According to Daniels, “Anyone who’s worked with Helen will tell you: She puts tremendous energy and passion into issues she cares about, and her enthusiasm is infectious.”
And apparently so — to date, the letter has now been signed by more than 33,000 women and counting.
Register correspondent Christopher White writes from New York.