Alvaré (left) and Savorana. Photo by Tierney Monahan.

Helen Alvaré: Everything in Service of Love

We publish the text of Helen Alvaré's remarks on March 10, 2019, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour.
Helen Alvaré

We publish the text of Helen Alvaré's talk on March 10, 2019, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour. Helen Alvaré is a Professor of Law at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University.

Anyone who knows me can tell you: I’m never too intimidated to speak in front of anyone, anywhere. Sean Cardinal O’Malley once dragged me in front of 25,000 people at a Boston baseball park—but to be honest, I’m a little intimidated here today. People who have been walking with Fr. Giussani and following his method are here, and they have been walking for decades. Years ago—I think it was in the mid- or late-‘90s—I heard Lorenzo Albacete and Paolo Carozza at Notre Dame, when they were talking about Giussani’s book The Risk of Education. I bought a copy but couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I was in my early 40s. A long time passed before I stumbled across another book of Giussani’s, The Religious Sense, which spoke to me like it knew me and everything that mattered to me and everything that I was worried about—perhaps because it arrived at a later point in my life. It’s also intimidating to be here because this is a really big book. I’ve been traveling the last few months, giving a presentation a week at different universities around the country, and I’ve been forced to carry the book because it’s too big for my briefcase or backpack. But it has provoked many wonderful conversations. You have no idea how many people want to know what possibly can be drawing you to read a book that big and schlep it onto a plane with you. So the book itself has been a powerful tool. And it stands as a tremendous journalistic accomplishment: its depth and breadth, the number of encounters and conversations it recounts, the little unassuming nuggets of insight and wisdom that make you pause and think. It’s really something. A hundred people’s view of this piece of history, with an array of perspectives offering something for everyone. Such an accomplishment. I have exclamation points and stars drawn on most pages and have scribbled many notes. It looks like a maniac read the book. It is difficult to make a limited and orderly response to such a book, so what I’ll do first is talk about the experiences that shaped the person reflecting on this book—me—so that you’ll understand I came to Fr. Giussani and this book as a person struggling against the very limitations the Movement hoped to overcome. Then I’ll zero in on his educational approach, because I too am an educator.

The experience of being drawn to God, with the question this provokes, has shaped my person. Fr. Giussani experienced it early, in high school, at the seminary; it’s the most interesting question there is for one’s life. For me, however, it was not a straight path to a religious vocation, but rather a back and forth between various paths. Should I study religion? Yes, but should I study religion in the context of becoming a religious sister? Maybe, so I discerned that for a while. Then I met my husband at seventeen and the thought of becoming a religious was over. I earned a PhD and taught theology. Then I was asked by the U.S. bishops’ conference to be a public voice, so I did that. I became a lawyer and worked for justice but didn’t get too far from religion. I read theology every day while teaching it, and taught law as well. I’m like a Rorschach test for anyone with a hundred different interests and aptitudes, wondering how to address religion as the most interesting question and God as the most interesting hypothesis.

What this book spoke to in my own experience of working with the Church for thirty years is: problems and opportunities. I’m an educator who has worked within the Church bureaucracy. But I’m also aware of, and very serious about, the questions that have been entrusted to me. God called me in the experiences of my life—the USCCB job, for example, in which I worked on issues that unfortunately lend themselves to the trap of moralism. It’s been an interesting thirty-five years with the Church.

