Momentum builds for paid parental leave in the U.S. church

“It is time for a radical movement.”

“I love the church, but this MUST change.”

“We need to be coherent with Catholic social teaching in ALL aspects of Church employment.”

With striking conviction, NCR readers weighed in on my July column, “The paradox of a pro-life church without paid parental leave.” Stories of a few parent employees had motivated the writing; countless readers responded with their own testimonies, hopes and feedback.

Employees’ access to paid parental leave is emerging as an issue of critical importance in today’s church. As reader contributions have highlighted, it’s a workplace justice issue hiding in plain sight. Time and again, conversations about paid leave confront the dilemma expressed by one reader:

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“OK, WHERE DO WE BEGIN?”

With the recent Labor Day holiday, it’s a timely question. Urgent too, as our church prepares for the upcoming World Meeting of Families in September and the Synod of Bishops on the family in October.

In its 2015 Labor Day statement, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) affirmed that “work is meant to be for the sake of the family.While paid parental leave is never mentioned explicitly, the issue is integral to a “Catholic way” of “build[ing] systems and structures that nurture family formation and stability in our own homes.”

Clearly, the church must adopt just internal structures to serve as an effective advocate for workers more broadly. The struggles of our own parent employees — addressed in my previous column — offer an ideal place to start.

While largely unnoticed, moms and dads working in today’s church regularly exhaust sick time and vacation at the birth or adoption of a child. Although a few archdioceses/dioceses have taken valuable pro-life steps to support parents, a widespread lack of guaranteed paid leave (along with the added expense of child-rearing), pressures church families into some tough situations. Parish secretaries, catechists and teachers: many describe the stress of working during a child’s illness, seeking additional employment, or even relying on the financial support of family members.

An archdiocesan employee I spoke to says she has often witnessed the financial stressors facing church parents. She noted that, although largely impractical in today’s world, ecclesial documents frequently suggest women needn’t work outside the home while raising a family.

She asserts, “In many places it is simply not possible” for one parent to stay at home. “Men and women who choose to work in the Church do so out of a response to the Lord’s call in their life, and not for financial gain. But modest wages and meager paid parental leave policies often lead these parents to feel they must choose between the call to married life and the call to ministry. They simply can’t afford to do both.”

The choice is a painful one.

In this, the stress experienced by diocesan parents stands in glaring contrast to the paid leave benefits offered to employees at the U.S. Bishops Conference.

It’s a different world, to be sure. Moms and dads fortunate enough to work at the USCCB receive 30 working days of paid maternity or paternity leave at the birth or adoption of a child; part-time employees are eligible for 21 working days.

“That kind of paid leave would make a huge difference!” diocesan parent employees have exclaimed. Called to serve the church — and start a family? From the gaping disparity in Catholic employment practices, it seems that the USCCB is the place to go.

A growing conversation

Fortunately, discussion of paid parental leave in the United States is gaining ground, both within and beyond the Catholic community. In addition to the employers highlighted in my previous column, Microsoft recently announced an expanded paid leave policy of 12 weeks at 100 percent pay to all parents of new children (birth mothers can opt to take a total of 20 paid weeks). Netflix has implemented a generous policy as well; moms and dads are granted unlimited leave during the first year after a child’s birth or adoption.

Catholic leaders are also discussing paid leave. Simcha Fisher, blogger for the National Catholic Register and upcoming speaker at the World Meeting of Families, named paid parental leave as a pro-life issue in her August 6 post, “Netflix, Microsoft, and the Working Mom.” Fisher asserts that “the goal of making life easier for working moms is a very pro-life goal.”

Of course, it’s not just an issue for parents. Ursuline Sr. of Cincinnati Mary Jerome Buchert asserted to me that “religious women have an essential role to play by bringing to consciousness issues like parental leave policies that may be presumed or taken for granted.”

She challenges religious women: “[We] are involved in many social justice issues, but are we attuned to the pro-family justice issues at our own front doors?” Buchert recommends that the topic be raised at regional and national meetings for Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The LCWR could also act to facilitate dialogue with the USCCB.

As discussed previously, a few archdioceses and dioceses have already taken initial steps to offer paid leave. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, for example, affords chancery employees three weeks of paid maternity/paternity leave; after one year of employment, three paid weeks are also offered to parish employees. Such a policy remains uncommon in the U.S. church. 

Responding to a request for comment, the archdiocese stated, “We very much view our parental leave policies as being pro-life and pro-family, and this is no accident. These policies support in a practical way the teachings of the Church about welcoming children into families. Frankly, we think they also reflect good HR practices.”

Catch the key word: practical.

Practical support for parents tangibly communicates God’s love. Here, our Gospel witness truly comes to life.

Critical steps for an emerging movement

What is needed to effectively advocate for paid parental leave in the U.S. church? In recent weeks, a few central challenges have emerged.  

  1. Empower our parent employees. Catholic parents must feel safe to advocate for paid leave within their specific diocesan contexts. Many confide a fear of stepping forward; to share one’s story can be perceived as attacking the church — not strengthening it. And yet, our parents’ voices are critical to shaping effective paid leave policies. In what ways can our Catholic community actively affirm the contributions of parent employees? How can we join them, a cloud of witnesses, ready to support and engage this dialogue?
     
  2. Build a broad base of Catholic support. The lack of paid leave affects Catholics of diverse backgrounds and theological perspectives. As today’s polarized church could surely benefit from intentional bridge-building, any initiative to support parents must include all of us. How can we collaborate as a whole church community? Can we gain support from a variety of Catholic organizations and public leaders?
     
  3. Promote a range of concrete action steps. It’s not just the paid leave. Expressions of care for our parents can assume a variety of forms. Does it cost the church much — if anything — for a mother with a sick baby to telecommute for the day? Or for parishes to guarantee a space for pumping breastmilk? What other positive initiatives can we imagine? Efforts to implement paid leave must encourage dioceses to support parents with a variety of actions.
     
  4. Secure institutional buy-in. Our institutions concretize values. Paid parental leave demands a radical deepening of our Gospel values — a movement that must be integrated at every level of leadership. In the end, progress will remain limited until this issue lands on the agenda of local parishes and schools, individual dioceses and, ultimately, the USCCB. How do we get it there? What national organizations could serve as a mediator for dialogue?

Buchert already highlighted the potential facilitating role of the LCWR. In addition, could the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators (NACPA) support church parents in this regard? Surely, the question of paid parental leave falls squarely within its mission to create a church that “models Gospel values” and is committed to “promoting justice in the workplace.” Is this an option to explore further? (At the time of this writing, inquiries to the association had yet to yield any public comment).

While the U.S. church has a long way to go, such exciting possibilities could significantly strengthen its pro-life witness.

Toward concrete action

Attention NCR readers: We need your ideas, your voices, and your collaboration. How can we continue to build a national dialogue on paid parental leave in the U.S. church? What is needed to develop a concrete, focused, and comprehensive initiative to support parent employees?

Our solidarity is essential.

“It’s difficult to walk in there alone. It would seem like I’m the only one struggling,” another parish employee and mother told me when debating the prospect of discussing paid leave with her diocesan HR manager.

Parents can’t advocate alone, and they shouldn’t have to.

How can we join them? While many ideas have emerged, one possibility offers a unique way to facilitate dialogue. It involves you — each of us — collecting personal stories, official statements, and signatures from a wide range of Catholic organizations, public leaders and individuals willing to support paid parental leave.

Such an effort would be undertaken as part of a public letter and petition addressed to the USCCB. The project would serve as a resource to groups advocating for paid parental leave in a variety of contexts. Additionally, it would include a theological argument for paid leave, suggested action steps, and background on the growth of paid parental leave policies in civic, corporate and other religious institutions.

“This kind of resource would be so valuable!” some parents have exclaimed about the idea. Suddenly, they are not alone. Their personal stories are lifted up, embedded within a broader movement to highlight the many experiences of parent employees in the U.S. church.

Parish councils, school boards, pastors, HR officers, local bishops, USCCB committees: advocacy is needed at every level of leadership. The upcoming World Meeting of Families certainly offers an ideal opportunity for further dialogue. Hopefully, such a project could also demonstrate to NACPA that paid parental leave is an issue of vital importance to church employees.

Many ideas are emerging — this is certainly not the only one. What are your suggestions? In discerning how to move forward as a church community, we are seeking your thoughts, voices, and contributions. Join the conversation in the comment section below or contact me at jmertens@ncronline.org.

[Jennifer Mertens teaches religion at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati. She holds a Master's of Divinity degree from the Catholic Theological Union.]

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