December 23, 2022 marked a critical day for the emergency contraceptive levonorgestrel, more commonly known as Plan B. Since it was brought to the market, Plan B’s mechanism of action (MOA) has been the subject of much debate. The manufacturers of Plan B have long claimed that its primary MOA is delaying ovulation, thereby preventing pregnancy by ensuring that sperm and egg cannot come into contact. However, at the time of FDA approval in 1999, additional mechanisms for preventing pregnancy could not be ruled out – including those that would lead to an abortion. As a result, the possibility of an abortive mechanism has been indicated on Plan B’s drug label, making it a subject of controversy in the pro life community. However, after reviewing an application by Foundation Consumer Healthcare (the makers of Plan B), the FDA approved a change to the drug’s labeling material, removing abortion as a potential MOA for the first time since the drug’s initial approval.
Please read with discretion: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and abortion.
Could Changes to Plan B’s Drug Label Impact Catholic Healthcare for Victims of Sexual Assault?
According to the Decisional Memorandum, “Data are strong for a mechanism of action of delay or prevention of ovulation, and data are weak to speculative regarding any postovulatory mechanistic effects, such as on fertilization or implantation.” The Memorandum also contains a summary of the research submitted to the review team and of the team’s interpretation of that research. The FDA updated the Plan B information page on their website to state, in no uncertain terms, that in their professional opinion, Plan B is not an abortifacient.
For the majority of Catholics, the change in Plan B’s drug label does not have a particular impact. Because Plan B and generic forms of levonorgestrel are contraceptive, it is not permissible for Catholics to use within the context of consensual sexual encounters. As stated in the USCCB Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, “Just as the marriage act is joined naturally to procreation, so procreation is joined naturally to the marriage act.”
However, when it comes to contraception use there is one critical exception: instances of sexual assault.
Directive 36 of the same USCCB document states, “Compassionate and understanding care should be given to a person who is the victim of sexual assault. . . . A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault.” Because sexual assault is not a consensual, unifying act, emergency contraception (EC) is permissible.
The USCCB document goes on to clarify that “if, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.” In other words, a method that prevents conception – but does not cause an abortion – may be used to treat a victim of assault.
Because the MOA of Plan B included the possibility of abortive action, its applicability for treating victims of assault according to the USCCB directive has, to date, been unclear. As a result, Catholic healthcare settings have differed in their policies regarding its use.
A 2005 nationwide survey of Catholic hospitals revealed that, of the 597 hospitals surveyed, 23% said that they would provide EC only to assault victims and 55% said that they would not provide EC under any circumstance. In order to mitigate the possibility of the drug having an abortive effect, other Catholic hospitals implement the “appropriate testing” prerogative in the USCCB directive by developing protocols to test for pregnancy or ovulation prior to dispensing Plan B. These protocols are not universally applied, however, as individual hospitals decide which protocols to use and how.
The FDA’s assessment of Plan B’s MOA has the potential to provide needed clarity in understanding the drug’s applicability to caring for victims of assault. If this new assessment is accepted by Catholic physicians, this would open the door to creating a standard of care for such cases within Catholic healthcare.
However, this outcome appears, at present, unlikely.
Many Catholic Physicians Remain Uncertain About the MOA of Plan B
As new studies exploring Plan B’s MOA have been published, the predominant interpretation among the authors has been that Plan B is not an abortifacient.
Studies of Plan B’s efficacy in preventing ovulation (its proposed primary mechanism), as well as studies of endometrial lining and hormonal changes following Plan B administration, led those scientists to the conclusion that Plan B acts by inhibiting or preventing ovulation, but would not affect a baby’s implantation in the uterus if conception did occur. In assessing the scientific literature, the FDA came to the same conclusion.
However, several Catholic physicians have voiced concerns over these studies, highlighting the studies’ limitations and offering alternative interpretations. One 2017 analysis of the scientific literature, published in the journal for the Catholic Medical Association (CMA), asserts that Plan B may not be as effective at preventing ovulation as it is marketed to be, and that it may indeed cause changes that would impact a pregnancy post-fertilization (i.e. that there is a possibility of having an abortive effect). A 2014 publication written by Dr. Kathleen Raviele, an OB/GYN and former president of CMA, emphasized that Plan B’s effectiveness at delaying ovulation is greatly diminished in the 1 to 2 days immediately prior to ovulation – calling to question whether the pregnancy prevention rate of 7 out of 8 women (as stated on the Plan B website) can be fully accounted for by ovulation delay.
Because of these lingering questions, the CMA issued a statement in 2015 that, as an association, it does not recommend Plan B for use as EC in cases of rape. The FDA’s decision to change Plan B’s drug label has not changed that opinion.
In an interview with Dr. Raviele, she explained that “[t]he FDA did not make that decision based on any new research” that fully addressed the CMA’s concerns. The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) released a statement in February of this year, echoing Dr. Raviele’s words. The NCBC said that “the FDA did not address all factors relevant to how LNG-EC can impact human life after fertilization” and that the organization would “maintain its longstanding position that Catholic health care institutions and professionals should ensure with moral certitude (that is, by excluding any reasonable doubts), at a minimum, that LNG-EC [Plan B] is not dispensed when it could not prevent ovulation but may well cause the death of an embryo.”
Notably, Catholic physicians may not be completely united in the CMA’s assessment of Plan B’s MOA.
Regarding the 2015 CMA statement, Dr. Raviele stated, “I can guarantee that many members may not agree with it . . . but the CMA has always been faithful to the Magisterium and this statement is in keeping with our mission.”
A 2022 publication in the CMA journal also argued that Catholic hospitals’ differing policies towards Plan B administration demonstrate that “reasonable disagreement exists among thoughtful Catholics on this issue.” In a follow up interview on this article, author Dr. Brummett elaborated on this thought, saying, “Whether there is ‘sufficient’ scientific evidence to ‘establish’ that [Plan B] has no abortive MOA depends upon what one believes to be at stake ethically speaking. For example, if you have heartburn, and I offer you a home remedy that I have seen work in a few friends, you might be open to trying it on the basis of that anecdotal evidence. However, if one believes that abortion is the murder of an innocent human life and therefore absolutely evil, then one's standard for ‘scientific proof’ might be very difficult, or even impossible, to meet. One might always demand another study, on another population, under another set of conditions in order to be satisfied.” Because further clinical studies would also be considered unethical to Catholics, differences in opinion in Catholic healthcare over Plan B’s MOA may never be fully settled.
While Plan B May Not be Universally Adopted in Catholic Healthcare, Other Avenues of Care are Available
While Plan B may not be able to be universally adopted in Catholic healthcare settings, it is still possible for Catholic physicians to provide compassionate care for victims of assault.
In the CMA 2022 article, Dr. Brummett and his colleagues argue that individual physicians should be allowed to follow their own conscience, calling for “Catholic leadership at hospitals that prohibit emergency contraception for rape victims to accommodate physicians who wish to provide levonorgestrel as a matter of conscience.” Permitting physicians within a Catholic hospital setting to draw their own conclusions from the scientific literature and to make care decisions accordingly has the potential to help resolve the conflict.
However, Dr. Raviele explained that one caveat to this approach is ensuring that physicians are able to balance their interpretation of scientific literature with ethical decision making. As she puts it, “The most important thing is that the physician’s conscience is well formed, and in many cases a physician’s conscience is not well formed.” As an alternative for physicians in Catholic hospitals that do not dispense Plan B, Dr. Raviele also suggested conducting a conscientious referral to a pharmacy, where Plan B is available over-the-counter.
Dr. Raviele’s 2014 article also highlighted another potential treatment option for victims of assault, which may have a higher certainty of preventing conception without causing abortion if taken before ovulation. Meloxicam, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), is a partially selective COX-2 inhibitor and an effective anovulant, preventing ovulation in 91% of women according to a 2010 study. A 2022 study also demonstrated no significant difference in endometrial line striping, indicating that implantation may not be significantly affected. Scientific exploration of meloxicam as an EC method remains preliminary. Nevertheless, it may be worth exploring as an alternative.
For Catholic Doctors, Providing Compassionate Care to Victims of Assault is a “Landmine of Conscience”
For Catholic doctors, providing compassionate, conscientious care to victims of sexual assault often calls for making difficult decisions between opposing goods. It involves looking carefully at the science of the treatments available, and balancing the interpretation of that data with moral imperatives.
It is, in Dr. Raviele’s words, a “landmine of conscience.” But, no matter the challenges, it is a landmine worth walking into.
Catholic publisher Ascension Press has announced a new 12-week paid maternity leave policy. Senior staff at Ascension credit FemCatholic’s reporting on the issue last year as an inspiration and guidance in creating these policies.