Let me unpack those a bit. As an educator who’s also a parent, I want, as do so many, to transmit this faith to my children. Fr. Giussani makes you ask: “Why?” Why? Is it pride? “I won’t lose this generation! I’m not going to be like my cousins, siblings, and all those others whose children don’t practice the faith!” Is it merely a strategy to save your children from bad “isms” in the world that hurt them? Or rather is it really to know Christ as a source of freedom and as the meaning of everything? I sincerely hope I have graduated to the third category, but pride and fear still tug. The other thing I’ve learned from Fr. Giussani—and maybe I’ll have trouble explaining this—is that you constantly must be in conversation…which immediately you’ll guess is not that tough for me. You must talk to your children, and any others you educate, about distinguishing between the world’s answer to everything and the Christian proposition. You have to merit distinctions. Descriptions are useful, but as any philosopher will tell you, distinctions are more important. And people only know how critical it is to see Christ as the meaning of everything when they compare it to other things that offer themselves as the answer to everything. My greatest regret is that I did not discover the CL community when I was younger. I could have brought my children into the presence of people who understood this communion as a fact of life. This regret, along with an understanding of my role as an educator, didn’t become clear to me until much later.

Like I said a moment ago, I’ve been in the Church bureaucracy. My job entailed, among other things, writing the bishops’ opinions for the Supreme Court and explaining the bishops’ opinions to Congress. Nearly every week, I would be on television and radio as an apologist, explaining why we are reasonable, why we are charitable, and why the consistency of our positions obliterates the world’s right and left distinctions. I learned many things during my thirteen years in that bureaucracy. There are beautiful people within it, but what I really enjoyed were the encounters with people on my trips. My husband will tell you that I came home from long, horrid trips—during which I had slept on airport floors—more energetic than before I left, because I was encountering people. I remember the Midwest pro-life director whose daughter got pregnant at eighteen. She told me how her husband was about to build his man-cave in the basement because all the kids were gone, but she found the daughter a little distressed about the pregnancy; the mother tells the husband and he begins swinging his hammer and breaking down the basement walls. She said, “Honey, it’s going to be okay, don’t lose it.” He said, “I’m okay, I’m just building a nursery and I’d better get started now because when is she due?” These are the people I met. I met people who went from working in the pro-life movement to setting up supply warehouses for all the single moms. I came back feeling more called to my work because of the people I met out there. The greatest gift that the USCCB offered me was a plane ticket to every diocese in the country. A hundred days a year for ten years I met Catholic communities one at a time. That’s what emerged from the bureaucracy, and it’s still with me today.

Fr. Giussani proved himself utterly necessary for me in another area as well. I deal with issues that easily devolve into moralism or intellectualism: sex, marriage, parenting, pro-life work. I’d always had an intuition that is wasn’t good to present such issues in the way they’re so often framed: “No, you can’t”; “It’s immoral”; “We have a rule for that.” I knew it wasn’t an entirely Christian approach to life. But at this time in history, these issues are the ones the Catholic Church is getting beaten up over; these are the issues we’re making our religious claims about when cooperating with schools and charities. Everything from contraception mandates to same-sex marriage. And on top of everything else, we have the Church enmeshed in one of the great sex scandals of all time. I’d always had an inclination towards synthesis, but after reading Fr. Giussani’s trilogy three times, I knew that this was the direction in which to move.

I was captured by a story in the biography. Fr. Giussani is riding his bicycle past a couple who are kissing in a kind of lover’s lane. He stops, hops off his bike and says to them, “Why did you jump apart? If what you are doing is good, then go ahead. Because it is part of the good, it’s part of what you want to be doing.” Just before he leaves, he comes back again and says, “Have you thought about what you are doing in relationship to the stars and everything there is?” I thought, That’s the answer I want. That’s how I want to explain it to people. Imagine the difference if the Catholic Church could say, if even the Little Sisters of the Poor, who so bravely fought the contraception mandate, could say, “We are a community that witnesses to the fullness of love. And when it comes to sex and its role in human life, we stand with a vision of sex that says your love looks to tomorrow, it looks to marriage, children, family, a future development of the two of you, a real union—and this love, we believe, points to people understanding, getting a glimpse of what God looks like, and what God’s love is like, and how we are supposed to treat other people. That’s why we don’t pay for contraception: because we are trying to build a community here, and these things flow out of it.” Instead of, “I’m sorry, we can’t, we don’t do contraception.” Giussani asks, Is everything you are doing, is everything you are teaching, in service of love? Does your expression of the male, female, parent-child relationship point to real values? I don’t have a brief answer to how we are going to communicate it, but I do know it’s the right path and it’s my path.

