I didn’t go to Notre Dame, and I don’t watch football. I even sustained a ridiculous injury that required a visit to a hospital emergency room once on the way to speak there.
So, I have no personal-history reason to love the University of Notre Dame, and yet I do. I’ve always had a sisterly concern for the place. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve encountered some great beacons of faith – often centered around the Center for Ethics and Culture.
I figure with Our Lady looking over South Bend, and a basilica dedicated to Jesus’s Sacred Heart, there will always be good there. I see that, for instance, in some of the millennials showing leadership at Notre Dame, even as I disagree now and again with some presidential-level decisions with national implications.
Consider Laura Wolk.
She’s a Notre Dame law student and a Sorin fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture, who’s been blind since near birth. She came to my attention because of a plea she issued to women on campus who applauded Wendy Davis’s recent speech on campus.
Davis, you may remember, became famous during her pink-sneakered filibuster in the Texas statehouse to the kind of abortion bill that could be a place of common ground if activists could stop campaigning for a moment and truly work to help women and, yes, save lives.
Wolk wrote in her op/ed in The Observer there:
“This is my challenge to you, women of Notre Dame: Critically question the dominant cultural narrative that being born a woman means being handicapped by a fertility problem that you must ‘rise up’ against. Listen to that still, soft voice the next time she speaks to your innermost heart, and entertain, even for a moment, the radical belief that, by virtue of your very creation, you are enough. Ask God to reveal your fundamental uniqueness and irreplaceability to you. Pray that He shows you what it means to be truly free, and gives you the strength to pursue it with all your heart. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”
I asked her a few questions about her understanding of Notre Dame, and the Church and women today.
Why did you primarily address your piece to the women who attended Wendy Davis’ talk this week? Why do you care for them so? You don’t know them all, and they don’t agree with you on so much you write about.
My piece was addressed to Notre Dame women, because I empathize with them in a deeply personal way … I embraced modern notions of feminism for a large portion of my teenage and young adult life, including the idea that freedom lies in liberation from our fertility.
Because of that, I understand the feelings of emptiness and isolation that I truly believe many young women today experience but, perhaps, do not express, for fear of betraying the cause or seeming like a bad or inadequate feminist.
My life has changed so drastically since abandoning this conception of femininity. The ability to accept – or at least to begin to accept – the unfathomable and unshakable love that God has for each of His creations, just as He has created them, has allowed me to begin to free myself from attaching my worthiness to some external litmus test such as worldly success or number of dates.
It is the greatest gift that I have ever received and, out of love for the women I see around me struggling with these same insecurities, I want them to have it too.
Why did you find it important to quote Wendy Davis as describing abortion access as “sacred”?
The word “sacred” usually describes something of supreme religious or spiritual significance worthy of a heightened form of veneration or reverence.
Davis’s use of the word sacred thus demonstrates to me just how central abortion access is to her conception of equality and freedom. It also seems indicative of the general trend away from treating abortions as a “safe, legal, and rare” way to assist women in great need.
Now, feminists argue that abortion stands alone as a social good worthy of celebration, which must remain accessible to any woman for any reason at any time.
How does being blind affect your views on abortion? On the disabled? On what Pope Francis describes as a “throwaway culture”?
My blindness has helped me to realize the myth of the individualistic ideology that drives the need for abortion. Individualism basically centers on the idea that everyone has the right both to make choices, and to access whatever might be necessary to make those choices a practical reality.
Emphasizing this so-called decisional and physical autonomy – two quintessentially able-bodied traits – as the bulwark of freedom raises many problems for the disabled.
I absolutely agree that many people with disabilities suffer unduly because of lack of technological resources, social stigma, and other structural inequities that limit their abilities to exert proper agency over their lives. I have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for the dismantling of these structures and for full inclusion for the disabled.
However, it is also true that, even given all the assistive technology in the world, there are some who either will lack these capacities from birth or will lose them through accident. In this sense, the individualistic conception of freedom is extraordinarily under-inclusive and shallow, because it defines out so much of what it means to be human.
There’s a quote by Jacques Maritain that I love: “Every man is a man in his very essence, but no man is man in essence, that is, exhausts in himself all the riches of the various perfections of which humankind is capable.”
I think that encapsulates basically what I mean here. There’s something that every single person, even the most severely disabled, can teach us about what it means to be human. There’s also something prideful in assuming that the qualities possessed most readily by the majority represent the apex of flourishing and success.
We will lose, and are losing, something very rich from the tapestry of the human experience by deciding on a societal level that whole classes of people do not warrant the right to life because we deem them valueless or, worse, a net negative.
What do you want to be better appreciated about what the Catholic Church teaches about women?
When I first started coming back to the Church, I had two very erroneous understandings of how she treated women.
First, I believed that the Church did not have a place for a woman like me, who prefers to debate and advocate in the public square rather than engage in more introspective and “traditional” feminine activities such as baking, sewing, and raising a family.
Second, I assumed that all of the women who did fit into that mold were meek, pushover doormats completely subject to the control of their more powerful male influences.
Both of these are horrendous misconstructions of reality, that I wish more women understood and took time to explore.
Imagine my disbelief when I began to discover Catholic saints with traits like St. Joan of Arc’s extraordinary courage in battle, St. Catherine of Siena’s willingness to “speak truth to power,” St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross’s formidable intellect, St. Gianna Molla’s integration of motherhood and the medical profession, and so on and so on.
Not only did the Church have a place for a woman like me, but she held them up as laudable examples of virtue, holiness, and authentic femininity.
As I began to befriend more Catholic women, I also realized that my conception of the “domestic dormouse” could not have been more off the mark. I came to see that women who pursued vocations that principally concerned the domestic life, or that might not attract the attention of the limelight, were no less courageous, compassionate, and strong.
I have learned so much from the mothers who joyfully serve as everything from psychologist to artist, doctor to chef, teacher to friend, as they nurture their families with a seemingly endless stream of energy and love.
The marriages I have come to witness that are built on true equality do not demean the wife and daughters by turning them into glorified servants. Rather, they recognize the indispensability and absolute equality of a woman’s role in the success of the family and society, and afford her respect accordingly.
So, I would give two pieces of advice to women critical of the Catholic view.
First, instead of reading about the oppressive plight of the Catholic woman, go meet and befriend some. Ask a Catholic wife and mom to coffee, or offer to baby-sit her children. Don’t take what the media says at face value, but challenge it empirically for yourself.
Second, pick up a book on the female saints. Keep an open mind, and see if you just can’t find a woman who seems to be everything you strive to emulate.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author, with Austen Ivereigh, of the revised edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice (available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com).