The new policies, which took effect March 1, 2023, include 12 weeks of paid leave for new mothers, 6 weeks of paid leave for fathers, and 6 weeks of paid leave for adoptive parents.
Employees must have worked 12 consecutive months at the company to be eligible for these policies. If they have worked at Ascension Press for less than a year, the employee is pro-rated the number of weeks of maternity leave in accordance with how much they have worked (e.g., 3 paid weeks for 3 months of work, 6 weeks for 6 months, etc.).
Advocating for a Change in Maternity Leave Policies
The United States is the only developed nation without guaranteed paid maternity leave. The Family Medical Leave Act mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers, yet approximately one in four new mothers go back to work 2 weeks after giving birth, according to a 2012 report.
Ascension Press leaders cited the FemCatholic reports of 2022 as a strong incentive to update their policies. “At least three people brought in FemCatholic’s reporting as advocating for a change,” said Cassie Schmidt, Manager of People & Culture (human resources).
Schmidt was one of the first employees to use the adoption leave this past May, when she adopted two children already in her home through foster care.
In November 2021, human resources surveys made it clear that employees felt a need for a new maternity and paternity leave policy, Schmidt said. Ascension Press’ staff is 72% female and nearly two-thirds of the company’s employees are working parents.
Ascension Press saw family leave as an important issue for employee satisfaction, but realized their leave policies could better reflect their company commitment to pro-life and Catholic values, Schmidt said.
In particular, FemCatholic’s reporting on deficiencies in short-term disability schemes to cover maternity leave helped Ascension’s leadership understand why their current short-term disability insurance plan was not enough for mothers, Schmidt said.
“They were definitely moving in the direction [of 12 paid weeks] and FemCatholic’s reporting dropped at convenient cadence to help push them forward,” said Lauren Joyce, Communications Manager, who was one of the Ascension employees who brought forward FemCatholic’s report in support of policy changes.
Previously, Ascension Press’ policy had been one week of paid leave for new mothers and fathers, and mothers who gave birth vaginally or via cesarean section could apply for short-term disability leave that would cover 60% pay for up to six weeks. Adoptive parents and families who had suffered a miscarriage or stillborn child did not have any paid leave. Mothers now receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave after a pregnancy loss, and their spouses receive 6 paid weeks.
Paid Leave Supports Family Bonding and Health
In the past decade, Ascension Press has nearly doubled its staff. It is now a fully remote company of 92 full- and part-time employees living in 32 states, and brings in a yearly revenue of more than $20 million. Jonathan Strate, president and chief executive officer says that their decision to offer these policies is not based on the policies’ price tag.
“The cost is definitely a consideration,” Strate said in a phone interview. But he noted that Ascension Press’ turnover rate hovers around 5%, which is extremely low. Strate said policies that show employees they are valued as persons and that prioritize their families save company costs by reducing turnover. “It actually might be more expensive to not have these programs,” he added.
Strate is a father of six, and he noted that unpaid leave is impractical for families trying to save up for the necessary items for the new baby, especially young families. His experience as a dad inspired the 6-week paternity leave.
“Usually as a father, paternity leave is not very long, maybe about a week,” he said. Often, parents feel the urge to get back to work, especially if one spouse is on unpaid leave. “But, when you do that, you miss out on the baby-bonding time, and that’s only going to happen once,” Strate added.
Besides parental bonding, family leave is a health issue. Strate said he was struck by the stat that 47% of infant deaths (deaths for children under five years old) happen in the first 28 days of life.
“If a mother and father are home with the baby during that time, they’re more likely to catch the signs that something might be off,” Strate said.
“Besides the physical healing, in the ‘fourth trimester,’ you’re working through bonding with the baby, relationship changes, sleep deprivation, and maybe other issues: emotional changes, pelvic floor issues,” said Dr. Suzanne Bovone, MD, an OB/GYN practicing at Stanford Health, in a phone interview. She noted that patients who experience a lot of prenatal care often find themselves piecing together medical help on their own during the 12 weeks after the baby is born, a period which is increasingly becoming known as the “fourth trimester.”
“I wish we had dedicated services provided in that postpartum period to mental health, lactation, pelvic floor, sexual function, but it’s all segregated,” she said. “Patients have to go find it for themselves, and that takes time – and patients’ insurance might not cover it,” she added.
“If everyone was guaranteed 12 weeks’ full salary, that would be phenomenal. Six months would be great,” she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 12 weeks of paid leave for the health of the mother and to reduce infant mortality. The World Health Organization's recommendation is, at the very least, 14 weeks of paid maternity leave.
“The more you dig into these stats, the more you see this is an important time that can’t be made up later,” Strate said. Of Ascension Press’ recent policy change, he said: “It’s a very pro-life policy, and we think it sends the right message.”
My hopes for the Barbie movie were as high as a pair of hot pink pair stilettos. Naturally, I was terrified they would snap and twist my ankle. As the theater filled with adults in bubble-gum-colored skirts and cowgirl hats, the electric murmur of anticipation grew. We’d all seen the ads, the memes, and the YouTube walk-throughs of the elaborate Barbie Dreamhouse sets. We expected to be blown away, which is a lot to ask from a movie about a doll. My greatest fear was that we’d already seen everything worthwhile about this film. Imagine my glee when the opening moments caught me completely by surprise.
Writer/Director/Actor Greta Gerwig has proven herself to be a master of women’s stories, with a filmography that includes instant classics such as Frances Ha (2012), Lady Bird (2017), and Little Women (2019). In Barbie, she has created something original, combining all of the hopefulness, imagination, nostalgia, and baggage of the ubiquitous toy into a pink fantasia of topsy-turvy feminist critique. She asks you to look deep into the eyes of your childhood doll, remembering all the times you had together and all the dreams you shared – and then she yanks it from your hands and whacks you upside the head with it.
“Thanks to Barbie, all the problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved,” intones the voice of Helen Mirren in the first moments of the film. “. . .At least, that’s what the Barbies think.”
This juxtaposition lays out the essential conflict of the story: Barbie (Margot Robbie) is living a perfect life in Barbieland when she suddenly becomes plagued with uncontrollable thoughts of death. In the hopes of undoing this horrible malfunction, Barbie and her wannabe boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) venture into the Real World on a quest to make the little girl who plays with her happy again. Once they get to the Real World, they discover that women aren’t actually doing all that well. Chaos ensues.
Barbie is a visual delight and a joyous romp through the pangs of girlhood. It’s also a surprisingly astute critique of modern feminism.
While not ground-breaking by any measure, Barbie correctly identifies the essential trap of womanhood: Be pretty, but not too pretty. Smart, but not too smart. Successful, but not ambitious. Whether we have no children, are working moms, or stay-at-home moms, we’re doing motherhood wrong. We’re going about our careers wrong or we’re dating wrong. As angsty preteen Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) quips, “Women hate women. And men hate women. It’s the only thing we all agree on.”
It’s also really hard to be a man. Barbie arrives at the perfect moment, when conversations about positive masculinity are at the forefront. Ken, who has always defined himself in relation to Barbie, must come to terms with his own identity. If he is neither desiring Barbie nor subjugating her, then what is he doing? Can Ken exist without Barbie’s adoration? Is he really “Kenough” on his own? (The Ken puns in this movie are exquisite, by the way.)
Men and women are not the same, but we need not exist in conflict. The essential lie of patriarchy has always been that subjugation of the other is the key to survival. In reality, most men don’t thrive under a patriarchal system, as Ken quickly discovers.
Men and women actually need each other, and not only romantically. We need each other because we are human. We need to be seen and cherished, not because of our career status, our physical attractiveness, or even our personal achievements. We need to be seen and cherished for our essential human dignity, and nothing more. Barbie gets that. Pretty good for a movie about a doll.
On July 22, Catholics celebrate the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, which Pope Francis elevated from a Memorial to an official Feast in 2016. This change in status puts her liturgical celebration on the same level as those of Jesus’s twelve apostles. It signifies that Mary Magdalene is a pivotal figure in Christianity — and yet, there are vastly different perceptions of who she is because of a complicated history that has filtered down from the Church into pop culture. So, who was Mary Magdalene, really? Let’s start with what the Gospels tell us.
Fact: What the Gospels Tell Us About Mary Magdalene
Jesus rid Mary Magdalene of seven demons.
Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 tell us that Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of seven demons. In both cases, the Gospel writer mentions it as an aside, or as a way of explaining who Mary is, rather than including a full story about it. Neither gospel offers any further explanation or interpretation of the “demons” within the text, but traditionally “demons” can be interpreted to represent either a physical or moral malady.
Mary Magdalene was a close follower of Jesus.
