The popular media view of the Catholic Church as anti-woman gets a vigorous challenge in a new book edited by Erika Bachiochi. In Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching (Pauline Books & Media), Bachiochi and eight other contributors expound upon the Church’s teaching on sex, contraception, marriage, abortion and priestly ordination from a pro-woman perspective. Bachiochi, a 35-year-old mother of five, lives in East Walpole, Mass., with her husband, Dan. She spoke to Register correspondent Judy Roberts.
You open the book by saying you were an unlikely candidate to bring together the book’s contributors because you once identified with radical feminists and were anti-Catholic. How did you become a faithful Catholic who embraces the Church’s teachings?
I grew up in Rockport, Maine, in a broken family. My parents divorced when I was 4. My mother and stepfather then divorced when I was 12, and my mother went on to marry and divorce again when I was in college. As a young girl, I received my first Communion and then didn’t attend Mass anymore.
The divorce that was hardest on me was the one at 12. The year before, I remember going to a drug-and-alcohol-prevention meeting and nodding my head at everything, but when the divorce hit, I began to act out from the brokenness inside. When I was 16, a friend committed suicide, and then another committed suicide when I was 19. The 19-year-old was someone I had always sort of dreamed of marrying, so his death was crushing.
I was in college at that point and was really despairing over that loss and all of life. I was also heavily involved in the women’s center [at Vermont’s Middlebury College]. I really identified with what I took to be two things from those feminists on campus. One was just a depth about life. Everyone else around me was doing what I didn’t want to do anymore: drink and hook up. The feminists were doing some of that, but they were also much more introspective about life, about what was going on on campus, about the lack of self-respect that many women had to just go and live that kind of college scene. The feminists also seemed to care a lot about women and children. No one else was talking about that.
I started to call myself a socialist or Marxist feminist. I had no other philosophical bearings. It was around this time my friend died, and I was brought to my knees in a hard way. God started to lay the pieces. I was praying constantly through all this, not in an overtly Christian sense, but just “Help me, God. I can’t do this.”
Was it a long journey back to the Church?
Alongside the spiritual journey was an intense intellectual journey. Instead of women’s studies and sociology, I started to study political science and philosophy. I took a course on the Bible and read of Jesus teaching things that I’d experienced as true in life. I started wandering away from my feminist friends and hanging out with Christians. I barraged them with questions.
I began to attend Protestant churches, but was not connecting there. I remember being on my knees and asking God, “Which church?” but in the back of my head saying, “Just not the Catholic Church.” I wasn’t at all resolved about Catholic sexual teachings and abortion at that point, though even as a feminist I had started to see problems with abortion.
Then someone got me to come to Mass, and that was it. There was something beautiful there. I went to confession right away. The priest who eventually helped me through confirmation had me begin by reading much of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I started with the section on prayer and worked my way through all the doctrines I had trouble with, whether it was Mary or the Pope or contraception or the priesthood. I spent two years studying St. Thomas and St. Augustine and other doctors of the Church.
The thing I always recommend to people is just really to pray through any issues they have with Church teaching. Sometimes we have problems with the Church and we complain about them or read books that defend our current dissenting view, instead of praying and asking God to enlighten us, to direct us to whatever the truth may be. Early on in my conversion, God gave me the recognition that I could trust the Church. From there, though, I had to satisfy my intellectual skepticism, and that took lots of study — and lots of prayer.
Did the idea for Women, Sex, and the Church grow out of your own struggle to understand the Church in these areas?
I had embraced the Church’s sexual teachings well before beginning this project. They had had a life-saving effect in my life. The immediate inspiration for the book was the irritation I experienced watching the news just after John Paul II died. Most television programs were reporting on the conclave as though everything the Church taught was up for grabs. Every time they invited a woman on their shows to debate the issues, it’d be a dissenting woman who’d tell the viewers how much the teachings all needed to change. It was so frustrating. And it was not only that I had experienced the freeing truth of Church teachings, but I had scores of friends living the Catholic faith and loving the adventure of orthodoxy. And no one got that. No one articulated how intelligent, self-respecting, orthodox women understood their faith.
How were the contributors to the book chosen?
Sister Sara Butler (a professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York], who wrote the chapter on ordination, was one of the first. I knew she’d previously supported women in the priesthood, but had changed her mind. For the chapters on the sexual teachings, I was looking for smart, faithful women who could give a nuanced defense of Church teaching without recourse to theological argument. I wanted us to make the secular case as best we could.
Initially, I did not know Cassandra Hough [founding director of the Love and Fidelity Network], who wrote the chapter on premarital sex. She became an obvious choice once I got to know her work.
I knew Jennifer Roback Morse’s work and thought having an economist write on marriage was a good idea. She is well-respected, and her credentials are outstanding.
Angela Franks [author of Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy] was an obvious choice for the chapter on contraception. Angela could have written on any number of these topics, but she was up for writing on contraception, given her extensive scholarship in this area.
Elizabeth R. Schiltz’s [St. Thomas Law School] essay in the book on “Dueling Vocations” talks about the tension between women’s roles in public life and their vocation as wives and mothers. As the mother of young children, how do you maintain a career while caring for your family?
First, I have a tremendous husband. He sees his role as father and husband as fundamental to who he is. He is an incredible, prayerful man, and I know he sees my work as our work. How do I do this practically? Every mom of young children needs a break. When I take my break, I work. I’m otherwise always with my children. I clean, cook and shop with my kids. When I have a break, I pray, study and write. I just say to God, “This is your book. If you want it to come about, I have two hours to write, so write through me.” I always beg him to do that, and he always responds. As a Catholic, that’s how I have to live: just asking God to live through me. There’s not really any other way, as far as I can tell.
Judy Roberts writes
from Graytown, Ohio.