Finally, just a few brief thoughts on education. Again and again in the biography, we see Fr. Giussani’s obedience to the Church, despite the incredible suffering he experienced at its hands, and in particular at the hands of certain bishops. Today, with the sex abuse scandal, the idea of obedience to this Church is one of the furthest things from anyone’s mind. Our credibility on the issues I write about has nearly vaporized. I have had close-up work with the hierarchy, which in the biography is at some point referred to as the skeleton of the Church: not everything, not the whole body, but a framework that has to stand and that—as he notes in his book Why the Church?—is an authority present from the very beginning. It was there, it was intrinsic to the community. Right away there were people who rose up to be leaders. Right away they knew authority as part of the structure of the Church. But I have spent time in a bureaucracy where it hasn’t always been evident that these people were the leaders we needed at the time. I remember being utterly scandalized when a priest of the diocesan vocation office casually said something like, “Well, you have your A-, your B-, and your C-level priests.” Yet Fr. Giussani says it’s not a meritocracy but a vocation. It’s about obedience as the structure of the community. I thought about how he experienced it and why his commitment to obedience was so strong. Granted, the times in which he lived lent themselves to a generous obedience. But we can see that he was always in dialogue, even with the people most engaged in trying to thwart him. He dialogued with people in leadership, and eventually was able to have close dialogues with popes. He dialogued with people he admired, and therefore was able always to maintain obedience. Had he reduced obedience to a Church mandate, it would have been a more difficult position to uphold. Today, obedience is not going to sell very well, and I think we’ve returned in some sense to the situation of the earliest Christian communities. The Church has to be built up by small local groups, be they movements, parishes, or university groups, so that we can again understand obedience to authority is part of our structure. I think we have to learn it all over again.

Something else I want to mention is the discussion about the needs of the human person being the person’s path to God. What a genius method! Especially for today, when people navel-gaze so much, when identity politics is ruling the roost. What people need to understand is that their needs, which are a path toward freedom and a glimpse of God, are shared by everyone. They need to know that literally every other person on the street has these same needs. To me, this is the Good Samaritan story as a limiting principle. We’re always freaked out by the Good Samaritan story. Everybody lying in your path. Well, God put only so many people in your path. Our physical being limits the number of people we are going to encounter and how. This method of thinking about our needs and desires—but also thinking about them with others that we meet—is a brilliant method for introducing people to the way of love, and eventually to the way of Christ.

Finally, the necessity of positivity. Another hard saying in today’s world of education. As Fr. Giussani says, the problem is not finding victory as relief inside a death, but the meaning of death inside the fervor of life. Wow. To be frank, I kind of thought of life as getting a few minutes to breathe through labor pains. When I was delivering my first child, the nurse said to me, “Try to relax between labor pains.” I thought, I’m going to hurt you. That had kind of been my philosophy—probably not a good one. As a parent and educator, I think it’s a requirement to be positive. It’s a requirement to have hope, because I brought these children into the world, I am one of their “but for” causations, and because it’s the only logical outcome of a faith in which God is not dead but resurrected. It’s hard for me because of the issues I work on, which have seen such a dramatic difficulty in the world today, and in which the Church stands alone. If you hear the way I talk about it, then you’ll see that maybe I’m not doing such a great job talking about it, and that it’s a struggle to be a person who is. It’s difficult for me, but I take such great solace from Fr. Giussani that life is more than taking a breath between labor pains.

I worked with Cardinal O’Connor. I remember that all the Sisters of Life, the order he founded, wanted to have lunch with me and talk to me about what I took from the charism of Cardinal O’Connor. Now, after reading this book, I understand their thirst, because I’m jealous of all of you who got to walk with Fr. Giussani.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity.