Over ten years ago, I left my first job as an acquisitions editor in a Catholic publishing house just prior to the birth of my first child. I was ineligible for FMLA, both because I had only worked there just shy of a year and because the employer wasn’t even required to offer it due to their small size. I was reassured that I was welcome back, but any leave would have been unpaid, and likely brief. Back then in the early 2010s, flexible work wasn’t flexible enough to afford parents more time at home than in an office. Combined with the fact that my already-low salary would have quickly been eaten up by daycare costs, it simply didn’t make financial sense to continue working. So I left. I’ll never forget chatting with my manager later, after he had hired my replacement, and hearing him say that he anticipated that he “was going to have the same problem” with the new editor, as she was a young, newly-married woman, likely to start a family.
I only returned to work a few years later, working for a different Catholic employer that better prioritized the needs of working mothers (their policies included a “bring baby to work” policy and on-site childcare). Those accommodations allowed me to contribute professionally during the early years of my children’s lives; I still have photos of my infants lounging in bouncers or having tummy time on the floor while I worked.
At the same time that I was deciding whether to continue working, a friend was negotiating a very stressful ministry job when she first became a mom. Her Catholic parish was initially welcoming when she brought her daughter to work–until her baby’s developmentally normal needs disrupted the normal running of a parish office. That working mother ended up spending each day not only trying to juggle the myriad tasks of a catechist and parish minister in a large parish, but trying to do so while keeping her needy baby quiet in a bouncer in her small office. She, too, ended up moving away from full-time ministry in the Church.
As a millennial woman, I have quite a few friends with similar stories. And we generally enjoy privileges and options that many other mothers do not have. We believe deeply in the dignity and beauty of our vocation as wives and mothers. At the same time, we also believe what we have been taught about the “feminine genius.” The Church has asked us to bring our unique gifts to bear in the Church and in the world. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II both spoke eloquently of women as a humanizing force in the world, necessary even for bringing about peace. Many of us have grown up surrounded by women in our families and parishes who are doing just that. Pope Francis reiterated this message just last week, in an address to the Italian Women’s Center:
Indeed, by gaining power in society, women can change the system. You can change the system, women can change the system if they can…convert power from the logic of domination to that of service, to that of care. There is a conversion to be made: power with the logic of domination, converting it into power with the logic of service, with the logic of care.
Furthermore, Pope Francis has significantly expanded the formal roles open to women, and on March 19, 2022, just released his reform of the Curia, which codifies this and calls for the involvement of both laymen and laywomen in the structures of the Roman Curia:
Every Christian, by virtue of Baptism, is a disciple-missionary “to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus”. This cannot but be taken into account in the updating of the Curia, whose reform, therefore, must foresee the involvement of laymen and women, also in roles of governance and responsibility. (Paragraph 10, working translation from Italian)
But what my friends and I have come to realize is that it is not enough to say laudatory things about women and their important role. Nor is it even enough to call for greater involvement of women in the highest levels of the Church. Women must not only be allowed in, but enabled to participate. For the sake of women’s full involvement in society–and in the Church–greater supports for working mothers are essential. We cannot say that women’s voices need to be heard if we don’t listen to those voices when their needs become too difficult to bear. It’s simply not enough to say we want to have women be co-responsible for leadership in the Church; we must truly enable them to exercise this co-responsibility.
Parental leave policies are often overlooked when the topic of women’s involvement in the Church is discussed. FemCatholic recently opened up a new angle on this discussion by carrying out a nationwide investigation into maternity leave policies in U.S. dioceses. Their full report, authored by Isabella Volmert, Kelly Sankowski, and Renée Roden is comprehensively researched and illustrated with stories from women from around the country for whom this is an exceedingly practical issue.
What were their primary findings?
FemCatholic reached out to the 176 dioceses across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to confirm their family leave policies. Through telephone interviews with current and former diocesan employees, FemCatholic ascertained that 31 dioceses offer fully paid maternity leave policies, 32 provide some percentage of employee salaries through either short-term disability or state paid leave laws, and 44 do not offer any paid leave.
The report describes the current state of required parental leave policies in the United States while also diving into the reasons dioceses provided for why they offer limited or no paid leave:
Dioceses lack paid leave for a variety of reasons: there’s no legal requirement, they have a small staff or they believe staff can cover maternity through accrued time off and disability insurance. The largest percent of dioceses surveyed by FemCatholic do not offer paid leave, but offer the amount of unpaid leave required by state or federal family leave laws.
According to their research, there appeared to be little correlation between the assets in a given diocese and whether that diocese offered paid leave. Instead, those who did offer it cited their pro-life and pro-family values:
The dioceses who do offer paid leave have a variety of motivations for doing so. Some dioceses are simply following the law. Others are offering paid leave in an effort to put their faith in action. In either employee handbooks or conversations with FemCatholic, more than a dozen dioceses explicitly cited wanting to support families or be open to life as reasons for offering paid leave.
This is really the heart of the matter: paid leave policies are an expression of what we believe as Catholics, both about the sanctity of life and about the purpose of marriage as a union of life and love that is open to the gift of children. They are also an expression of what we believe about women and about the value of women’s contributions to the Church. Offering paid leave to Catholic working mothers is a concrete expression of these values and affirms the need for the full involvement of women in the Church’s work. Such policies would enable a more significant number of Catholic women to exercise their co-responsibility for the Church’s mission through work in the institutions of the Church. Such policies would also treat women with justice and dignity by giving them what is rightfully their due. Ministry and leadership in the Church should not be reserved or restricted to women religious or older women who are past the difficult yet joyful seasons of childbearing and raising young children.
In closing their report, FemCatholic pointed to the example and policies in Rome as a model for dioceses in the US:
Recent Church leaders have written frequently on women’s participation in the economy as a moral issue worth prioritizing. In his 2015 address to the Italian National Institute of Social Security, Pope Francis said, “May your priorities include special attention to women’s employment, as well as to maternity assistance which must always defend new life and those who serve it daily. Defend women, women’s employment.”
The Vatican State itself offers new mothers six months of paid leave after a child is born at 50% pay and now offers three days of paternity leave.
Kerry Robinson, of Leadership Roundtable, said, “Who else should be the gold standard of generous parental leave policies than the Catholic Church?”
This woman-led initiative is evidence of what Pope Francis said last week: “Women are the protagonists of this change of course, of this conversion.” Let’s begin.
Rachel Amiri is a contributor and past Production Editor for Where Peter Is. She has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.