Religious freedom and the equality of women

There is an untruth circulating rather widely in the public square these days — and gaining speed. We need to derail it. The falsehood that is spreading is that somehow, because the church refuses to conform to the default position of practically everyone in contemporary society — that sexual promiscuity is the only authentic sign-post of human freedom — that she, the church, is waging a war on women.

The evidence of such a “war,” it is said, is found in the fact that the church refuses to waver in her teaching that human fertility is not a disease state, that the use of birth control and abortifacients compromises the sacred nature of the sexual act, and that abortion — portrayed since 1973 as the linchpin of a woman’s right to choose the kind of life she wants for herself — takes the life of an actual human person and is therefore akin to murder.

And so, the argument goes, the church’s insistence that the HHS mandate poses a serious threat to religious freedom is a position in direct conflict with the hard won right of women to use any means necessary to avoid unwanted pregnancies, the signature freedom of the so-called women’s movement.

From the ‘women’s movement’ to today

Over the last 50 years, this distorted view of what constitutes human freedom has spread everywhere in our society. It has infiltrated our families, our schools and the media. It has become an unspoken assumption in public discourse and a premise of our legal system.

In the meantime, our children are being told they are constitutionally unable to govern themselves, that they are at the mercy of bodily desires that cannot be refused and that therefore the only “choice” they have is to use artificial means — often the cause of disease states themselves — in order to avoid the natural consequences of an act undertaken without thinking about it.

Only animals have sex without thinking about it.

I believe it was George Orwell who said that if you repeat a lie often enough, pretty soon people begin to believe it. The undeniable truth is that this distorted meaning of the human body has led to all manner of social ills, confused the natural relationships between the sexes and led to an epidemic of sexual aberrations, addictions and STDs.

What is completely overlooked is that the sexual union is inexpressibly intimate, is clearly meant to be a complete self-gift (body and soul), and that it therefore must be grounded in love and an authentic commitment to the other.

Who loves women?

Has the contemporary understanding of human sexuality led to greater freedom for women? Are women happier? The data say no. We are now more likely to be abused, abandoned or divorced, more likely to be single working moms, poor, struggling and lonely. It is simply a fact that the sexual revolution has been hardest on women.

So the question becomes: Who truly loves women? Those that claim that women’s happiness depends on their freedom to have sex with whomever they like without restraint or responsibility? Or the church, who maintains that women’s happiness will be realized only when women are free to become who they truly are?

Is it the purveyors of our sex obsessed culture who encourage women to look at themselves as sexual objects, to regard their fertility as a curse, a kind of disease to be prevented and cured, who would have us think that helping women means helping them avoid babies, not helping them to have them in the context of a marriage where they can be welcomed and raised in love?

Or is it someone like our beloved Blessed John Paul II, rightly called the “feminist” pope, who proclaims in countless places that the genius of woman is grounded in her nat-ural proclivity to attend to the well-being of the other and that it is this precise quality, in addition to her ordinary human competencies, that is needed in every aspect of the life of society, not only in the home, but in the workplace and in the world at large?

Human nature and authentic freedom

We must insist now on engaging the HHS mandate on our terms. At its core, this is not a debate about contraception but about two radically divergent understandings of human nature and what it means to be fully human and truly free.

As Catholics, we understand human freedom to be the freedom to choose the good. Freedom to choose the bad is not freedom at all — because it leads to slavery. And the choices that women and men have made over the last 50 years in the name of freedom have begun to enslave us all.

The truth is that the church not only loves women, she is literally pleading with us to set the world on fire.

Here are the words of the “Closing Address to Women” at the Second Vatican Council: “But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.”

This debate is our “Catholic moment” — the moment for the prophetic voice of faithful Catholic women to be sounded in the public square.

Savage is a faculty member at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and co-director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture at the University of St. Thomas, which hosted a forum on religious liberty and the equality of women during the national Fortnight of Freedom. She is a blog contributor for the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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