First, what does the world teach us? Look at something like the HHS mandate. What picture of "women's health" and the "good of women" is presented here? The claim that all women must have access to contraceptive services, including sterilization and abortion, shows several underlying assumptions:
- sexuality, and more bluntly, sexual activity, is central to one's identity;
- the denial of the procreative aspect of sexuality is a denial of human purpose (and therefore an embrace of materialism and utilitarianism);
- the willingness to sacrifice another's profound good (i.e. the right to life, via abortifacient birth control) to one's own transient and purely emotional good (i.e. sexual pleasure) is promoted as a good (although it is the very antithesis of true charity);
- the "liberation" of women via self-centered, materialist, consequence-free sexual activity encourages individualism and social instability as a good, and therefore marriage, or at least marriage without no-fault divorce, as an opposing bad.
So the picture of "women's health" being advanced here is implicitly one of women having very shallow, unstable, and (probably) short-term relationships with their own identity (sexual activity, or the constant potential of it anyway, before all else; placing an inordinate priority on "my pleasure now"); with other women (reduced to objects of materialist and utilitarian nature, good for me only for what I can get from them); and with men (reduced to objects of immediate sexual satisfaction). (Simply reverse these last two reductions in the case of homosexuality.)
One can see how true this is simply by looking at any of the main-stream media. What is the image of women presented? Advertising pictures of women are almost uniformly young, skinny, and beautiful of face and figure. They are explicitly objects of desire, meant to make us men associate one appetite with another, and therefore spend. (Interesting that we're still assumed to have most of the disposable income, just judging from this kind of advertizing.) Leading women characters on TV and in movies are less uniform, but still generally shown as strong, independent, and in control, precisely in terms of "liberated" sexual relations.
But if these relationships are thus hollow, then family relationships cannot be stable, trusting, self-giving, etc. And if family life is broken, then all other subsidiary or mediating institutions between the radically isolated individual and the State are likewise impotent.
In the case of relatively affluent and well-educated women, that radical isolation and exposure is masked. The opportunity for career advancement is better, with no (permanent) husband who might have a career conflicting with your own, no hiatus of employment for child care or maternity leave, less restriction from the "glass ceiling," etc. There's a great cost for these things, of course, since wealth and status aren't happiness. But for a much larger proportion of women, who are not nearly so upwardly mobile, or who are already in poverty, the self-centered and socially unstable lifestyle only exacerbates the problems of vulnerability. Hence the permanent and ever-expanding nature of the "welfare State," which rarely works to bring anyone out of poverty, and particularly badly and systematically fails single mothers.
What's ironic about all this is that this kind of social and economic dependency, this manner of supposedly lacking a separate personal identity, is supposed to be what feminism advocates against. The argument used to be that child-bearing and traditional marriage shackled women to men, reducing them to mere objects (in practice if not in fact or in law). Therefore they needed birth control and no-fault divorce, and an independent income, in order to be equal to men.
Here, however, in the HHS mandate (and elsewhere in politics and culture), one sees clearly how, in order to be consistent about this liberation from traditional authorities, feminism has trapped women in a new cycle of sexual objectification and vulnerability. Likewise, in order to be consistent about the equality of women, feminism has had to demonize both men and babies.
Unfortunately for this brand of feminism, there is a tremendous amount of good data to show that none of these things are truly good for women. Abortion and birth control increase the risk of breast cancer and cause very serious mental health issues. Hypersexualizing women, as in the media, makes them more likely to be victims of sexual harassment or assault and less likely to form good relationships, just as pornography does for men. Social instability, especially in marriage, makes women more vulnerable to poverty, emotional or physical victimization, and poor mental health; and makes the women's children less likely to finish high school or college, more likely to experiment with crime and drugs, and much less likely to be able to form stable social relationships in turn. And so forth. This whole picture of what is good for women actually harms women, sometimes very gravely, and also harms men, who also cannot become virtuous and self-giving husbands and fathers.
In contrast to all of this, the Catholic (and Biblical, in general) view of women's health and women's good starts at a much different point: baptism. From the fact that women are baptized exactly the same as men, and can therefore participate in the Christian life fully and equally as men, and can expect the same salvation, in all its aspects, both in this life and in the next, as men, comes the irreducible equality of women in the mind of the Church. (The question of women receiving Holy Orders is here set aside; since this is a Scriptural question, not a social one, it needs to dealt with separately.)
With equal dignity comes equal purpose. The Church has always taught that women are just as much "for salvation" as men. Ever time some ancient philosophy about the inferiority of women reappeared in the Church, it was criticized and equivocated into practical meaninglessness. For example, ancient Roman law held that women could not be "sui iuris," a free juridical person with full public rights; and various attempts to revive Roman law in the West tried to include this idea. But the practical reality of the fact of equal dignity forced all these attempts to make exceptions for things like widows inheriting from their husbands, women making bequests to churches, and women's judicial testimony being accepted in court. Make enough exceptions and the principle is void of effective meaning; this is precisely what happened, over and over.
Also because of this equal baptismal dignity, the Church has always strongly defended the unique gift of maternity for women. The Church's recognition of the sacramentality of marriage protects women's health and women's rights, against all the negative outcomes described above, and against the dehumanizing possessiveness of polygamous cultures also. And marriage must be freely entered into to be valid; coerced marriage of women, common in every other ancient culture, found no home in Christianity. Further, the Church has always held (or attempted to hold, at least) the socially powerful to a special obligation to protect widows and orphans. She invented the very idea of "civilian" and "non-combatant," mostly in order to protect women and children from the side-effects of war. Every one of our social categories today of "vulnerable" people stems from this Christian idea of special defense for widows and orphans.
Nor has the Church ever reduced women only to the role of wife and mother. In addition to married life, women have always had both institutional and non-institutional forms of religious life open to them. Indeed, the oldest form of religious life in the Church is that of "consecrated virginity," in which a woman (whether never married or widowed, whether young or old) publicly declares her intention to live "spiritually." The Church grants her protection to such women, who otherwise live in the world (but not of the world) in perfectly ordinary ways - with their families (often several women from an extended family lived this way together), or singly, owning property, conducting business, and giving a much-respected model of Christian charity to all. Abbesses of monastic houses could be extremely powerful women. Some monastic houses were "double," with one cloister for men and one for women; about half the time, the abbess rather than the abbot was in overall charge of the double house.
By defending baptismal dignity, the stability of marriage, the rights of religious women of all kinds, and the rights of widows and orphans, as well as practical property and judicial rights for women, the ancient and medieval Catholic Church laid a very firm foundation for women's authentic flourishing in the modern world. And in the new social circumstances of modernity, the same core wisdom is being used to articulate a much healthier vision of women's good, for example in Mulieris Dignitatem and the Theology of the Body. This vision does not reduce women to a sexual object, but asserts their full potential for conformity to Christ; does not offer shallow and transitory relationships, but asserts the profound joy and completion found differently in both marriage and friendship; does not expose women more to the vulnerability of radical isolation, but builds up strong and stable subsidiary networks, starting with the family; does not increasingly impoverish and make more dependent, but enriches, both spiritually and materially, by pointing to Christ's great freedom for charity.