On October 29, 2015, Mary Rice Hasson and her husband, Seamus, were honored together with the St. John Paul II New Evangelization Award, presented by the Catholic Information Center. This essay is adapted from her remarks upon receiving the award.
A long time ago—when I was in law school—someone gently told me that he thought I had the gift of evangelism. I was horrified. I had a caricature in my head: The only evangelists I knew at that time were Protestants, and they looked a lot like the Bible preacher I encountered on the streets of New York. After my first year of law school, I interned for the summer at a law firm in New York City. Almost every day, I walked past a Bible preacher who stood on a corner near Penn Station, shouting, with a megaphone in one hand and a Bible in the other. It was the worst image you could present to a twenty-something young woman. That was not what I aspired to be.
But things change. About that same time, John Paul II became Pope, and in the ensuing years, we Catholics deeply embraced the truth that we are all evangelists. By virtue of our baptism, we are called to be “evangelical Catholics,” as my colleague George Weigel describes it.
Nearly thirty years ago, Saint Pope John Paul II wrote the Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles Laici (“On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and the World”). He wrote as one who profoundly understood the human person and the culture of his time. He wrote with a clear understanding of the “isms” of the day: communism, materialism, secularism, hedonism, and moral relativism. These “isms” continue to afflict our modern culture. They are the same challenges, by and large, that we face today.
In his Exhortation, John Paul reflected on the role of women in evangelization, saying that women in particular have two great tasks when it comes to evangelization. The first is to bring “full dignity” to the “conjugal life and to motherhood.” The second and related task is that women are called to “assure the moral dimension of culture . . . a culture worthy of the person.”
How Women Are Shaping the Culture
It’s a charge I take very much to heart. And it’s worth asking, nearly thirty years after John Paul II wrote those words, how are we doing? How well are we women shaping the moral dimension of culture? It’s a question we have to answer, because the culture that surrounds us shapes our evangelism. It can’t help but shape it. It shapes “who,” “when,” and “how” we evangelize.
So I found myself asking, as I was thinking about this, if women are to shape the moral dimension of culture, then how is it that women—who will march for peace and campaign against violence, who are all about relationships—how is it that women now champion, as an expression of their personal autonomy, the right to violently end through abortion the most intimate relationship there is—that of a mother and her unborn child? How is it that women, empowered for decades by the mantra of “equality now,” can rant against male privilege and domination and abuse—and yet it is women who drove the novel Fifty Shades of Grey to the top of the bestseller list? It is women who flocked to the theaters by the millions to see a tale romanticizing a woman’s abuse and degradation.
If women are to shape the moral dimension of culture, how is it that women—whose hearts naturally turn to the spiritual—turn now instead to New Age crystals or to some sort of vague spirituality of self, instead of turning to God? And women are raising children who don’t know the vocabulary of belief, much less The Person who loves them incredibly and unconditionally. How is it that young women of today—who deep down truly desire to find a lifelong love—will exult in the “right” to be sexual objects, to claim, as in a recent New York Magazine article, that it’s empowering to pursue meaningless sex, to be used and discarded after a night of hookups? How is it that women, who used to declare “I am woman,” have become so confused about who they are that women cheer when a very confused man named Bruce—wearing a new name, makeup, and manufactured female parts—is named “Woman of the Year” by Glamour magazine?
And how is it that in Ireland—a Catholic country where the faith of Irish mothers is legendary—same-sex marriage was legalized on the power of the mother’s vote? Yes, the advocates of same-sex marriage celebrated that it was the Irish mothers who gave them the victory.
What’s the takeaway here? The takeaway is John Paul II was right: Women do have the power to shape the moral dimension of culture. But it looks like the wrong women have been doing the job. The powers behind all the “isms” out there today realize the power of women—they know that women shape the moral dimension of culture. And the NGOs, governments, foundations, and international organizations know this too. That’s why their campaigns promoting “sexual rights,” abortion, same-sex marriage, and gender ideology target women and adolescent girls. Their slogan? “Empower women, change the world.” Put differently, “Empower women, change the culture.”
The Urgent Work of Catholic Women
So what do we do about that? Here’s the good news: Catholic women have not been idle for the past thirty years. There’s a vibrant generation of women, particularly young women, who are well schooled in their faith, with hearts truly on fire for the Lord. Some of them are already hard at work, some of them are waiting to see where the Lord is calling them, and many more need our support to make a difference. In my work with the Catholic Women’s Forum, I’ve been in contact with hundreds of women leaders—leaders of different apostolates and leaders of efforts that, while secular, support a moral culture. I'm struck by the wide range of efforts that women have undertaken to evangelize the culture—and so often with little support, little fanfare.