The four Gospels agree on the overall arc of the story of Jesus’s ministry, but they are geared toward different audiences and sometimes contain different stories. Yet, all four Gospels agree about the fact that Mary Magdalene was a close follower of Jesus.
The Gospel of Luke includes her in a group of “women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities” (Luke 8:2) who traveled alongside Jesus and his apostles, and who “provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:3). The footnote in my New American Bible notes that it would have been very unusual to associate women with Jesus’s ministry in this way given the typical attitude of first-century Palestinian Judaism toward women, which would have cautioned against speaking with women in public.
Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross.
This is another element of the crucifixion story that is common across all four Gospels. While the majority of Jesus’s male apostles fled the scene when Jesus was sentenced to death, Mary Magdalene was among a small group of women who stood by Jesus’s side as he died.
Mary Magdalene was present at Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning.
Once again, all four Gospel writers agree upon this fact, even if the stories are slightly different. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Mary is among a group of women who had returned to the tomb but found it empty. After meeting an angel who told them the news of Jesus’s resurrection, the women are sent to tell the disciples. In the Gospel of John, it was Mary Magdalene alone who discovered the empty tomb.
Not only was Mary the first witness to the empty tomb, but she was the first one to whom the Risen Jesus appeared. Jesus calls Mary by name before instructing her to “go to [his] brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). She does as she is told, and is the first to tell Jesus’s disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). For this reason, she is often called the “Apostle to the Apostles,” a title first coined by St. Thomas Aquinas.
For many Catholics who are most familiar with the Easter story as it is proclaimed from the Gospel on Easter Sunday, the part of the story where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene is unknown. This is because even when the Gospel reading for Easter Sunday Mass is from the Gospel of John, the reading ends before the passage with Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene.
Fiction: The Myths About Mary Magdalene
Beyond these facts, we can’t say anything about Mary Magdalene for sure. This means that several common myths about her are, at the very least, unproven, and at the very worst, ill-intentioned. Let’s look at a few.
Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.
There is nothing in the text of the Bible to support this common perception of Mary Magdalene. As stated above, two of the Gospels mentioned that she was healed from seven demons, but neither of them mention sins caused by those demons, let alone specifically sexual sins. So, where did this idea come from?
In 591, Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with an unnamed sinful woman in Luke chapter 7, as well as with Mary of Bethany (Martha’s sister). The text of Luke 7 does not label the sins that the “sinful woman” had as sexual, nor does it name her as Mary Magdalene. Yet, this statement from his homily became Church teaching.
In 1969, as a part of a revision to the liturgical calendar and practices, the Church acknowledged that these were three distinct women who should be separated. However, it is hard to undo more than a millennium’s worth of damage in a small portion of a text that the majority of Catholics would not read — so this caricature of Mary Magdalene still remains in many people’s imaginations.
Mary and Jesus had a romantic relationship.
For people who encounter the story of Mary Magdalene mostly through pop culture, this might be the most prevailing myth about her thanks to The Da Vinci Code and Jesus Christ Superstar.
I have always thought the development of this trope of a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene was due to a misguided assumption that men and women cannot have close friendships or working relationships without there being romantic or sexual tension. If not that, then a related sexist attitude that cannot accept a woman on her own terms, and must define her by the man she spends the most time with.
I still think that is part of it, but it turns out that these pop cultural interpretations aren’t entirely without textual basis. They can be traced back to an apocryphal gospel (meaning that it was not chosen by the Church to be included in the Bible) known as the Gospel of Phillip. It referred to Mary as “Jesus’s companion” and stated that Jesus loved her most out of all of the disciples. It also stated that Jesus would kiss Mary, but damage to the text caused the word that describes where he would kiss her to be unreadable. Some scholars filled in that missing word as mouth, which furthered the interpretation of their relationship being romantic.
Mary Magdalene: Prototype for Female Leadership in the Catholic Church?
Mary Magdalene’s presence in the history of Christianity has been tumultuous, to say the least. Many (maybe all?) of the decisions about how her story was integrated into the tradition of the Church were made by men, which has led some to blame misogyny for the fact that she was mistakenly viewed as a quiet, repentant prostitute for more than a millennium, and for the fact that the story of Jesus’s appearance to her and commissioning of her to the Apostles has been left out of the Easter lectionary.
In a world where women are simultaneously over-sexualized and punished for being too sexual, it feels like a familiar framework to see a woman who is identified purely by her (unproven) sexual sins, while her leadership role is downplayed.
We don’t know anyone’s true motivation for these decisions, but the effects remain the same. A woman who ought to have been celebrated from the beginning as someone who closely followed Jesus, provided for him and his disciples, and was the first to proclaim his resurrection was instead largely silenced and discounted. Thankfully, the Church has clarified its tradition, and with the help of Pope Francis’s elevation of her Memorial to a Feast, she is quickly becoming viewed more as the prototype for what female leadership in the Church could look like.
Dear Therapist: My Girlfriend Is On Birth Control, Should I Talk With Her About It?
My girlfriend is a devout Christian and she’s strongly considering becoming Catholic, but she’s been on birth control for about 5 years due to debilitating periods and she’s nervous to go off of it. “I understand logically why the Church doesn’t allow it, but I’m still not entirely sure I agree,” is sort of the summation of her position. For some reason, I don’t like thinking about the fact that she’s on it, even though she isn’t doing anything immoral since we aren’t sexually active. Is it best that I not bother bringing it up? And if so, should I just avoid dwelling on it? It’s become a touchy subject for her so I want to approach it as wisely as possible, but also don’t want to ignore it, especially if we end up getting married. I’d really appreciate any thoughts you might have.
Response from Regina Boyd, LMHC
It sounds like she is someone you see yourself marrying, which makes this conversation important for your future.
Let’s first look at the facts. Your girlfriend has a medical condition and she is using something prescribed for relief from debilitating periods. That prescription drug is also used as a form of birth control, but that is not why she is using it.
Catholics who strive to form their conscience with Church teaching may bristle at the thought of using birth control, but let’s take a look at this passage from Humanae Vitae by St. Pope Paul VI:
“. . . the Church does not consider illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (Humanae Vitae 15)
Your girlfriend is treating a disease with a drug that will create a “foreseeable impediment to procreation.” In the words of a pope and a saint, “the Church does not consider [this] illicit.”
Now, let’s talk about your relationship. If she is someone you hope to marry one day and you’ve been dating for a reasonably long time, it is important to have conversations about what you both want in marriage.
What are your hopes, dreams, and visions? What do you each believe about the role of a husband and wife, and are you each comfortable with that? For example, do you desire a wife who solely raises children, or one who works outside of the home, as well? What does she envision her role to be and what does she desire in a husband? How many children would you hope to have? Do you want to raise your children in the Catholic faith?
These are all questions I suggest couples have BEFORE getting married. These are not topics you want to figure out as you go along. Part of discernment for marriage is seeing if your visions align. If they are not aligned, can you compromise and still feel comfortable? If your non-negotiables simply don’t match up, then it may be time to reconsider this relationship.
I’d also encourage you to think about why you are uncomfortable with her treating a disease with birth control, even though such use is not necessarily sinful. Have you expressed your concerns about birth control to her in the past, and if so, what were you trying to accomplish? Were you trying to ensure she lives according to your vision for marriage? Does she hold this same vision? Were you concerned about the health risks associated with birth control, or was it something else? Getting to the root of your sense of urgency may provide clarity on how to proceed.
If you desire to use natural family planning in marriage and you’ve been dating long enough to have conversations about the future, I’d consider sharing your vision for marriage with her. This will give her insight into your heart and help both of you discern how to move forward in the relationship. Of course, there’s no need to proceed with a judgmental tone, but rather in a way that expresses your hopes and dreams for your future family. Hopefully this is something that she will take into consideration if she sees you in her future.
Because you aren’t engaged, there is no rush. You have time to discuss your position and discern stronger commitments. Once you’ve been clear about your desires, and you’ve listened to her perspective, I would recommend taking a step back from this conversation — especially considering how frustrating it likely is for her. No one likes to be sick, and she is probably tired of dealing with her condition.
You will now have more information to help in your discernment process. Is she open to taking steps toward becoming more aligned with your views? Is she willing to learn more about your beliefs? Is she respectful of your beliefs, even if she doesn’t agree? Is this someone who you would want to raise your children, even if her belief and position on this issue never change?
The answers to these questions should inform how you move forward.
In the meantime, give her some space. It sounds like when you discuss this topic, it leads to frustration and tension. This may be because she either is not clear on how important this is for you, or holds a different viewpoint. Space conveys your respect for her free will and shows your willingness to accept her, even if she makes different decisions than you do. This can help facilitate more trust within your relationship.
