‘Women’s Issues,’ Politics and the Church


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Two and a half years ago, Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, kicked the “War on Women” campaign into high gear against Catholic and pro-life opponents of abortion and contraception, testifying before Democratic lawmakers that women need free birth control to thrive.

Fluke quickly emerged as an icon for supporters of the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate, which was approved by the Obama administration in January 2012 and is still being litigated in the courts.

But on Election Day this month, she lost her bid for the California Senate by a whopping 22 points. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor of Texas — who sparked headlines for her 11th-hour filibuster against proposed restrictions on late-term abortions — also lost by a sizable margin.

Meanwhile, the midterm elections marked unexpected victories for pro-life women like Joni Ernst, an Iraq War veteran and National Guard commander, who will represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate.

In the final stretch of the campaign, a barrage of attack ads targeted Ernst’s pro-life stand, only to have little impact on the final outcome.

“I think there’s a certain kind of hubris in running the ‘War on Women’ campaign against a woman who has been to war,” David Kochel, an Ernst campaign adviser, told the Des Moines Register.

Seemingly, the “War on Women” narrative is no longer a reliable tactic for getting out the vote.

Women’s political concerns cannot be reduced to NARAL Pro-Choice America’s legislative agenda. But it would also be naïve to conclude that the dismal election outcome will doom these talking points for good.

This language of embattlement has staying power because it reflects the long-held ideological legacy of radical feminism, which directs women to view their unique ability to bear children as a trap rather than as a gift. Those who abide by this creed embrace abortion and contraception as critical tools for gender equality and individual autonomy, and thus for their vision of personal fulfillment.

The talking points will also resonate because the elevation of perceived sexual rights, combined with the culture’s hyper-individualistic values, discourage men from forming permanent bonds. Women are left to fend for themselves and, increasingly, their fatherless children. In the process, some women have learned to trust the government, rather than the men in their lives, for backup support — including free birth control.

These hot-button issues that have no easy remedy have also been propelled into the consciousness of the leaders of the Catholic Church.

At last month’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, discussions about the struggles of cohabitating couples, homosexuals and divorced-and-remarried Catholics acknowledged radical changes in family structure and broad forces that threaten the stability of two-parent families.

Crowded out of the media’s reporting on the synod was the quiet witness of Catholic couples who remain faithful to their spouse but still need a vision of life that will help them sustain their marriage vows and inspire their children to embrace the Christian vocation to matrimony.

How can the Church help married Catholics, and those who would like to be happily married, find a path of love, healing and mutual respect between men and women and husbands and wives?

One promising teaching that received little attention at the synod is St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. Reflecting on the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman, made in the image of a loving Trinitarian God, John Paul presented the masculinity and femininity of the spouses as the basis of their “mutual self-gift.” Their sexual complementarity, rooted in the equal dignity of both persons, generated a true “unity in difference.”

The fall of humanity marked the consequences of the man and woman’s disobedience to Yahweh. They had been “naked and unafraid,” trusting themselves and each other to love unconditionally. Now, they clothed themselves, their lives shadowed by mistrust. But Christ, in Matthew 19, offers a new beginning for the sexes, directing the Jewish elders to reject divorce and return to the original unity of the man and woman “in the beginning.”

Instituted by Christ, the sacrament of matrimony offers the healing grace that restores the peace between the man and the woman. But, as John Paul teaches, it is not enough to simply repeat the vows that bind the spouses — we must consciously and prayerfully pursue the path of sacrificial love, like our Savior.

Increasingly, many modern Catholics view this teaching with skepticism, fearing that they cannot depend on others, only themselves. They are prepared to live with the uneasy stalemate between the sexes that offers fodder for television sitcoms and therapists.

However, Pope Francis’ answer to this modern dilemma is to go deeper into the subject of sexual complementarity and the communion of persons. While the theology of the body, and its examination of sexual complementarity, was not part of the synod’s formal agenda, the teaching will likely get a hearing at a conference in Rome scheduled for this month.

From Nov. 17 to 19, the Vatican will host “An International Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman.” The meeting will draw religious leaders, thinkers and married couples from across the globe, representing 14 faiths.

Helen Alvare, a pro-life leader and law professor at George Mason University, offered her take on the conference in an interview with The Washington Post. “People fear complementarity means women are second, and their fears are somewhat justified. There’s a need to educate, to inspire, to show and tell about the beauty of the relationship between men and women,” Alvare suggested.

The U.S. bishops might consider hosting a similar initiative that brings the broad experience of faith traditions to Catholics and other Americans hungry for a more hopeful and truthful vision of male-female relations. We can’t let partisan messaging or even our own personal stumbles have the final word.

“Marriage is your personal project,” said Alvare, “but it affects the world.”