"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.
For all the criticism that Notre Dame has received for having given the president an honorary degree at its 2009 commencement, there is something different happening here in the wake of the health care controversy. One of the first people I heard from after the president's weak charade of accommodation to the religious outcry was law professor Carter Snead, who organized a letter declaring the president's position "unacceptable" -- a letter that hundreds of academics and other leaders have signed.
The young men and women of the Stein Project have no illusions about the challenges they face on campus and beyond. "I understand that I am not living my life for myself," Kennedy tells me. "And I am making choices that reflect that." Confronting vulnerability is at the top of the list. "What we typically think of as a negative is actually a positive," she says: Feminism typically dictates that "we're not allowed to be vulnerable, but we cannot escape that vulnerability. By hiding ourselves from it, we don't actually escape it."
"Contraception," she worries, "is but a mask" that covers our vulnerabilities. It's like alcohol, she notes: "a way not to confront our fears or take responsibility for our actions."
Claire Gillen, a history major graduating in May, is getting married to her high-school sweetheart that same month. "Adults, especially, tell me I'm too young, (that) I should be established in a career," she says. But as for her fellow students: "Honestly, I know very few people who don't want to get married. They're happy to see someone truly happy," she says. They are tired of forced war-of-the-sexes hostilities.
In reality, the answer to the question: "Where are the women?" -- was: on the following panel. Those who asked the question loudest, in an act of political showmanship, didn't stick around long enough to meet Dr. Laura Champion, who runs Calvin College's medical services. And the more long-term answer is: They are the young leaders at Notre Dame, who have a lot to teach those who have been suppressing or denying reality for all too long about who we are and what we need and want.