Wishing you all the best!
It's Okay If Your Reaction to Sexual Assault Was Different Than St. Maria Goretti’s
If you’re anything like me, you never expected anyone to cross a boundary in a way that allowed you to rightly accuse them of sexual assault. I knew the statistics as a teenager. I kept my keys in my fist like I was Wolverine. I wrote a whole speech for a class about the dangers to women that come from toxic masculinity. A family trip to New Orleans at age 15 gave me a souvenir of a catcall, and a school trip to Nashville one year later came with a memento of a stranger tapping me under my skirt. Afterwards, I wrote a school assignment about street harassment. I could recognize those experiences as assault – I knew those strange men were out of line. But when my first boyfriend was outraged on my behalf after I shared those experiences with him, I never expected him to cross that boundary, too.
Please read with discretion: This article mentions sexual assault, rape, and domestic abuse.
Talking About the Saints Who Survived Assault and Abuse
The experience of sexual assault drastically changed my relationship with God. The day that I realized it wasn’t my fault, my prayers shifted rapidly from blaming myself – asking God what I could have done to save the relationship – to vitriolic cries, asking God why He just let it happen. The most violating experience of my life happened in my childhood home while my parents were upstairs. My parents were at least ignorant at the time. God had no such excuse.
As I was spiritually thrashing in the pain of feeling forsaken, a particular saint started to get under my skin: Maria Goretti.
One of my earliest friends in college had chosen her as a Confirmation saint, and she told me that she really admired Maria Goretti’s purity. I remember being polite, but internally scoffing a bit. “What an odd thing to value,” I thought. I knew some young Catholics who didn’t want to kiss people or even talk to someone they liked if it gave them impure feelings or thoughts. If that’s what “purity” looked like – hard pass.
At that time, the worst for me was yet to come. Now, I wonder whether Maria Goretti made an appearance a few months prior as a sign that she was praying for me.
I had major complaints about how the Church holds up saints like Maria Goretti, Agnes, Rita of Cascia, Monica, and Dymphna as examples of virtue in cases of sexual assault, rape, and domestic abuse. Perseverance in an abusive marriage has been glorified as the better option to divorce. Does a woman’s life have less value than a sacrament? Three of the five women I mentioned are martyrs – it’s a reality that men who abuse women often take those women’s lives. Is dying at the hands of your abuser holiness? All I remember the Church teaching me on matters of abuse was that it was better to persevere for the sake of the relationship than to flee for the sake of yourself.
Maria Goretti’s and My Shared Experience
However bitter I was about purity being overrated, Maria Goretti was a lot like me.
Maria Goretti experienced her abuse before the age of 18. Currently in the United States, “[f]emales ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.”
She knew her attacker, and I knew mine. In fact, “victims know their attackers in 8 out of 10 cases.”
She was attacked at her home, as was I – and “55% [of assaults] occur at or near the victim’s home.”
And I could guess from the statistics that if you’re reading this, you might have a lot in common with Maria Goretti, too.
A recent tweet by Sheila Gregoire, Christian marriage blogger and author of She Deserves Better, caught my eye with something I needed to hear when my first boundary was pushed: “I wish male evangelical authors would stop talking about ‘pushing past a girl's boundaries’ when making out, like that's normal. Pushing past boundaries means pushing past her ‘no.’ That means you are committing sexual assault. Call it by its real name.”
It took 15 months and reading St. Thomas Aquinas for me to call it by its real name. Violence is not only physical force – Aquinas says that it “effects something against the will.” I processed this new definition and thought, “In what world is making out not even vaguely sexual? If an act falls under the definition of ‘sexual’ and is contrary to the will, it is therefore sexual violence.” Suddenly, I had the power to call my experience assault – and my suffering finally made sense.
An Involuntary Trauma Response Has Little to Do with Holiness
For the longest time, I blamed myself for freezing in that moment, for not crying out like Maria Goretti did – but responses to assault are unique to each experience.
Psychologists have discovered four main trauma responses. You've likely heard of fight and flight, but maybe freeze and fawn are new to you. “Freeze” is what happens when your body needs time to plan for action, but without this plan, you’re stuck in a state of inaction. “Fawning” is an attempt to pacify the threat to you so that you avoid harm. These responses usually kick in without a conscious thought process because threats rarely leave time for you to think.
Maria Goretti clearly had a fight response: She cried out, "No! It is a sin! God forbids it!" as her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli, made advances. That's incredible courage – and it's courage I don't have to be jealous of. I don’t have to feel like God loves me less because I froze in the moment of my assault. An involuntary trauma response has little to do with holiness. My body and my mind protected me the best way they knew how.
Looking for God In the Aftermath of Sexual Assault
I was afraid to ask God where He was when I was assaulted, but when I finally did, He answered me immediately with a single word: “Weeping.”
His brief response to my prayer was strikingly similar to the shortest verse in Scripture: “And Jesus wept.” In the Gospel, Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, who had died. Jesus knew Lazarus was ill, but he waited to journey to his friend. In the meantime, Lazarus died. And when Jesus did arrive, he was met with the cries of, “Lord, if you had been here, [Lazarus] would not have died!”
I placed myself in Lazarus’ position, with abuse being its own illness and assault being a sort of death – one that warrants the tears of God to fall to the earth, on my behalf. For the death to my voice, Jesus wept. For the death to my body, Jesus wept. For the death to my free will, Jesus wept. And he weeps for you reading this, whether your experience of sexual violence was last night, last year, or last decade.
The fight in me came out after the assault. The courage it took to confront my abuser and say I had feelings in line with a survivor of sexual assault because of what he did – that was more than a instinctive fight response. It was courage, and it’s courage I share with Maria Goretti. I'm sure it's courage that she shares with you, too, no matter what your experience was like. Even if no one but God knows what happened to you, the choice to keep living each day is a courageous one.
Being in an abusive relationship had the worst impact on my mental health among all other experiences in my life. Before finding a therapist, there were days when I didn't want to live. My mental health deteriorated to the point that I almost walked into moving traffic. I had dreams that made me wake up convulsing – it was so unusual that I wondered whether it was demonic. Even almost a year after I was out of the relationship, with PTSD still haunting me, there were days when I asked God to take me in my sleep. Seeking support, going to therapy, and healing all take courage.
After Sexual Assault, Forgiveness Can Be Complicated
Forgiveness is something we might pressure ourselves into on account of our faith, and I want to encourage those reading: After someone else just violated your will, you do not need to force yourself to do anything. Forgiveness is good and freeing, but it’s hard, and you can take the time you need with it. You don’t have to repress your emotions in the name of forgiveness. You might need to forgive continuously for your whole life, and even then still never do it perfectly.
Honestly, forgiveness is harder for me now than it was initially because I’ve done a lot to alleviate the need to fawn and preserve the relationship I once had. The good news is that I can now offer real forgiveness that isn’t borne of an involuntary trauma response.
Forgiveness requires grace. It can even take a miracle. I think that Maria Goretti’s forgiveness was both courageous and miraculous. In the moment of the attack, she was afraid for her attacker’s soul, that he would go to Hell for what he did.
In time, I saw that Jesus also wept for the man who assaulted me. It grieves Jesus to see the hearts of men in such a state that they destroy the women around them with abuse. When I think of my own abuser, I find myself praying for him to have a conversion, at least to see his wrongdoing for what it is and to never harm someone that way again.
If you have experienced sexual assault and would like support, here are a couple of resources:
Dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
Amid the heated debates and political wrangling that surround the influx of migrants into the United States, the human element often gets lost. Politicians detach themselves from the harsh realities of the perilous journey, reducing the matter to a mere logistical nightmare or an opportunity for political posturing. However, against this political backdrop, a group of remarkable women refuses to turn a blind eye to the suffering and dedicates themselves to making a tangible difference along the border.
Please read with discretion: This article contains descriptions of violence, including exploitation and discrimination faced by migrants. It discusses mental health challenges, references to death and mortality, human rights violations, challenging living conditions, and policy changes related to migration.
Agents of Compassion: The Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate
In the vibrant border city of Piedras Negras, nestled along the Texas-Mexico border, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate embrace the Church's call to serve those in dire need. These religious sisters embody empathy and service. With an impressive 130-year history of advocating for human rights, their congregation has taken on a new and crucial mission: providing vital assistance to migrants and refugees in their time of need.
Piedras Negras has become a focal point of the migrant crisis, witnessing a significant influx of individuals from around the world over the past decade, all driven by the aspiration to enter the United States. Unlike other points of entry into the United States, Piedras Negras provides a safer passage for migrants due to diminished cartel activity. However, the convergence of people presents humanitarian concerns and logistical complexities for both the Mexican and American governments. Recent policy changes, including the expiration of Title 42 and modifications to border crossings, have further compounded the challenges in this region.
At the heart of their unwavering commitment lies the Frontera Digna migrant shelter, where three remarkable sisters – Sisters Isabel Turccios from El Salvador, Carmen López from Panama, and Yudi Calvache from Colombia – fulfill their congregation's mission.
During the pandemic, I had the opportunity to meet these sisters while teleworking for the Centers for Disease Control from my hometown, shortly after completing my graduate studies in global health and complex humanitarian emergencies. In response to a call from the diocese to enhance pastoral outreach to migrant communities, I volunteered at the migrant shelter under their guidance. Through firsthand experience, I have witnessed the positive influence that they have on the lives of migrants seeking refuge in Piedras Negras.
Alongside a formidable network of volunteers and collaborators, this dynamic trio exemplifies the core values of their institute, which was founded by Mother Caridad Brader Zahner in Túquerres, Colombia, in 1893. The congregation’s enduring commitment to serve the marginalized is ingrained in their work.
By exploring the extraordinary apostolate of this congregation, we uncover the impact that they have on the lives of migrants who face immense challenges and perils, providing them with support, shelter, and hope.
A Haven of Hope: Life at the Frontera Digna Migrant Shelter
Stepping inside the Frontera Digna shelter, you experience the transformative power of empathy and hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.
For 25 years, Frontera Digna has welcomed individuals from countries all over the world who have endured perilous journeys through Central America and Mexico, often facing violence, exploitation, and discrimination.
The shelter serves as the starting point for many in the legal migration process into the United States. However, the uncertain and lengthy waiting period for appointments leads to anxiety and frustration among those seeking legal entry. During this challenging time, Sisters Isabel, Carmen, and Yudi extend their compassionate touch to those in search of refuge, providing much-needed support and encouragement.
Sister Isabel, the shelter's director, ensures smooth operations and advocates for the safety of migrants. Her dedication to their well-being is evident as she states, "We wanted to have open doors and attend to the most urgent needs." Meanwhile, Sister Carmen López takes charge of logistics, providing personalized attention and connecting migrants with essential resources. Sister Yudi, in turn, fosters a sense of family and community, nurturing the well-being of those who have sought refuge within the shelter's walls. The Sisters aim to provide comprehensive care to the migrants, addressing their physical, mental, and psychological well-being.
The large number of migrants seeking refuge at the shelter reflects the urgent demand for the sisters’ support. Sister Isabel highlights that while the shelter accommodates around 150 people, there are approximately 180 staying overnight right now. In warmer weather, some migrants set up tents outside the shelter, but the challenges intensify during winter when energy constraints expose them to sub-freezing temperatures.
The Sisters infuse the shelter with a deep and vibrant liturgical life, supporting the spiritual well-being of both the residents and the community at large. During major Catholic holidays like Holy Week and Christmas, the shelter opens its doors and invites everyone to join in the celebrations, fostering a sense of unity and shared faith among migrants, refugees, and the broader community. Additionally, the sisters commemorate special days dedicated to raising awareness about their cause, including the Day of the Migrant, the Day of the Refugee, and other events focused on combating human trafficking. These occasions serve as powerful reminders of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of their circumstances.
The sisters' dedicated work at Frontera Digna creates a refuge, offering solace during the challenging migrant journey. The care and support provided within its walls give hope amid adversity. However, the sisters acknowledge the need for collaboration, relying on a vast network of partners and allies who share their commitment to comprehensive migrant care.
United in Purpose: Allies and Collaborators in Action
The efforts of Frontera Digna are not carried out in isolation, but rather are fortified by strong partnerships. One critical ally is the Hospital General Dr. Salvador Chavarría Sánchez, which plays a pivotal role in ensuring that migrants have access to medical attention, ranging from specialized care for pregnant women and survivors of sexual assault to surgeries and other crucial needs. Sister Isabel emphasized the importance of this collaboration, stating, "Our collaboration with General Hospital Salvador Chavarria [sic] is crucial in providing migrants with the medical care they require. Together, we are able to address their diverse healthcare needs and ensure their overall well-being."
Despite establishing a working relationship with local authorities to handle legal matters, the sisters face the challenge of limited government support. Currently, this support extends to contributing to utility expenses and covering the costs of two staffed roles. To sustain the shelter, they rely heavily on their own resources as well as the generosity of individuals and organizations.
In dire circumstances, Frontera Digna has witnessed the incredible support of the people of Piedras Negras, especially during challenging times like the pandemic. The community – including respected members like Monsignor José Guadalupe Valdés, a long-time defender and advocate of migrants’ human rights, and Mr. Daniel Campos, a long-time supporter of the shelter – has rallied around the sisters.
Their collaboration with local parishes, organizations, and individuals in the community is a testament to the strength of collective compassion. Their partners have provided invaluable assistance through acts of solidarity, donations, and unwavering support. Sister Isabel reflects on the heartwarming support they receive, emphasizing, "It is through the support of our community that we are able to forge ahead and continue our mission."
Esteemed international organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Red Cross also enhance the support network available to those seeking a better life. Sister Carmen explained, "Our collaboration with these international initiatives allows us to create a comprehensive support system. We can fully embrace the migrant community and provide comprehensive services to address their trauma, offer respite, and restore hope."
Through the combined efforts of the sisters and their valued partners, migrants and refugees receive support amid their challenges. As one migrant who has transitioned beyond the shelter shared, "The care we received from the sisters was invaluable. Their compassion and support gave us hope when we needed it the most. We would not have been able to continue without them."
Sister Isabel reflected, "I believe that where we have the biggest impact on the migrants that arrive at our shelter is in the warm reception and hospitality we provide. We give them the attention they deserve and ensure we are available as a listening ear. And that is something that stays with them."
The path forward is not without obstacles. The number of migrants seeking shelter continues to rise, and recent policy changes have stalled the migration process. This has created a daunting challenge for the sisters, who must now accommodate an increasing population while simultaneously navigating a stagnant migration process.
From Desperation to Hope: Migrants' Stories and the Sisters' Call for Change
The sisters, along with their dedicated team, persevere in the face of ongoing challenges as they assist migrants and refugees. They emphasize the urgent need for systemic change and highlight the importance of collective efforts to address the complex issues surrounding migration.
Conversations with migrants provide insight into their experiences, shedding light on the hardships they face. The sisters, deeply unsettled by a migrant's account, learned that the area they traversed through the Darien Gap is known as a place "dedicated to the Devil." Altars adorned with skulls and gold chains are offered to the cult of Santeria, adding to the ominous nature of the journey. Another migrant shared a distressing experience where their son, who already suffered from schizophrenia, was confronted with the shocking sight of dead bodies along the road, left abandoned without care. After this traumatic experience, the young boy's mental state deteriorated significantly, leading to a six-month stint at a mental health facility in Honduras. These chilling revelations emphasize the treacherous conditions, spiritual weight, and profound impact on mental well-being that accompany the passage through the Darien Gap.
A Venezuelan woman and her three children also recounted their 5-day journey through the Gap, marked by hunger, dehydration, and the unforgiving mountainous terrain. They described it as a place filled with horror and death, where everything speaks of mortality. She said, "It's horrifying. Full of death. Everything is death. Everything speaks of death." Their firsthand account serves as a stark reminder of the physical and emotional challenges confronted by migrants.
Upon entering Mexico, migrants continue to face a host of challenges. Corruption, rampant crime, and exploitation permeate their lives. Migrants exist in a constant state of fear and danger, as they must constantly safeguard their lives in an environment that offers little respite or security.
The Frontera Digna shelter itself grapples with security concerns due to its location in a dangerous area along the Rio Grande River. Migrants come into the shelter reeling from the physical and emotional challenges they face along the migrant route. The sisters bear witness to each of their stories, recognizing the violence, abuse, and exploitation that has been carried out against them. The sisters often feel helpless in their inability to provide the justice and protection these individuals deserve.
"They live in a terrifying reality of never being at ease because they have to protect their lives because they are constantly in danger," Sister Isabel states. These experiences underscore the urgent need for comprehensive reforms in migration policies, law enforcement, and support systems.
Forging a Compassionate and Just Future: The Legacy of Frontera Digna
The sisters face new challenges as the Title 42 policy expires, which results in a decrease in the number of people able to leave the shelter. This has placed a strain on their ability to provide care and support. Previously, the shelter operated efficiently, with migrants moving through the system and into the United States at a steady pace. However, with the removal of Title 42, the situation has changed drastically, leaving the shelter overcrowded and overwhelmed.
