Address to the Catholic Daughters of America
D.C., 23 OCT. 2003 (ZENIT).
Archbishop Charles Chaput gave this address on the role of women in
building a culture of life. His remarks delivered Sunday were the
Centennial Lecture of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, at the
Catholic University of America.
Work and Family: The Role of Women in Building a Culture of Life
Archbishop Charles Chaput
I want to talk about women today. So naturally I'm going to start by
talking about men not because they're more important than women, but
because they're not.
Back in June I had the pleasure of viewing an early version of Mel
Gibson's new movie, "The Passion of Christ." It's really a
wonderful film. I hope all of you will see it and bring others to see it
although I need to warn you that it's not for young children. It's
too real and too violent.
But it's also very moving. I saw it with five other men, just a small
group in a small room. When the movie ended, it took at least a minute
for anybody to say anything. The emotions were so strong that none of us
could come up with the right words.
Now as a bishop, I talk about Jesus a lot, so I began to wonder why this
one film had affected me so deeply. I began to notice that other men who
saw the film had the same experience. I've known a lot of faithful
Catholic men in my life. But I know a lot more who don't know how to
articulate their faith, and many others who simply delegate the
"religion thing" off to their wives and daughters. "The
Passion of Christ" does something unusual to men. Some can't get
the film out of their head for weeks after seeing it. And now I think I
know why. There are two reasons.
A lot of us grow up with a mental picture of Jesus that's really very
strange. It doesn't correspond to his reality at all. Some of us tend to
imagine Jesus as either an unearthly miracle-maker or a vaguely
effeminate holy man. We don't know how to resolve who Christ is. We
believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. We say that publicly at
every Sunday Mass in the Creed. But we have nothing to look at to help
us see what that means.
I think one reason men remember "The Passion of Christ" is
because Jim Caviezel who gives just an astonishing performance
shows us Jesus as someone who is absolutely real, both in the divinity
of his person, and in the humanity of his nature, friendships and
suffering. And that manliness of Jesus, that heroism, is something men
can respect and love and want to follow.
But of course, manliness and heroism don't exist in a vacuum. They're
shaped by many things, but especially by examples of courage. They're
formed by a daily, intimate experience of love, with all the little
moments of joy and sorrow, teasing, correction and encouragement that
are part of real life. And that's the second reason why men remember
"The Passion of Christ." Not every man has a wife or sisters,
but almost every man has the memory of his mother's unconditional love.
Every man knows in his heart that the best of what he is comes through
his parents, and especially from his mother. And what Maya Morgenstern
shows us so movingly as Mary in "The Passion of Christ" is how
the love of a mother touched the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus shared
exactly the same moments of maternal tenderness and humor that every son
In our piety sometimes we tend to think of Mary as a "means to an
end," the vehicle God used to bring his son into the world. But God
chose Mary not to "use" her like an instrument, but because he
loved her. He saw in her the beauty and character of a woman who would
freely and lovingly shape his son into the man he needed to be. We can't
understand Jesus outside the love of his mother, any more than we can
understand ourselves outside the experience of our families.
When we listen to the Sermon of Jesus on the Mount "Blessed are
you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours" (Luke 6:20)
we're also hearing Mary: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the
Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior ... [for] he has lifted up the
lowly; the hungry he has filled with good things, while the rich he has
sent away empty" (Luke 1:46-47, 52-53). Out of the faith and the
flesh of Mary, the woman, God fashions the Redeemer of the world.
Without Mary, there is no story of redemption. Without Mary, the woman
of faith, there is no Jesus, the Son of God.
Over the last few months, I've wondered many times why a film like
"The Passion of Christ" would trigger so much controversy even
before it gets to the theaters. Maybe you've heard about it in the
media. One allegation against the film is anti-Semitism, which is a very
serious sin. The Jewish community has good reason to always be alert for
it. As Catholics, we need to understand and respect that concern. And we
need to do everything we can to resist any prejudice against the Jewish
But having seen the film, I don't think anything in "The Passion of
Christ" qualifies as anti-Semitism. I think that secular hostility
to the film comes from something deeper and more inarticulate than any
worries about religious prejudice. We might even track the source of
that hostility to one particular moment in the film that every Christian
already knows, whether we've seen the movie or not.