Some incredible efforts include Kathleen Eaton Bravo’s Obria Medical Clinics, which provide a full-service alternative to Planned Parenthood; CanaVox, where mothers learn how to reach their peers to support and defend marriage; and ENDOW, a program founded by Terry Polakovic that educates women in parishes about the nature and dignity of women. We see at the same time the brilliant work being done by female theologians—women like Margaret McCarthy of the John Paul II Institute and Sr. Sara Butler, one of the first women on the International Theological Commission. They are contributing greatly to the church’s theological and pastoral thinking. Then we have the leadership of journalists like Kathryn Lopez and legal scholars like Helen Alvaré —they are powerful voices in the culture, speaking up for the dignity of women and the importance of family and religious freedom.
But it’s not enough. We need to do more. We need to amplify within the culture the voices of Catholic women who do support the teachings of the church; women who see the Church’s teachings as the path to women’s happiness, equality, and authentic freedom; who know that women flourish when they live according to the truths of our faith. These are the women whose voices need to shape our culture. These are the women we need to raise up.
Thirty years ago, John Paul II wrote in Christifideles Laici that there’s a particular urgency for the laity to act. He wrote, “If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.” His words, true then, are even more so in our own day. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle. Similarly, Bishop Robert Barron recently wrote, “If intellectually serious believers absent themselves from the wider conversation and retreat to their libraries and classrooms, the public space will belong to the atheists and secularists.”
That’s the challenge we face: to reclaim that public space, to ensure that within our culture faith and virtue have room to grow. So it’s time for men and women within our Church to bring the efforts and the witness of women to the foreground.
Catholic Women’s Secret Weapon
We Catholic women have a secret weapon: we don’t have to be like feminists pretending we’re doing it all by ourselves. We embrace complementarity. We value—and count on—the collaboration of men and women. And that is a secret weapon, because we need the voices and the talents of both men and women in order to make a difference in the culture. Women must be brought to the foreground—but not just for strategic reasons, that is, because women are half the population or because we need women speaking to women or because women can shape the most effective messaging for women.
Women must be front and center in evangelizing the culture because, as a Church, we must live that truth of complementarity. We believe that there’s something of value created when men and women work together, and we know that the Church needs us—men and women—to witness to the love of God in a powerful way, together. And the world needs that witness from us as much, if not more, than it needs the actual work that we do.
John Paul II wrote of women’s specific sensitivity towards the human person. That sensitivity, that focus on relationships, is one reason why women are particularly called to shape the culture. Relationships are so central to the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis calls us to create. And it’s within the culture of encounter that evangelism will flourish.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Pope Francis, who wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation, which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved? To point him out, to make him known?”
In other words, evangelism is nothing to be afraid of. Evangelism is simply introducing our friends to the One we love, to the One who loves us, the One whose love will never fail. If your heart is saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do that,’ then ask God to help you love more, to experience his love more deeply. Because it’s in that deeper love of God—when we see that treasure, when we know his love—that we will discover that we can’t help but want to share it. Introducing others to those we love, and in particularly to our Beloved, God, is something that we women know how to do. We do it all the time in our relationships—we can’t wait to introduce others to people we love.
And so I’m going to take this moment to introduce my husband, Seamus Hasson. But I want to honor him first for something that he might not say himself. I want to honor him for being a man who said “yes” to God, even when he didn’t really know what God was asking. All he knew was that the Lord was saying, “Do this work. Create this religious liberty organization that litigates on behalf of all believers. Do this.” At the time that he was thinking about this, when the Becket Fund was merely an idea, we had no idea where the culture was going to go. None at all. None of us did. The lesson that I tell our kids, and the thing that I would say to you and to honor Seamus, is this: Say yes to the Lord, even when you don’t know—and maybe especially when you don’t know—what comes next. When all you know is that you’ve heard that question, “Will you? Will you serve? Will you do what I ask? Will you go out?” And then say, “Yes.” Seamus, I want to honor you for saying “yes.”
Tomorrow Public Discourse will publish Seamus Hasson’s remarks.
Mary Rice Hasson is a Fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she is the founding director of the Catholic Women’s Forum. She is editor of the book Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity, and the Church.