Despite these obstacles, the sisters remain resolute in their mission. The impact of their work is felt deeply, as expressed through the heartfelt gratitude of the migrants who have experienced the shelter's care. Fondly referred to as "La Casa de Las Monjitas" (The House of the Little Nuns), the shelter has earned a reputation for its warmth and hospitality. Countless messages of appreciation pour in, testifying to the enduring influence of the sisters' dedication and the difference they make in the lives of those they serve.
In addition to their service, the sisters raise awareness through community education and advocacy. Their efforts are bearing fruit, as the local community increasingly recognizes and supports the sisters and their work. This growing recognition is accompanied by a deeper empathy for the harsh realities faced by migrants.
Integral to their advocacy is the facilitation of direct interactions between the local community and the migrants. Visitors from the city and the United States are welcomed warmly and given tours of the shelter, providing them with an opportunity to meet the shelter residents, dispel misconceptions, and witness firsthand the humanity and resilience of those who seek refuge. These interactions foster understanding, dismantle fears, and erase stereotypes.
The Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate strive tirelessly to dismantle networks of corruption that exploit and victimize migrants. They work towards a society that upholds the dignity and rights of every individual, forging ahead with a vision for the future, one where migration is approached with empathy, human rights are protected, and the inherent dignity of every person is recognized. Through their steadfast love and dedication, they are building a lasting legacy of solidarity, inviting us all to reflect on how we can contribute to a more compassionate and just world.
June 24, 2023 marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case originating in Louisiana that overturned the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Catholics in the U.S. have long been vocal and fervent forces in the pro-life movement. At the same time, the Church’s stance against abortion doesn’t mean that Catholic women don’t have them. In fact, the Guttmacher Institute’s 2014 Abortion Patient Survey showed that 24% of elective abortions were performed on those who identified as Catholic. As we approached one year after Dobbs, we thought about the pro-life signs that are carried at marches and protests, and we wondered how effective they were for Catholic women who had sought abortions. So, we asked them.
Despite the Church’s Clear Stance on Abortion, Individual Catholics Still Disagree
The Catholic Church believes that human life begins at conception, and it is this belief that informs the Church’s stance against elective abortion. In a fact sheet about respect for unborn life, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) writes, “Each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with the respect due to a human person.”
Despite this teaching, abortion continues to be a polarizing issue among Catholics in the U.S. According to Pew Research, 76% of “Catholics say abortion should be illegal in some cases, but legal in others.” 1 in 10 Catholics believe it should be illegal in all cases, while 13% believe it should be legal in all cases.
We know that abortion is not just an abstract issue to be debated or a subject to be addressed on a protest sign. It is a reality that affects people’s lives, including the lives of Catholic women. In thinking about the Catholic women who have sought abortions, we asked some of them to share their stories with us and to tell us what certain pro-life signs communicated to them.
Of those who contacted us, one story in particular stood out, and we want to highlight this story for the Church to hear. To protect this woman and her story, we use an alias of her choosing.
Let us introduce you to Regina.
Pro-Life Signs Don’t Address the Staggering Reality of Childbearing
Regina is a mother and a practicing Catholic. Not long after having her second baby, she found herself pregnant again. She said, “I remember thinking, ‘I want this baby, even, I love this baby – but I cannot fathom being pregnant right now.’ That was the staggering reality I was facing, and I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Regina had struggled with postpartum anxiety. In describing the time leading up to her abortion, she told us, “Having my body pregnant again, almost against its own will, made me feel like reality was crushing me.”
Her first pregnancy was unexpected and unplanned. She chose motherhood in part because she didn’t yet know the demands that it would ask of her. But this time around, after two pregnancies, she decided to obtain an abortion.
“In this pregnancy, knowing what was ahead of me, the sacrificial love that motherhood demands in every facet – emotional, spiritual, physical, social . . . – [was] astounding and crippling. It made me feel like a caged animal, and I wanted out, no matter what was said to me. This is why I don’t think [pro-life] signage is effective – not just because of the words on the poster, but the fact that people are often shouting things instead of whispering them to the hearts of women.
“Seeing the child as an individual, as my child, was real but fuzzy in the face of debilitating fear, anxiety, [and] depression. We would have had to have gotten a new car, more car seats. I’d have had to quit my job. My marriage threatened to crumble under its weight. Lots was riding on this. Having some genuine understanding of this reality would be helpful in Catholic spaces. And of course, I could have chosen to give birth. If the timing was different, things could have gone differently. In a way, it was more about the timing than the child.”
Regina’s Responses to Pro-Life Signs
We asked Regina to respond to the following pro-life signs and tell us what they said to her, as a practicing Catholic and post-abortive woman.
“Smile! Your mom chose life.”
Regina: “I found this kind of mocking. Obviously, I’m here and yes, my mother chose life and I'm really grateful for that. But that's not really what she's trying to say. It's kind of a subtext where she's saying, ‘Look how selfish you are,’ at least that's how I feel as a post-abortive woman looking at this. It’s mocking the situation that I was in. It's mocking how shameful I feel and I think it’s meant to do that. In part because it's assuming that it's a very simple decision, which it is not.”
Regina went on to say that she felt even more “shameful” because she wasn’t a teenager or a victim of sexual assault, but rather a mother who feared the timing of her pregnancy.
“Excommunicate Pro-Choice Catholics”
Regina: “I think it's one thing to talk about what it says on the sign, but it's another thing to look at the person who's holding the sign. This is not a woman. This sign doesn’t elicit much beyond rage, and then I kind of move forward.”
“Women’s Rights Begin in the Womb,” “Love Them Both,” and “Pro-Woman, Pro-Life”
Regina: “The ones that I found the hardest to grapple with, which actually gave me the most pause and the most difficult time, were ‘Women’s Rights Begin in the Womb,’ ‘Pro-Life, Pro-Woman,’ and ‘Love Them Both.’ Those three called on my feminist roots, because it's got that vulnerability to it and it sorta says, ‘You can have both, everything will be okay if you just do the right thing. If you just trust that your choices are right and choose life, that you as a woman are valued just as much as your baby.’
“I know those things to be true, I do believe those things, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t do things that are wrong in our life. I found those the hardest to look at because yes, they are true. I don't know if that would prevent abortion or not. I actually don't know the answer. Maybe it would, but for me, in my state of fear, seeing that sign probably would have made me turn the other way and not trust that anyone's gonna hear my voice.”
For a Woman Facing Debilitating Fear, Pro-Life Signs Seem Reductive
Regina grew up Catholic. Pro-life signs were not absent in her life. Her parents work in the Church and her friends work in the pro-life movement. She is the mother of two, she is a practicing Catholic, and she told us that she believes that life begins in the womb.
“I know those things. And having made my choice, that was how desperate I was – it's not a natural choice to make. I was equipped with all of those signs in the past, I’ve seen all of them throughout my entire lifetime, but I could not summon one of these images, none of them would have helped me in that moment. That’s how scared I was.”
Regina told us that this debilitating fear is what led to her decision. The signs we showed her didn’t bring her comfort – instead, she found them to be “reductive.”
“The signage is not going to work, no matter how it’s presented, even if the messaging was perfectly crafted. Signage is a very public, loud thing, whereas abortion is a very inward, private matter for many women. So in this case, it’s more of the message versus the medium.
“The medium in my experience has been worn thin over the years with politics. But if we embrace the language of acceptance, complexity and nuance in communities, perhaps we can find better spaces to welcome post-abortive women in the Church. This is a better action for women who . . . would have never been talked out of an abortion, but just need a place to go to be welcomed, accepted, and grieve amongst others.
“It’s not always a choice between ‘right and wrong,’ but more often, a choice between ‘difficult and impossible.’ . . . To be clear, what I did was wrong and I betrayed myself and betrayed my faith. I betrayed my family. Those are things I battle with every single day, but the complexities were new to me, simply because I thought it was a black-and-white issue.
“I didn’t want anyone to reason with me, I knew the ins and outs of the conversation.”
At times, Regina shared her story with tears because she worries that other post-abortive women in the Church are alone in their grief.
Is Abortion Really the Easier Path?
For Regina, grief is not a straightforward path (and she notes that motherhood isn’t, either). She thinks the pro-life movement has branded abortion as the easier path, but it’s a path that Regina says she “will be thinking about for the rest of her life.”
“I just thought [abortion] was going to be an easier way, that that was gonna give my body a break, even if not my mind because I was so mentally, physically exhausted – I could not see forward. That’s temporary, your child will be there to bless you. Even if you choose not to continue the pregnancy, the child is still there. The child is still part of me.”
