When the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast honors Helen Alvaré with its annual Christifideles Laici Award on Feb. 8, the pro-life legal scholar and speaker will deliver some hard truths to her Beltway audience.
Given the headwinds facing the Catholic Church and the pro-life movement, Alvaré told the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner, that lay Catholics “can’t leave the challenge of communicating the faith to the professionals. To repeat that famous line: ‘You have to give a reason for the hope that is in you’” (1 Pt 3:15).
Alvaré has sought to live this teaching in her own life and work as a go-to legal expert who has advised the U.S. bishops and the Vatican. At present, she holds the Robert A. Levy Endowed Chair in Law and Liberty at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Virginia. She previously served for 13 years at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, initially in the Office of General Counsel and then at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.
The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast “was established in response to St. John Paul the Great’s call for a new evangelization, and Helen, who gave an extraordinary speech at our 2013 breakfast, has demonstrated a fearless commitment to the faith in her personal and professional life,” Mark Randall, director and chairman of the event, told the Register.
“Helen Alvaré’s achievements as a legal scholar are not only extraordinary, they are almost unique,” Gerard Bradley, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, told the Register. “She holds a chaired professorship at a top-flight, secular law school. But while most solidly pro-life scholars who reach the same heights do so by publishing on subjects that are far afield from abortion and family law, and their students may not even know that their professor is pro-life, Helen Alvaré has become a nationally renowned legal scholar by publishing on life and family issues and also continues to speak out.”
Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput of Philadelphia echoed Bradley’s assessment, as he noted Alvaré’s extensive contributions to both the U.S. bishops’ work on pro-life issues and the broader public discourse on polarizing social issues that not only divide the American electorate but U.S. Catholics as well.
“In 2015, when we held the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, we chose Helen to present on the main stage,” Chaput said, noting her skill as a speaker who makes the faith “attractive.”
Loss and hope
In 2022, the Catholic University of America published Alvaré’s latest work, “Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution: A Catholic Guide.” It outlines her argument for a more robust and confident Catholic response to growing threats to religious freedom and highlights the link between Christian sexual ethics and love of God and neighbor.
The text is imbued with the author’s love of the faith and of Scripture. Both ground her public ministry and keep her going when reasons for hope can feel elusive.
In 2022, Alvaré lost her husband of 37 years, Brian Joseph Duggan, 64, an international trade representative, following a ruptured aneurysm. The couple met as undergraduates at Villanova University and raised three children, Catherine, Julian, and Robert Paul.
Duggan’s death has left Alvaré feeling more vulnerable and reflective, and she struggled to contain her emotions as she spoke about the shock of his unexpected death.
She has also been shaken to her core by the fury of the political backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, with abortion-rights activists celebrating a slew of wins at the ballot box over the past year.
“When you see people jumping up and down to celebrate the destruction of a human life inside the person charged most with the protection and care of that life, you know something’s deeply wrong,” said Alvaré, her tone more somber than usual but still retaining its passionate intensity.
Return to the ‘basics’
The present state of U.S. culture and politics requires a return to the “basics” of moral reasoning and feels like a throwback to the 1990s, when she was in her 30s and served as the U.S. bishops’ spokeswoman on life issues. “Back then, when I got on a plane to give a pro-life talk somewhere and a fellow passenger asked me what I did, I’d look around to consider how many ‘stare downs’ I could take on one flight,” she said with a laugh.
But she also understood the feminist mindset that may have provoked the “stare downs.”
“I am a product of second-wave feminism and had no intention of marrying or having children,” she said. “I just happened to meet Brian, and thought, ‘How do I keep my dearest friend in my life forever?’ And it’s like, oh, marriage is the vehicle for me to never be parted from Brian and to have children together.”
Over time, Alvaré’s experience as a wife and mother altered her outlook and continues to inform her life choices today.
“You learn from your children and you learn to sacrifice,” she said. “That has been huge in my life.”
But her exposure to the deep countercultural truths that ground Catholic family life actually began in her own childhood, in a comfortable Philadelphia suburb.
Alvaré was the youngest of five siblings raised in a vibrant, devoutly Catholic home headed by a beloved Cuban-American father. And while Helen was a star student with many interests, she was close to her sister Louise, who struggled with intellectual disabilities.
“Helen, who was always very loquacious, was Louise’s defender,” Rodie Alvaré, one of Helen’s older siblings, told the Register. “If someone in the neighborhood wasn’t nice to Louise, she would go and speak to them.”
Anita Alvaré, another sister, told the Register that “Louise defined our family and made us more aware of those in need. Helen started volunteering in Appalachia in high school, and her life has been given over to service,” she said. “And I, for one, have always admired Louise more than anyone because of her daily struggle [to accomplish her goals.]”
Alvaré brought these life experiences to her work for the USCCB.