Near the very end of "The Passion of Christ," soldiers take
the body of Jesus down from the cross. They place him in the arms of his
Mother. It's an image we all remember from the 13th Station of the
Cross, and from Michelangelo's great sculpture, the Pietΰ. And we're
left with a picture of a man who out of love has accepted
betrayal, beatings, humiliation and death on the cross; and a woman who
out of love has stayed with him as he suffered and died, and who
now cradles her dead son in her arms, in the same way she held him as an
I think we find the greatness of Mary right here, in this moment. She's
lost everything. She's an image of humiliation and powerlessness. But
she's also a picture of what Job meant when he said, "Though [God]
slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15). Mary's kind of faith
is unreasonable. Mary's kind of love is too deep, too strong and too
unselfish and it offends the pride of the modern world.
The reason the secular world hates films like "The Passion of
Christ" is because they persuade the heart with the logic of love.
The reason the secular world seeks to reinvent or reinterpret Mary is
because she's dangerous. She's the model of mature human character a
human being who co-creates a new world not through power, but through
unselfish love, faith in God, and the rejection of power.
That kind of witness goes against the spirit that dominates our world
the immaturity and selfishness in our personal consumption, our
politics and our workplaces, and even within our families. Andrι
Malraux once asked a priest to name the single biggest lesson he had
learned from hearing confessions. Without skipping a heartbeat the
priest said, "There are no grown-up people."
The struggle for power is what the modern world is all about. It really
doesn't take very long to go from Francis Bacon saying, "Knowledge
is power"; to Napoleon Bonaparte saying, "I love power. But I
love it as an artist. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw
on its sounds and chords and harmonies"; to Josef Stalin saying,
"One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
Just read the newspapers. The result of our immaturity and selfishness
at every level of American daily life is a competition that breeds an
anger that breeds violence the violence of open warfare; of
religious terrorism; of unjust wages and unjust immigration policies; of
simply putting our own comfort above the needs of others; the violence
of abuse and infidelity between spouses; and even the polite violence of
the language we use to smooth over the killing of new life.
On Oct. 8, the Associated Press reported that "a new combination of
blood tests and ultrasound can detect fetuses with Down syndrome sooner,
and more accurately, than standard U.S. screening tests, offering women
more peace of mind and more time to decide whether to end a
pregnancy." The article quoted one researcher as saying that,
"The absolute biggest advantage is that this allows women to make
private decisions" before they're visibly pregnant.
Peace of mind and the power to decide are good things, but not if the
price tag is a human life. Children with Down syndrome are not a mistake
or a failure. Imagining them that way only reveals our own lack of
humanity. A friend of mine who's the mother of a son with a disability
likes to say that the only difference between German doctors in the
1930s and some of our own medical establishment today is that now we
have better PR firms. The hostility to human weakness, the anger at
human imperfection, is exactly the same now, as it was then.
Children with Down syndrome are children of God. They can live happy and
fruitful lives. They give far more love back to their parents than they
ever take. And because they belong first to God, killing them can never
be a "private decision." It always has wider consequences
beginning with the grief of the mother. It's the woman who bears the
spiritual cost of an abortion. Not the doctor, not the researcher, and
too often, not even the father. That's the lie in sanitized language
like "peace of mind" and "private decision." The
mother always bears the cost, because every mother is always a part of
I've spoken a lot, over the years, about our culture of selfishness
the unrest that forces us to keep feeding our appetites to prove that we
control the world around us but it bears repeating here, because our
immaturity and self-absorption have created four big problems.
The first problem is our inability to reason. Reasoning takes time. It
needs a vocabulary of ideas. Reasoning forces us to test and compare
competing arguments. But the America we live in today is a culture built
on marketing, and marketing works in just the opposite way. Marketing
feeds our desires and emotions, and it suppresses critical thought,
because thinking gets in the way of buying the product or the message.
That's why marketing is tied so tightly to images like fast cars on
an empty road. Images work on our appetites, quickly and very
effectively, at the subconscious level.
Here's a second problem: our inability to remember. The historian
Christopher Lasch once said that Americans are a people stranded in the
present moment. We like nostalgia, because it's a kind of entertainment.
But we really don't like history because the past as it really
happened burdens us with all sorts of unfinished business. It's a
pain in the neck. History imposes obligations on the present, but
Americans prefer to think that we invent ourselves, and that anything is
possible. The result is that Americans usually have a very poor grasp of
history, and we learn too little, too late, from the lessons of the
The third problem is our inability to imagine and hope. Americans like
immediate results. We're practical. We're very good at making money, and
we're very, very good at science and technology. But technology always
comes with a price. Edward Tenner called this the "revenge of
unintended consequences." And one of the unintended consequences of
our science is that we're now the victims of our own power.
When Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua retired earlier this month, I had the
privilege of succeeding him as interim chair of the bishops' Pro-Life
Activities Committee. And one of my first jobs was reviewing a proposed
letter to congressional leaders that objected to granting patents on
human beings and embryos. Thirty years ago, "manufacturing" a
human person was unimaginable. Now it's plausible. Now it's in the
neighborhood, and what's worse, we've lost the moral vocabulary to deal
with it. We've forgotten how to talk about the soul, and why the human
person is more than just another animal or product.
Hope and imagination flow out of a belief in a higher purpose to our
lives. If we're nothing more than very intelligent carbon atoms, then
hope and imagination are just quirks of our species. They don't really
mean anything. And any talk about the "sanctity of the human
person" is just a lot of beautiful but empty words.
The fourth and final problem is our inability to live real freedom.
Freedom is more than an endless supply of choices. Choice for its own
sake is just another form of idolatry. Real freedom is the ability to
see and the courage to do what's right. But when we begin to
doubt that right and wrong exist, we also lose our ability to talk about
things like freedom, truth and the sanctity of the human person in a
What we get instead of freedom is a kind of anarchy of pressure groups
and personal agendas held together by just one thing: the economy we all
share ... and that's not the basis of a community or even a good
conversation. In fact our economy, more than anything else in modern
life, teaches us to see almost everything as an object to be bought or
sold. This is what Jeremy Rifkin means when he describes American
culture as more and more a "paid-for experience" based on the
commodification of passion, ideals, relationships and even time. If we
want freedom, we buy it by purchasing this car or that computer. If we
want romance, we buy it by purchasing this cruise or that hotel package.
The trouble is, the more that our advertising misuses the language of
our dreams and ideals to sell consumer goods ... the more confused our
dreams and ideals become. We trick ourselves to the point where we no
longer recognize what real love, honest work, freedom, truth, family,
patriotism and even life itself look like.
This is the world American women face in 2003. And they have two ways to
deal with it. The first is to compete head on with men for a piece of
the power. That means beating men at their own game. And of course, the
record of the last 50 years shows that women have all of the same
intellectual skills as men and many of the same physical abilities. In
some areas, even in the military, women clearly outperform men.
But there's a catch. There's a cost. The price tag of this kind of
"equality" too often means denying the differences between
women and men. It can mean being just as competitive and aggressive as
men. It can mean putting career first. It can mean fearing the things
that make up the feminine genius the acts that make women, women.
That's why so much of today's secular feminism hates fertility. That's
why abortion and contraception are such important secular icons, even
though they attack human sexuality at its roots. Fertility is seen as a
weakness. Children mean taking responsibility for somebody else.
Children mean or should mean that a woman will depend on the
love of a husband. And that's frightening, because too many men today
never learned how to be men.
This kind of false "equality" doesn't work because it tries to
escape who we are. It makes us look at and interpret the world through a
broken piece of glass. Germans in the 1930s looked at everything through
the lens of race. Marx saw the world through the lens of class struggle.
And now we have a generation of new thinkers making exactly the same
mistake, not with some bad racial or economic theory as their lens, but
Not one of these tools for understanding human experience works. All of
them always lead to somebody suffering. The reason is pretty simple. We
can't explain the human person without including God in the
conversation. And God has something to say to us about ourselves, both
in Scripture and through his Church.
Genesis tells us that, "God created man in his own image, in the
image of God he created him; male and female he created them"
(Genesis 1:27). That one simple truth about the equality of men and
women flows through 4,000 years of faith. Sometimes we've forgotten it.
Many times we haven't lived it well. But it underpins all of Catholic
culture so strongly that even Christianity's greatest enemies have seen
In 1665, right at the peak of Muslim conquest in Europe, a Turkish
writer and diplomat Evliya Celebi visited Vienna. In his report
home he wrote:
"In this country I saw a most extraordinary spectacle. Whenever the
emperor meets a woman in the street, if he is riding, he brings his
horse to a standstill and lets her pass. If the emperor is on foot and
meets a woman, he stands in a posture of politeness. The woman greets
the emperor, who then takes his hat off his head to show respect for the
woman. After the woman has passed, the emperor continues on his way. In
this country and in general in the land of the [Christians], women have
the main say. They are honored and respected out of love for Mother
Bernard Lewis, the great Middle East scholar, once said that the status
of women is the single most profound difference between Christian and
Muslim civilization. He noted that early "Muslim visitors to Europe
[spoke] with astonishment, often with horror ... of the incredible
freedom [and] deference" shown to Western women.
