A Different Brand of Liberated Woman; Religion; Election-Year Focus on Catholic Women Highlights the Countercultural Appeal of Female Saints; OTHER VIEWS

By Campbell, Colleen Carroll | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Different Brand of Liberated Woman; Religion; Election-Year Focus on Catholic Women Highlights the Countercultural Appeal of Female Saints; OTHER VIEWS


Campbell, Colleen Carroll, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Thanks to President Barack Obama's contraceptive mandate and Catholic concerns about its impact on religious liberty, Catholic women have emerged as this year's most coveted and scrutinized swing voters. At last week's Democratic National Convention, they heard copious testimonials about Obama's pro-woman credentials. Particularly pointed were the appeals from Caroline Kennedy, who invoked her Catholic faith while slamming abortion restrictions supported by the U.S. bishops, and activist nun Sr. Simone Campbell of NETWORK, who became famous this year for blasting the Vatican in the wake of a doctrinal assessment that faulted her organization for failing to faithfully represent Catholic teaching.

The convention's impact on Catholic women voters remains to be seen. But its constant repetition of righteously indignant references to "women's rights" and "choice" reinforced the dominant cultural narrative that a woman's freedom is defined primarily by what she rejects: unwanted children, outmoded ideas about the importance and meaning of marriage and retrograde religious doctrines that call her to subordinate her desires to the demands of others. Shared sacrifice is fine in the form of a more progressive tax code, it seems; but when applied to decisions such as whether to welcome a baby whose conception was unplanned, calls to self- sacrifice are an invitation to oppression.

To be fair, this negative view of freedom is not only the province of Democratic partisans or abortion-rights activists. It is the default view in America today, one that confronts Catholic women at every turn in their lives. When making decisions about love and sex, marriage and motherhood, careers and care for aging parents, the message we hear from our popular culture is the same one, in muted form, that we heard from the podium in Charlotte. Strong, joyful and liberated Catholic women do exist, we are told, but such women generally achieve freedom in spite of their church and its traditions, not because of them.

For many women in my generation, that message is so familiar that any examples to the contrary are perceived as shocking, scandalous - and more than a little intriguing. That was certainly my reaction during my college days when, bored with the campus party scene and dissatisfied by the stifling materialism of the secular feminist philosophers I was studying, I cracked open a biography of St. Teresa of Avila. The life story of this 16th-century Carmelite mystic, writer and reformer immediately grabbed my attention.

I was struck by the way Teresa combined steadfast fidelity to Catholic teachings with fearless determination to call her fellow Catholics to repentance, despite the personal and political costs. …

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