Law professor Helen Alvaré to present Bishop Lucker Lecture March 23

Alvaré's talk to address role of government, law in promoting unconstrained sexual expression

NEW ULM – What is the government doing in the arena of human sexuality? How does it come to tell us philosophically, theologically, and practically what sex means? How did the federal government get into this business? Why?

These are some of the questions that presenter Helen Alvaré plans to answer in her upcoming Bishop Lucker Lecture. The Diocese of New Ulm’s annual event will begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 23 at the Church of St. Catherine in Redwood Falls. A reception will follow the event. The public is welcome to attend.

No one disputes the fact that the government is promoting a certain view of sexuality, she says. From Supreme Court decisions legalizing artificial contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage, to the President draping the White House in the rainbow flag and talking about the necessity of transgender surgery, the evidence is plain.

The question is why.

Furthermore, “why are they causing so much misery for women and children, especially the poor?” she asks rhetorically.

“We’ve got far more unintended, non-marital pregnancy, and the feminization of poverty. How come they still get to do this? It’s a complete failure.”

The title of Alvaré’s talk is “The Rise of Sexual Expressionism in the Law.” She will provide an expanded treatment of the topic in a forthcoming book, “Putting Children’s Interests First: U.S. Family Law and Policy,” due out from Cambridge University Press this fall.

Alvaré is currently a professor of law at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Va., where she teaches family law, law and religion, and property law. She has also taught law at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America and the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and Family, both in Washington, D.C.

To whet people’s appetite for her talk, Alvaré agreed to do an interview for The Prairie Catholic. Following are quested posed to Alvaré and her answers.

Q. How did you become interested in this topic?

I have been struck by two things for a long time. First, the oddity that federal actors (the Supreme Court, President, etc.) would, in law, instruct Americans about the meaning of sex, which is not a legal question. It’s pre-legal. It’s human and divine.

Second, that when they did instruct, they taught that sex is important for its affective, communicative meanings between the couple, and for its “identify-formation” properties,  unrelated to the fact that it is the place children are conceived, and unrelated to the fact that it therefore, per se, tends toward being associated with ideas like union, family, kin, and future.

Q. What were the events in society that led to the valorization of adult consensual sex in the law? What role did the general acceptance of artificial contraception play?

There is interplay among social, cultural, technical, and legal factors. Sex is naturally valorized because of its power to communicate love and to bond a couple, and because it is the only spot where God himself chose to “locate” conception. That’s powerful stuff.

What the government, culture, and technology did was to tease these elements out from one another artificially. Even before the pill, the rise of the separation of sex from children occurred in the early 20th century when writers predicted that birth control would improve marital sex and overall happiness because it would focus sex on the happiness of the couple alone.

Everything from the rise of individualism to the American cult of happiness to the rise of youth culture to the sexualization of consumption (via advertising) contributed to the further separation of sex from all of its meanings.

Contraception technology was the most recent and powerful blow to integral sexuality. Catholic teaching aside, many non-Catholic commentators have pointed out that when you remove even the idea of children from sex, and set it off as about nothing more than physical pleasure and maybe couple bonding, you do things to sex which redound to the disadvantage of men, women, and children.

Sex is asked to bear more importance than it can bear. Infidelity and non-marital sex increase rapidly; non-marital children are born more frequently; women’s and men’s happiness declines as there is no open-ended commitment “necessary” any longer, etc.

Q. What do you mean that sex is asked to bear more importance than it can bear?

There’s two sides. On the one side, we say that when you drag out of sex the fact that it creates new life, it becomes, in the words of this one philosopher, “unbearably light.” So that’s one side of it, that you’ve just taken away the fact that it is the source of the creation of all human life. You’ve removed something really significant ….

The other side is when you take that out of it, what is left is this communication between men and women, which is in the movies and ads and discussions of modern romance. Now this is supposed to be all there is.

This is all the weight it has, and it is supposed to be sublime. It is not just supposed to be for pleasure, but it is supposed to communicate precisely what you want it to communicate, no more and no less. It is now supposed to fill all the space that all the meanings of sex used to have, of unity, kin, family, future, plus intimacy, plus the bond, plus the kids.