Of course, that little history lesson doesn't do a lot for women
experiencing bias or mistreatment right here, right now. But it does
show us two things.
First, no movement, ideology, political party or institution anywhere,
in any country, can match the Christian faith in promoting the dignity
of women. And second, women should always turn to the Church as their
mother and defender, because in her arms, in her strength, they can
begin to re-humanize the world.
People who criticize the Church for not ordaining women to the
priesthood ignore her record of promoting the dignity of women. They
also misunderstand the nature of the Church herself, the sacramental
nature of the priesthood and the Christian understanding of equality
based on different but complementary gifts from God.
Pope Paul VI once said that, "Within Christianity, more than in any
other religion and since its very beginning, women have had a special
dignity." The Closing Message of the Second Vatican Council said
that, "The hour is coming, in fact has already come, when the
vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness; the hour in
which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power
never hitherto achieved."
What that influence means and how that power is used those are the
questions that every woman in this audience will help answer.
"Man and woman he created them." God made men and women equal
but different for a reason to love each other, to help and complete
and depend on each other in the family and in the world. The genius of
women is different from the genius of men. Every few months I visit my
mother in Kansas, and each time it's a little more difficult because
she's 93 now, and I know I won't have her for much longer. But even now
I can still look in her eyes, and beneath all the age and the cares and
the memories, I can still see the young woman my father loved, and why
he loved her.
Women express their genius through mercy, patience, endurance and
forgiveness a hunger to embrace and protect what Edith Stein
described as the "living, personal and whole." But they also
have a realism that comes from the labor of bearing new life. I think
women, better than men, know what's true and important about the world.
Sigrid Undset, the great Norwegian woman writer, once said that,
"Facts may be true, but they are not truths just as wooden
crates or fence posts or doors or furniture are not 'wood' in the same
way a forest is, since it consists of the living and growing material
from which these things are made." Men usually understand the facts
of their daily life. But I think women more easily see the truth of the
people and the relationships hidden behind the facts.
The genius of every woman is to love; to protect and nourish the lives
entrusted to her; and to support the full development of life in others.
It's the same whether you're a mother, or a consecrated religious, or a
woman who lives the single vocation. It was true for Dorothy Day in all
of her political organizing. Day once described her radicalism as
"works of mercy." And in converting to the Catholic faith she
said, "I loved, [and] like all women in love, I wanted to be united
to my love." The genius for love is written on the heart of every
woman, and it's the same whether you're a teacher or lawyer, a scientist
St. Teresa of Avila, one of the great doctors of the Church and the
intellectual equal of any man of her day, reminded herself and her
Carmelite sisters every morning to, "Accustom yourself continually
to many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul." Teresa
knew what was true and important. Women who love well become real women.
And in becoming real women, they draw men into being true men.
When the Catholic Daughters of the Americas began 100 years ago, the
world was a very different place. As I was browsing through my copy of
"A Century in Review" which is a wonderful history of the
Daughters, and if you don't have a copy, I hope you can get one I
was struck by the character I found in so many of the faces of the women
who have led and served the Daughters over the years.
These were strong, intelligent women. They deeply loved their faith.
Each of their lives was a seed that bore fruit in service to the Church,
defense of the family, religious education, help for the poor, support
for the missions in other words, in almost every form of Catholic
apostolic action in the world. Their legacy now belongs to this assembly
today. And believe me, the Church needs you. Mother Church needs
Catholic Daughters. And the world urgently needs the witness of Catholic
women because the next 100 years will be even more challenging than
For each of us, the future belongs to the plan of God. He made each of
us different to do different parts of his work, and to be saints by
different paths. Earlier today Pope John Paul II beatified another
Teresa, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and I think in her understanding of
love the same unconditional love Mary had at the foot of the cross
we can end our words and begin our actions.
Blessed Teresa said, "Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta.
Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are
in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and
in your schools. ... You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you
have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who
are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society
completely forgotten, completely left alone."
So beginning here, today, right now, may God grant us the courage to be
the women and men he created us to be. May God grant us the courage to