In 1987, she arrived as a newly minted doctor of law from Cornell Law School. She helped draft amicus briefs for Supreme Court cases at the conference’s legal counsel office, while finishing up a master’s in systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.
But as her distinct mix of strengths became apparent, bishops’ conference officials offered her a new and critically important position at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.
Richard Doerflinger, who served for more than three decades as associate director of the secretariat, told the Register that Alvaré’s appointment marked the conference’s decision to enter the nation’s ongoing debate over the morality and legality of abortion in a new, more media-savvy way.
The politics of life issues had begun to shift during this period, and the USCCB’s own polling revealed that many Americans knew almost nothing about Roe v. Wade.
“We realized that what we needed was not only basic education but someone to go on talk shows and television and write op-eds to explain what Roe actually meant,” Doerflinger said. “Helen was a brilliant attorney who was fast on her feet and had a knack for presenting complicated matters in an appealing and easily understandable way.”
“Her personality mitigated backlash,” he added. And her sense of humor and sense of style “tended to confound people’s stereotypes” about how pro-life women should dress, speak, or behave.
The result, he said, was that Alvaré often disarmed her opponents while also inspiring young pro-life women to get more involved in the battle over legal abortion.
Theresa Notare, who serves as assistant director of the Natural Family Planning Program at the USCCB and has known Alvaré for more than 30 years, singled out her ability to diffuse political polarization. “I have listened to many of her talks and never saw her lose her cool or treat another person in a debate with less than the dignity they are owed as a child of God,” Notare told the Register.
“She is also one of the hardest workers I know: Her love language is getting the job done — whether it’s making a meal for her family and friends, writing an article, or training other women to speak publicly [on social issues].”
Alvaré continued with her pro-life speaking and legal activities after she took up her new duties as a law professor at George Mason University, where she has taught for almost 24 years.
Henry Butler, the Manne Professor of Law and Economics at George Mason, who previously served as dean of the university’s law school, told the Register that Alvaré was a draw for applicants who closely followed her legal scholarship and related initiatives.
“When I was dean, I recruited students to come to George Mason, and I found out what they were interested in,” Butler said. “Those who shared Helen’s objectives already knew who she was and wanted to be a student of hers.”
Some of those future lawyers most likely had read and possibly signed a 2012 open letter Alvaré co-authored, “Catholic Women Speak for Themselves,” which challenged efforts by the Democratic Party to frame the U.S. bishops’ opposition to President Barack Obama’s contraceptive mandate as a “war on women.” The letter, which reflected Alvaré’s ongoing campaign to help Catholic women challenge false political narratives, garnered tens of thousands of signatures.
Alvaré has published widely in scholarly journals, and for the Dobbs case before the Supreme Court, she co-authored a high-profile amicus brief that sought to dismantle claims that the overthrow of Roe v. Wade would stall women’s economic and social progress.
“[G]iven the wide array of other possible factors fostering women’s success, it is impossible to show that abortion is the cause of women’s economic and social success,” concluded the brief, written by Alvaré, the Abigail Adams Institute’s Erika Bachiochi, and University of St. Thomas law professor Teresa Collett, who deployed a trove of data to upend a central argument of abortion-rights advocates. “It is more likely, in fact, that widely available abortion harmed women in the realms of personal relationships as well as in the development of law and policy accommodating women’s childbearing and parenting.”
The 2022 Dobbs ruling marked a breakthrough for abortion politics in the U.S. However, the ensuing pushback has led Alvaré to drill deeper into the relationship between the law and religion in her legal writings.
At the same time, her husband’s sudden passing has made her more aware of the radical demands of her vocation as a Catholic mother and scholar.
And these days she spends more time in prayer and reflection and has “intensified her dedication” to her students and her adult children.
“Jesuit Walter Ciszek, in his famous book, ‘He Leadeth Me,’ wrote that he stopped asking about the big questions all the time, and just said, ‘Your will is here in the room with me. It’s the next thing I’ve been asked to do,’” she noted. “This has become more evident to me.”
‘Make the case for Christ’
And yet, the “big questions” have always been central to Alvaré’s public outreach. Indeed, during her interview with the Register, she spoke passionately about the need to counter the aggressive promotion of abortion following the Dobbs decision.
“It is important to remind people of what is at stake in this wealthy, powerful nation that is losing its way in many areas,” she said. “Will we make room for new life, value childbearing, the role of women, the role of fathers, the role of sacrifice?”
“But to share this truth,” she concluded, “we have to learn to speak to people who are almost unchurched, including Catholics who were raised in a Catholic home and attended Catholic school.”
Today, as before, she is urging fellow Catholics to “make the case for Christ” and show what is beautiful and distinctive about the Christian vision of life.
“To reflect on these questions,” she said, “is to understand how attractive, how brilliant, how consoling, how challenging the Catholic faith is.”