What does it look like to support women, children, and families?
“Much remains to be done to prevent discrimination against those who have chosen to be wives and mothers …This is a matter of justice but also of necessity … It will force systems to be redesigned in a way that favors the processes of humanization that mark the ‘civilization of love.'” – Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Women, 1995
When I had my first child, I had to stay in the hospital with him for a week following delivery because he had jaundice and some other medical issues requiring him to remain in the NICU. When he was only two weeks old, I honored my commitment to stand up in my best friend’s wedding as her maid-of-honor. I remember being unsure if I would be able just to stand throughout the day as needed for pictures and such, given that my newly postpartum body was still healing from delivery. Not to mention my tiny baby was nursing around the clock — barely being able to wait for the entire wedding Mass between feedings.
Yet at two weeks postpartum, one in four women fully return to work in the United States, the only industrialized nation without government mandated paid family leave. Daycares around the country will not even accept babies until at least six weeks old — sometimes twelve — because new life is so fragile. Even puppies are not supposed to be separated from their mothers until eight weeks, minimum.
The Catholic Church is known as an advocate for the vulnerable, including children and families. Globally, dioceses follow the paid family leave laws of the countries in which they reside. But what happens in the United States, where there is no legislation mandating employers to provide paid leave?
This was the question media company FemCatholic set out to answer over the last few months, during which our reporting team contacted all 176 dioceses in the United States to inquire about their family leave policies.
The results were significant, in a myriad of ways.
First, we were able to confirm that only 4 dioceses out of 176 currently offer 12 weeks of maternity leave that is fully paid, and only 31 offer fully paid parental leave policies for any amount of time.
Second, what those 4 leading dioceses had in common was not an overabundance of funding, but responsiveness to the need after it had been raised by local personnel. Awareness had prompted the Church to respond, unsurprisingly, through supportive pro-life policies.
“There is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II almost 30 years ago in Letter to Women.
In a particular way in the United States, the Catholic Church has the opportunity to be a prophetic voice on the equal dignity of men and women and the importance of family life. We have the opportunity to model what society could look like when it both recognizes the equal dignity of men and women, and supports the different ways we image God in our human bodies.
Pope St. John Paul II emphasized that “It is the woman who ‘pays’ directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman. No program of ‘equal rights’ between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.” (Mulieris dignitatem)
Providing paid family leave is an important part of supporting women and families nurturing the next generation — building the future of the Catholic Church. We must continue working to build the “civilization of love” called for by John Paul II.
As the voice of millennial Catholic women, FemCatholic wants to start a conversation about the importance of paid family leave across the United States. The research showed that awareness led to dioceses advancing paid leave policies, which is why we are calling for Catholics across the country to sign our petition letter to the US bishops.
We will send the letter on Mother’s Day, May 8, asking the US bishops to prayerfully discern advancing policies in their dioceses that support women, children, and families. Certainly there is much support needed from the dioceses at large, which is why it’s so important to have a broad conversation about these issues.
Together, we can build a civilization of love and witness to the importance of women’s dignity, new life, and family values.