Given the complexity of a situation like this, she told us that the signs ignore the fact that “mothers are the most sacrificial beings on the planet, there's a lot more that is put on her shoulders than, ‘Okay, we're going to help you with this pro-life campaign’ or these external-facing things that are not addressing the spirit of a woman – of a mother.”
What the Church Needs to Offer to Post-Abortive Women
Regina shared that her abortion could have broken her faith. Instead, she was able to lean into the Sisters for Life and her parish priest for counsel. But, she knows that this is not the case for every Catholic woman.
“I know that my child was with the Lord and so therefore, like, I'm never going to abandon my faith again – but it could have been make or break.“
In her view, the way the Church has treated post-abortive women is incompatible with the Gospel message.
“I know why a lot of women would leave [the Church], because it's just so shameful and they have nowhere to put it. And their community has kind of betrayed them with very simplistic messaging,” Regina said in reference to the signs we showed her.
The Sisters of Life affirmed her beloved-ness and reminded her of the love that is bigger than her grief. Though she feels that the Church and the pro-life movement often turn their backs on post-abortive women – especially when pro-life signs lack empathy and nuance – Regina found solace in Christ’s love.
“To say that I'm beyond repair is a common trope. If you think you’re going to lose God’s love after you do something like that, that is a common fear because you are not supported. They have this mark on their heart forever and there’s no one in the Church to attend to it.”
We know that Regina is not alone. There are countless others who have reached out to us, and we aren’t done sharing their stories. If you want to share your story, too, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Something strange happened last month in the quiet farming town of Gower, Missouri. The population is just 1,500 people and the town is home to the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. The sisters are cloistered, living secluded lives and following the rule of St. Benedict, a monastic lifestyle that is characterized by communal prayer and manual labor. In preparation for building their new shrine to St. Joseph, the sisters unearthed their foundress, Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster, expecting to find her bones in a wooden box. Instead, they found her body allegedly incorrupt – and she’s been dead for four years. Here’s what we know.
The sisters told their benefactors in a statement that their intent was to “carry this out in the privacy of [their] cloistered life.”
“Nevertheless, the discovery of what appeared to be an intact body and a perfectly preserved religious habit created an unexpected twist to our plans. We had no intent to make the discovery so public, but unfortunately, a private email was posted publicly, and the news began to spread like wildfire. However, God works in mysterious ways, and we embrace His new plan for us.”
Thousands of Catholics have already descended on the town to witness what many claim is a miracle.
What Is an Incorruptible, Anyway?
Incorruptibles are usually canonized saints whose bodies are miraculously preserved after death, defying the natural process of decomposition (spooky, we know). Incorruptible saints include St. Rita, who has been dead for over 500 years and whose body lies in her hometown of Cascia, Italy, and St. Catherine of Siena, whose head is on display in the church of San Domenico in Siena.
While the Church doesn’t have an official protocol for declaring a body to be incorrupt, there is an official process for declaring someone to be a saint. But having only died in 2019, Sr. Wilhelmina is not eligible for the canonization process for another year. Healings have been documented, but there have not yet been medical confirmations that those healings were miraculous. Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph cautioned in a statement against treating her body as a relic since the Church hasn’t officially declared her a saint.
And yet, many have gone to see for themselves and to ask for her intercession – some from as far as the Congo, according to The Pillar.
Who Was Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster?
Before Catholic Twitter and newspapers spread her name, she was a Black nun who joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, Maryland, an order focused on the education of girls of African descent. It was the first order of Black Catholic religious sisters in the United States.
In the 1960s and 70s, as the Church began to change and nuns began to wear different habits, Sr. Lancaster decided to found an order of Benedictine sisters. In a written history of her life, she said she wanted to form an order that sought to preserve Catholic traditions, such as the Traditional Latin Mass.
“To those who say that my leaving my old community to found a new one didn’t make sense, I reply that it is understandable only in the life of faith. When other people came, I welcomed them because I wanted to share what I had. ‘The disciples were persevering in prayer with Mary the Mother of Jesus.’ This is a perfect description of the religious sisterhood that formed,” she wrote.
In a world full of contradictions, Sr. Wilhelmina’s alleged incorruptibility comes at a time when Catholics are grappling over racism in the Church and controversy surrounding Pope Francis’ limiting of the Traditional Latin Mass.
Is Sister Wilhelmina the Newest American Saint?
The process to become a canonized saint in the Catholic Church is long. After a lengthy investigation by her diocese, the Pope must recognize Sr. Wilhelmina formally as Venerable, a title given to a deceased person who lived a heroically virtuous life. From there, she would have to be declared Blessed, a title given after at least one miracle occurs through her intercession. Finally, another miracle would have to be documented for her to be declared a canonized saint.
So, are you ready to pack your bag to Gower?
Women want options when it comes to their healthcare and understanding their fertility – and Silicon Valley is responding. In 2021, the femtech market was worth around 51 billion USD worldwide, and it’s forecasted to double by 2030. Historically, options for health monitoring and fertility care have often seemed limited, especially when sitting in front of an American-trained doctor. But today, wearable tech like the celebrity favorite Oura Ring and apps like Flo, Clue, FEMM and FDA-approved Natural Cycles are giving patients greater insight into their own health. With this data in hand, women are increasingly seeking out medical professionals who are equipped with more extensive training to address their health concerns.
As Women Learn More About Their Fertility, Doctors Are Learning More, Too
Physicians are beginning to notice these trends towards expanding options for women’s healthcare. Medical school students in particular are seeking out specialized training to equip them with more knowledge about fertility awareness in order to serve patients.
One organization providing this training is FACTS About Fertility, a group of physicians, health care professionals, and educators who are working to provide the medical community with information about fertility awareness-based methods (FABMs).
Dr. Marguerite Duane, Co-founder and Executive Director of FACTS, emphasizes the importance of patients working with trained medical professionals, rather than relying on technology alone: “I tell women, ‘You’re smarter, you’re smarter than your smartphone!’ Therefore, instead of just using an app to tell you when you may be fertile or not, I encourage women to learn to track their cycles with trained FABM instructors. By working with their educator or FABM trained medical professional, they can get to the root cause of the underlying abnormalities and develop a targeted plan of treatment.”
Deepa Manda, a fourth-year medical student at University of Pikeville Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine (UP-KYCOM), plans to become a primary care physician in rural communities. She recently completed two elective classes with FACTS because she wanted a more holistic education about women’s health – beyond traditional IVF tracks for fertility care.
Manda found that FABMs are a great educational tool for women to learn about their own bodies, regardless of their stage of life. She was impressed that FABMs can help physicians in their care of women ages 15-45, monitoring them for a variety of medical issues that women have beyond fertility.
Growing up in an Indian culture, Manda felt that women’s bodies weren’t discussed. Because of this, she appreciates that FABMs are designed to educate patients, helping them make “better decisions for themselves.” Because the first goal of FABMs is education, the methods are not sexualized or political, and Manda believes they offer ways of tracking fertility that encourage self-government.
Better Education Means Better Care for Women
In practice, one female Internal Medicine physician (who wishes to remain anonymous) has used the FACTS CME course to support her patients better. She has been happy to provide patients with preliminary knowledge on how they can monitor their bodies’ signs of fertility. She sees firsthand that FABMs give “tremendous self-knowledge” to women, and that they cooperate with other medical management.
Furthermore, she has a vision for greater incorporation of FABMs into medical practice: “I think at minimum, a starting point would be for medical communities to incorporate fertility window monitoring into treatment. This I think would be a tremendous first step because of how easily the knowledge of a woman’s fertility window could be incorporated into any other care they are receiving.”
She also has witnessed the negative effects of oral contraceptive pills on women. Recently, she saw a 31-year-old female who had no prior history of deep vein thrombosis or clotting disorders. However, the patient had been taking a combined oral contraceptive (COC) pill since high school. The patient had six varicose vein ablations, and before coming to her for treatment, the patient had never been told (even by her gynecologist) that the COC was a significant risk factor for the condition.
Alec Hampton, a fourth-year medical student at Kansas City University School of Osteopathic Medicine, completed both FACTS electives this year, saying, “I feel they were invaluable to my future training to become a Family Medicine physician. FABMs are important because they empower both women and men.”
He said that his knowledge of FABMs allows him to care for women in an alternative way than what historical frameworks in medicine have offered to women in the U.S. “Many women, particularly those who are wanting to conceive, do not want to be prescribed hormonal contraception. These women are largely ignored, or referred to a specialist who can take months to even get an appointment with. FABMs provide a solution for these women and give the primary physician the tools to address the real problems affecting their patients.”
