"Where are the women?"
This was the persistent -- but lazy and disingenuous -- cry after the House Oversight Committee began a hearing with an all-male panel over the Obama administration's health-care mandate that would force Catholic organizations to pay for health insurance that would provide contraception, sterilization and abortion procedures to non-Catholic employees.
One answer to the question was yards away, as Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, (R-N.Y.) a former nurse, questioned the panel that very day. And the answer was evident to me just days before, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.
Young women there invited me, among others, to speak about the "vulnerability" of all created things at their seventh annual Edith Stein Project conference. Stein, a canonized saint, was killed at Auschwitz after a career as a Carmelite sister, philosopher and university professor. The young women of Notre Dame view her as a role model of the intellectual and spiritual life.
The conference took as its touchstone a quote from Pope John Paul II: "No amount of economic, scientific, or social progress can eradicate our vulnerability to sin and to death." In conference materials, the undergraduates commented: "This gives us good reason to guard ourselves carefully in situations where we could be harmed; however, in trying to protect ourselves, we often come to fear our vulnerability."
These young women -- who were joined by many of their male classmates -- were interested not in political mantras but in practicalities: How do we confront reality rather than come up with policies and pills that try to escape the inescapable?
The task of the weekend conference was to ask, as the gals put it: "If vulnerability is intrinsic to us as human beings, is there a proper place for it in our identity and our relationships?"
In his second epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote, "It is when I am weak that I am strong." The exploration of the "defenseless vulnerability of love" is a weekly task at Notre Dame as part of the Identity Project, a weekly gathering in which students reflect on Catholic Church teachings on women, femininity and masculinity.
The conference and related weekly meetings attract almost as many young men as women, inasmuch as their discussions are about the complementary nature of the two genders. "Women and men have to understand femininity and masculinity if they are going to relate to one another in any kind of healthy way," Margaret Kennedy, a junior accounting major, reflects.