Q. When you talk about sexual expression, you do not describe it in terms of freedom like many people would. Why?

Freedom means becoming who God intends us to be. We are most free when we are most “human in the image of God.” Sex serves freedom then, when it is what it really is as God created it – when its actions and meanings are not artificially severed.

I say this as a person who did not accept the Church’s teachings axiomatically on this subject when I was younger. I believed the Church to be sexist and physicalist on this point.  I grew, not only through my reading of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but also by reading the great philosophers and sociologists of the 20th century, who understood what happens to sex when it is made “unbearably light” by the divorcing of sex from its factual realities.

Q. Why did you think the Church’s teaching was sexist? Physicalist? How was your thinking transformed?

I thought it was sexist because I thought they really weren’t considering the burdens on women of being pregnant, giving birth, and taking care of children. They simply didn’t care. They just thought, “Sorry, you’re just going to have to face more children than you want, and more child care, and we’re just not highly concerned about it. We are older men, making the rules, and we don’t really understand where you’re coming from. Nor do we wish to.” That was really my perspective in my teens and early twenties.

Physicalist, in the sense that … I had the position very much of the dissenters of “Humanae Vitae,” which was, “Isn’t the real question whether you generously welcome children, not in every act, but really?” …

I guess what changed me was the actual experience of marriage combined with the fact that this issue bothered me since I was a kid. …

You know, the best way to understand something is to think about its opposite by distinction, not description, right? And the opposite is, what if sex is divorced from the fact of its being the place of new life? What will happen? What does it do to the relationship between men and women? What does it do to people’s thinking about children? …

I became persuaded in my own marriage that the openness to children, the rejection of contraception, actually laid the groundwork for a happier, more integrated, more natural, more holistic appreciation of the union that I have promised my husband and the welcome that I wanted to extend to my children.

Q. Why are women and children hurt by a society that values unconstrained sexual expression?

Women are more oriented toward wishing sex to be associated with commitment, and toward accepting children. They will be more disappointed and even depressed when sex is not so associated. And they will be in 86 percent of all single parent households and 100 percent of abortion clients. They are also the bodies harmed by various forms of contraception. But don’t be fooled. Men need stable, long-term, healthy relationships with women and their children too. They are emotionally scarred – but not in the same visible ways.

You have said that most prominent federal and state government policies are all about “self-empowerment” and birth control, not about stable marital and parenting communities. How has this negatively affected poor women?

Life is relational even more than it is individual. We are vulnerable for a great deal of our lives. We want to love and give love. When the government frames the human person as an individual first and foremost, it forgets this.

Well off women and men, with the same preferences as the poor for marriage and marital parenthood, will fare better than the poor. The well-off have more opportunities for marriage partners and have prospects for better jobs and education. They will less likely exercise their need to be “a gift to someone” by having a non-marital birth; but for poorer women and men, without the trade-off or opportunity cost of a good education or job, will more likely fall into that pattern of life.

Q. Why will well-off women less readily exercise their need to be a gift to someone than poor women by having a non-marital birth? Is it because of their need to have someone to depend on them, to love them unconditionally?

Every person, anthropologically, is a gifted giver. We have gifts, and we are called as part of being human to give them. We’re not happy if we cannot be in relationship and give the gifts that we’ve been given.

Poor women, like advantaged women, have this – every woman, every man. The constraint that every woman has is that you’re only fertile for so long. … The preferences that poor women and well-off women have is most of them want to have kids. Most of them wind up with children in their lives, between 80 and 90 percent of women.

But there are different constraints and opportunity costs for the poor woman, and this is what I mean. In her community, she is very unlikely to have as many opportunities for marriage. There are drastically more men who are incarcerated; there are drastically more men with past criminal records; there are drastically more men who cannot get a job, which people have come to believe is a prerequisite for marriage.

The other thing a poor woman is facing is what we call lower opportunity costs. If a middle class or wealthy woman, an educated woman, has a child, the opportunity she is giving up is to finish college and to have a good job.

If the poor woman has a child, she is not trading off a good job or a good education. Her opportunity for achieving those is quite low. … They are facing a situation where having a child is a narrative of success in their community: “I can be a mother” – “I can be a good mother” – “I can face the odds.”