Noah Gomez, a second year OB-GYN resident at The Sisters of Charity OB/GYN Residency program in Buffalo, New York, sees that there is a large demand among women to learn natural methods of understanding their cycle. “Women want to know when they can get pregnant and not get pregnant; they want to know when they’re healthy and when they’re not.”
Gomez, who completed the FACTS electives in his fourth year of medical school, thinks that a good way to start integrating FABMs into mainstream OB/GYN practice is to add discussion of FABM use to the standard screening questions during gynecological appointments.
He believes that FABMs provide an education framework for teaching the signs and symptoms of fertility, saying, “FABMs change the paradigm of gynecology, allowing women to truly understand what’s going on within their bodies on a cyclic basis. They give them power to make their own decisions.”
Expanding Diverse and Holistic Options for Women’s Healthcare
Young medical students and physicians who recently entered the workforce are largely optimistic about how the use of FABMs can expand options for women’s healthcare. They are excited about the use of FABMs as a collaborative and empowering tool for both women and men to use while working alongside appropriately trained medical practitioners.
As Alec Hampton put it, “By providing superior healthcare, word of FABMs’ success will continue to spread, making it impossible to ignore. By practicing good, ethical medicine, we will create a demand for exactly that.”
Looking for your next summer read? We picked one topic for each month and added our team’s personal recommendations. Whether you’re looking for a memoir by a woman like you, food for thought about current debates, or to meet your new favorite saint, you’ll find it in one of the books on our list:
June: Memoirs by Contemporary Catholic Women
There’s no better way to explore your own faith than by hearing from other women like you to learn how they’re navigating life – from dive bars to leading global organizations.
- When Life Gives You Pears by Jeannie Gaffigan
- Parched by Heather King
- Something Other Than God by Jen Fulwiler
- Our Lady of Hot Messes by Leticia Ochoa Adams
- Fat Luther, Slim Pickins: A Black Catholic Celebration of Faith, Tradition, and Diversity by Marcia Lane McGee and Shannon Wimp Schmidt
- Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion by Abigail Favale
- Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World by Shannon Evans
- Working for a Better World by Carolyn Woo
- Fifteen Feet from the Pope: Dispatches from a Sabbatical in Rome by Luanne Zurlo
- The Heart of Perfection by Colleen Carol Campbell
- God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet
July: Books That Explore Current Issues and Debated Topics
From feminism to abortion and reproductive health, there’s a lot of information to sift through in today’s debates. If you’re looking to learn more – whether from those you agree with or those you don’t – check out one of these books.
- Rethinking Sex: A Provocation by Christine Emba
- The Fifth Vital Sign: Master Your Cycles & Optimize Your Fertility by Lisa Hendrickson-Jack
- Rehumanize: A Vision to Secure Human Rights for All by Aimee Murphy
- Everything Below the Waist: Why Health Care Needs a Feminist Revolution by Jennifer Block
- Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez
- Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having — or Being Denied — an Abortion by Diana Greene Foster
- This is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences by Sarah Hill, PhD
- Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health by Toni Weschler
- The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler
August: Books to Learn More About Saints
Have you ever thought that all the saints seem to be exactly alike? The women on this list will prove that assumption wrong and show you different ways to live your faith.
- Mother Teresa, CEO: Unexpected Principles for Practical Leadership by Ruma Bose and Lou Faust
- My Sisters the Saints by Colleen Carol Campbell
- The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist by Dorothy Day
- Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches by Thea Bowman and Celestine Cepress
- Pray for Us: 75 Saints Who Sinned, Suffered, and Struggled on Their Way to Holiness by Meg Hunter-Kilmer
- My Badass Book of Saints by Maria Morera Johnson
- Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux by Heather King
- Edith Stein: The Life and Legacy of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda
- Chiara Corbella Petrillo by Simone Troisi and Cristiana Paccini
- Chiara Luce: A Life Lived to the Full by Michele Zanzucchi
- Chiara Lubich: A Biography (A Spirituality of Unity) by Armando Torno
My Premarital Sexual Experiences Were Beautiful. I Still Wish I’d Waited.
I can still picture the face of the “special guest speaker” who walked into my freshman year high school religion class: Handsome, dark-haired, and with a lopsided grin, this 25-year-old boy band knock-off was here to talk to us – a group of hormonal 15-year-old girls – about sex. We giggled as he told us that sex was our secret, special treasure to keep only for our husbands. Then came the rose exercise.
Each young woman was presented with a rose. As we wandered around the room, every person we met ripped off one petal from the rose. This was supposed to represent sex: Each time we had sex with a different person, a petal was removed from the rose until all we were left with was a thorny stem.
Off-Brand-Nick-Lachey explained that, every time we engaged in premarital sex, a little bit of our sacred gift was taken away. The inevitable emotional imprint we left on our partners would lead to heartbreak and pain, hindering our ability to connect emotionally with future partners. Eventually, our souls would become so marred that there would be nothing of value to present to our spouses. “Well,” I thought, “it’s too late for me!”
The Reality of (Not) Saving Sex for Marriage Is More Nuanced Than We Think
Many Catholic women are taught that, by saving themselves for marriage, they could avoid sexual trauma and come into marriage with a clean slate. Young men are often taught that they will be rewarded for chastity with a beautiful spouse, with whom they will share ecstatic sexual union. (This is code for great orgasms.)
But the reality is far more complicated. The truth is, not all premarital sexual experiences are traumatic, and waiting for marriage does not guarantee great sex. So how are Christian women meant to contextualize our past sexual experiences, especially if they were positive?
Prior to meeting my now husband, I did not understand the divine, unitive, and sacrificial nature of love. I received a deeply flawed version of Church teaching, full of obvious falsehoods that I immediately rejected. I was told, for example, that women only experience sexual desire when they are in love.
Looking back on past relationships, I still feel grateful for the positive aspects, the beautiful moments, and the things I learned about myself. I’m happy that I was respected and cared for, and that I came out of those relationships with an understanding of my embodied self, how to communicate my desires, and the ability to find joy in sex. I also understand that using sex for my own personal growth was a misuse of my love. In approaching relationships that way, I fell short of being the most loving version of myself.
That said, it is possible to objectify another person without having sex with them. A fellow Catholic, who I’ll call Angela, recently described her experience of supposedly doing everything right, yet discovering that she, too, had made mistakes.
“If we’re living out Theology of the Body properly, it doesn’t just affect sex,” she confided during our vulnerable conversation. “You can objectify each other by telling a white lie, hiding a part of yourself, or ignoring a part of them because it’s inconvenient to you. All of those things I regret. But I also forgive myself, and I believe God forgives me as well.” I feel the same way.
The Beautiful, Messy Reality of Sex
Off-Brand-Nick-Lachey should have taught me that sex is the most concrete, earthly representation of God’s love. God loves each of us as if we encompassed the whole world, and as if all eternity were spent loving only us. That’s why we, too, should focus on just one person.
Sex brings love down to the very earth – the sweat, the scent, the mucus of human experience. It’s the very sloppiness of sex, the unexalted state, the banality that makes it beautiful. Even in marriage, sex is not usually the transcendent, ecstatic thing that purity culture promises us it will be – but that’s the point. God wants us to know that we are holy in our imperfect bodies and that we should not feel ashamed.
To be honest, I can’t say for certain that I would have behaved any differently if I had been taught Theology of the Body when I was younger, as Angela was. But it certainly would have been more compelling than a false story about how premarital sex was going to steal my dignity and ruin my marriage. The truth is always more compelling than a lie.
At the same time, Angela admits to wishing she was better prepared to embrace sexual pleasure in marriage. After years of both resisting sex and holding it up on a theological pedestal, the messy reality of sex came as a bit of a surprise. It would have been helpful, she admitted, to have some frank talk with other married women – not just about the science of cycles and pregnancy, but also practical guidance on finding sexual pleasure. Permission to take things slow and to have fun, and knowing that all of this was very normal would have gone a long way.
In an ideal world, Catholic women would receive both Theology of the Body and an understanding of just the body, without the theology. Still, despite our vastly different experiences, both Angela and I have ended up in happy, wholesome marriages. This is the truth of God’s grace at work.
I wish I could step back in time and give my 15-year-old self a hug. I want to tell her that it’s not too late and it will never be too late. I want to tell her that the man telling you that you’re broken is wrong. I wish I could tell myself that while waiting for marriage doesn’t guarantee a perfect sex life later on, it does have value in the much deeper sacred mystery.
Sex really is a mystical representation of God’s love for his people: self-giving, sacrificial, fulfilling, and creative. It blurs the lines between self and other. Sex is every bit as sacred, beautiful, and holy as the Church says it is – and nothing you can do could possibly diminish either your own value or the value of sex.
It’s always a rose that you give to your spouse.