Archdiocese Local

Activist helps Catholic women speak for themselves

Thousands gathered at the state Capitol this summer to protest an attack by the Obama administration on religious freedom triggered by the Catholic Church’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which has mandated contraception coverage.

Thousands gathered at the state Capitol this summer to protest an attack by the Obama administration on religious freedom triggered by the Catholic Church’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which has mandated contraception coverage.

Catholics no longer content to be ‘shouted down’ or ignored


by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It was insulting, it was infuriating, and — for Helen Alvare — it was the last straw.

What irked Alvare was the idea, promoted by the Obama administration and its allies, that opposition to the Affordable Care Act contraception and abortifacient mandate constituted a “war on women.”

And “you-know-who” was behind this dastardly war: the Catholic Church.

“[Those comments] were made in the context of religious institutions objecting to the [Department of] Health and Human Services contraception mandate,” said Alvare, a Catholic and associate law professor at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C.

“And everyone knows that the institutions making the most robust critique of the mandate were Catholic institutions,” Alvare continued. “So, the claim regarding the ‘war on women’ being made is that the Catholic religion is in a war against women.”

Alvare, who used to work in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-life Activities, had long heard this kind of twisted rhetoric from pro-abortion advocates.

But this time was different. This rhetoric was embraced by a branch of the U.S. government.

“For the administration, for our government, to make the claim that religion is an enemy of women — of Catholic women in particular — is a new step,” said Alvare. “It’s a frightening step, in my view, in a country founded on religious freedom.”

Alvare was also annoyed when the administration implied that it spoke for women — even Catholic women. The director of the White House Domestic Policy Council said that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception. It didn’t sound credible to Alvare.

Alvare was right. A 2012 study by Mary R. Hasson and Michele M. Hill, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, found the 98 percent figure to be wrong — for a variety of reasons.

“A high number [of Catholic women] aren’t in full agreement with the church’s teaching on contraception,” she said. “But to go from there all the way to the notion of government forcing religious institutions to subsidize this is popular with Catholic women is very much mistaken.”

A voice of her own

Alvare was fed up with the administration’s attack on religious liberty and its claim that it was speaking for women. It certainly wasn’t speaking for her, and Alvare suspected that many Catholic women (and perhaps non-Catholic women as well) felt the same way.

Alvare joined forces with Kim Daniels, also a Catholic and a Washington, D.C.-area attorney, to found their own movement — Women Speak For Themselves.

As part of this movement, Alvare and Daniels established a website: They coauthored a book, that is sold via the website, called “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak For Themselves.”
The website also has an online petition and open letter to President Obama, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and members of Congress.

In part, the open letter reads: “Those currently invoking ‘women’s health’ in an attempt to shout down anyone who disagrees with forcing religious institutions or individuals to violate deeply held beliefs are more than a little mistaken, and more than a little dishonest. . . . No one speaks for all women on these issues. Those who purport to do so are simply attempting to deflect attention from the serious religious liberty issues currently at stake.”

So far, almost 35,000 women have signed the petition. Their related Facebook page is getting 150,000 visits a week.

One of those who signed is Sarah Swafford, director of special projects for Catholic identity at Benedictine College in Atchison.

“When the media says that 95 percent of Catholic women use contraception, apparently they didn’t call me,” said Swafford, “nor the other 50-plus women in my Atchison Bible study group — not to mention the countless college-aged women I’ve encountered at Benedictine College and around the country.”

“I know where [these women] stand on this issue,” she continued. “And I’ve seen their outcry on my Facebook news feed and Twitter. I was proud to sign the petition and join the movement ”

Another archdiocesan Catholic who signed the online petition is Jennie Punswick, a teaching consultant and a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park.

“I’m so very appreciative — as a woman, and a wife, and a mother — of the fantastic leadership the bishops have given us on the [HHS contraception mandate] issue,” she said.

“I’m appreciative of the leadership of the priests from the pulpit,” she continued. “But what was missing was the authentic voice of Catholic women in this discussion. I think that oftentimes [Catholic] women don’t have the same platform to discuss these issues.”

Religious freedom is really what is at stake, she said. And she finds the idea that the church is waging a “war on women” to be deeply insulting.

“I deeply resent being forced on the front lines of this phony war,” she said. “The fact that theses attacks on religious freedom have been launched in the name of women’s equality is absurd.”

Many Catholic women are not well-informed about the church’s teaching and the harmful side effects contraception can have on women’s health, she said. They also don’t know the harmful effects contraception has on marriages, families and society. If they knew, said Punswick, they’d appreciate the church’s teaching.

To Punswick, the HHS contraception and abortifacient mandate doesn’t offer freedom, but coercion.

“I think it has some very scary implications,” she said. “I think the mandate is about limiting religious freedom for people of all faiths, not just Catholics, and it has some terrifying consequences.”

Where we go from here

Women have been sold a lie, said Alvare.

The lie is that women’s freedom equals sexual freedom, unencumbered by a commitment to a man or a relationship with a baby, she said.

Another lie follows the first — namely, that the key to women’s freedom is cheap contraception and easily accessible abortion — for when the contraception fails, of course.

“I am not content in the end to win legally only exemptions for religious institutions, to be free of government mandates of this kind,” said Alvare. “It leaves the taste in people’s mouths that the government is promoting freedom, but allows the church to practice discrimination.”

Alvare wants more. She wants to facilitate a cultural change that will help women discover the truth, to know they are not alone, and to be empowered by that knowledge.

And although the challenge is great, Alvare sees progress. Here and there across the country, women are engaging in many kinds of activities to make their voices heard.

“I correspond with 100 women a week,” said Alvare. “We send out information about what’s happening in the law and what needs to be done locally, material for writing letters to the editor, fact sheets, and points to make with friends and neighbors.”

On the Facebook page, she posts materials they might need — information, articles, and photos of rallies.

“Never underestimate the power of women having the knowledge that other women are doing the same thing,” said Alvare.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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