It’s understandable that advocates of the Obama administration’s HHS mandate framed opposition to coerced coverage of abortifacients as a “war” on women: mobilizing a coveted group of voters is good politics. Mandate fans even brought their their red “Stop the War on Women” signs to celebrate the Supreme Court’s approval of funding for the Obama healthcare plan, though the mandate itself wasn’t under review. Damsels in distress again? The phrase “sore winners” comes to mind.
When Catholic bishops had the mettle to resist the state’s clear attack on conscience rights, mandate advocates sought to further the damsel drama by employing crude references from days gone by. Maureen Dowd mentioned chastity belts in her New York Times column. Nancy Keenan elected to use colonial imagery in mocking the “Fortnight for Freedom,” the US Catholic Bishops Conference’s prayerful focus on religious liberty. “An event with a name like that,” she mused, “makes me think of a time when women wore corsets, couldn’t vote and didn’t get much say over their lives.”
Enough! An election approaches, and with it, increased opportunities for impugning Catholic clergy. It’s time for Catholic women to energetically exonerate the bishops targeted in the fight for freedom of conscience. Women who love the Church and have found happiness following her counsels have been quieter than the sign-waving crowd during the decades that “reproductive rights” were secured, and that’s unfortunate, because now, after having won everything they said they wanted, the supposed victims of the war on women are grinding stiletto heels into the faith that forms millions of us at our deepest level of identity.
Following the Fortnight, Archbishop William Lori assured supporters, “this is just the beginning.” The faithful are counting on it. But Catholic women must become visible and vocal in this battle or the maidens and matrons feigning frailty will continue accusing our shepherds of devaluing the feminine members of their their flock.
As the political season heats up, we must unrelentingly assert that the real war is not against women, but against life and liberty. The President made his attitude regarding Catholics explicit in extending the definition of health care to include contraception, sterilization and abortifacients. Expansions of abortion funding and fresh attacks on religious liberty will follow. Even if conscience protections are secured by a future reform, we know where we stand with with him: he promised Cardinal Timothy Dolan there would be conscience protections in the healthcare law. There were not.
The faithful are called to be “innocent as doves,” and the beauty of purity appeals to our hearts. But Christ also wants us “shrewd” as serpents. Where was this virtue when the man who gave us the mandate admitted the question of when life begins was “beyond his paygrade,” that he wouldn’t want his daughters to be “punished” with a baby or that working class voters “cling to their…religion”? Do we see more clearly now that his supporters mock men with the mantle of Christ?
The “war on women” was framed the moment Capitol Hill feminists chanted “Where are the women?” as the House Oversight Committee denied a platform for law student Sandra Fluke to plead for free contraception. This fall, when the campaign boils and the bishops are subjected to new barbs (as they surely will be), the feminine faithful had better ask ourselves, “Where are the Catholic women?” Where are the women who, “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves,” will let the world know that we have the bishops’ backs?
It’s time we employ what Blessed Pope John Paul II called “the feminine genius,” a woman’s gift for giving, guiding and guarding. We have some wonderful examples in law professors Mary Ann Glendon and Helen Alvare, whose advocacy for the bishops is insistently eloquent.
But this election is too critical for the rest of us to cheer from the sidelines. An uninformed public snickers dismissively when words like “chastity belt” and “corset” are thrown into shots at Catholics bishops. If we don’t defend our shepherds every time this occurs, at ball games, bus stops and break rooms, our complacency makes us complict in the crime. Whenever bishops are jeered as bullies and family-friendly lawmakers called “male” as if that’s a bad thing, we must immediately rise and reiterate that these men are not alone. Our brave bishops never declared war on women, and the feminine faithful must insist that the so-called “war on women” has us seeing red.
Peggy Haslar has written for a variety of publications, including The Denver Post, Touchstone and Discipleship Journal. She is a school counselor in Colorado.