Bishop's Column

Women’s rights are human rights

Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of women gathered for marches and demonstrations across the country, organized to proclaim that “women’s rights are human rights.”

No Catholic can dispute that claim. Women are created in the image of God, with dignity and beauty, and are deserving of the respect, honor, and appreciation afforded to every human person. And women suffer great injustices and indignities in places around the world, none of which should be tolerable for Christians. The Church should be the first to call for just, honorable, and loving treatment for every woman, at every stage of her life.

But the women’s marches organized last week, however well-intentioned, had a troubling approach to their advocacy. The marches tended towards an approach which plagues many movements in contemporary political and social life—they fostered a narrative of opposition, in which men and women are cast as adversaries, each grasping for the reins of power, instead of seeking unity, complementarity, mutual support, respect, and charity. Moreover, the marches seemed to embrace a kind of crudity which robs women of their true identity. There seemed to be a focus on crass slogans and symbols, replacing the beauty of femininity with an unbecoming, hard-edged vulgarity. This vulgarity was, in some cases, a response to intolerable and unacceptable crudities cast at women, most notably by our new president—but it should be clear that both his words and many responses were simply beneath our human dignity.

Finally, the women’s marches last week embraced the lie that legal protection for abortion promotes women’s dignity. In fact, abortion undermines the rights of women to life, to respect, and to freedom.

(Related item: Bishop Conley's column "Building a Culture of Life")

The early American feminists—women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul—began a movement rooted in Christian morality, and pro-life convictions. Alice Paul, who wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, taught that “abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women,” through which men escape responsibility for their own choices, and use economic and social power to impose harmful choices on women. Sadly, the organizers of last weekend’s marches seem to have embraced the lie of abortion, without ever recognizing its danger.

While watching media coverage of the women’s marches, I saw a sign I greatly appreciated. A young girl held a poster with a picture of a mother and a daughter, next to the words “without a woman, you wouldn’t be here.” That sign reflects a true feminism, which recognizes that women, through whom every single person comes into the world, are deserving of the highest respect.

The Church, in our veneration of the Blessed Mother, has always recognized that women are critical to the salvation of the world, and to every single human family. Women and men, created complementary to one another, reflect the image of God.

Motherhood is an extraordinary part of the role of women in the life of the world. But, in a 2004 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church teaches that “this does not mean that women should be considered from the sole perspective of physical procreation.” Instead, our faith teaches that the genius of women is a “capacity for the other,” a “deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other.”

Women, the Church teaches, have “a sense and a respect for what is concrete,” and “a singular capacity to persevere in adversity, to keep life going even in extreme situations, to hold tenaciously to the future, and finally to remember with tears the value of every human life.”

We all depend on the feminine genius. The Church teaches that “femininity is more than simply an attribute of the female sex,” it is “the fundamental human capacity to live for the other and because of the other.” 

Men and women, who are created different, bring unique perspectives and approaches to family life, to culture and politics, and to the workplace. Both women and men are essential to the welfare of our families, our Church, and our communities. The Church teaches that, for this reason, “women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.”

To achieve a just society, we must work to make it possible for women to be welcomed in leadership and collaboration in all areas of life, and all communities. This requires policies which respect the role of women in the workplace and in the family, which ensure that women who devote the totality of their time to their families are not stigmatized or financially penalized, and which ensure that women in the workplace are not penalized or excluded because of their obligations to their families and children.

Women’s rights are, indeed, human rights. This essentially includes the right of all women to life, and the right for women to live without the coercion or exploitation of abortion. It includes the right of women to participate in social and economic leadership, and their right to do so without unjust personal or family costs. God did not create men and women to vie for power, to be at odds with one another, to be mistrustful or defensive. He created men and women, in His image, for unity, respect, support, and love. May each of us work for that unity, in our hearts, in our families, and in our world.

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Bishop Conley

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