The paradox of a pro-life church without paid parental leave

Chantell Reagan touches the hand of her newborn son, Gabriel John, after his birth in 2007.  (CNS/Courtesy Now I Lay me Down to Sleep)
Chantell Reagan touches the hand of her newborn son, Gabriel John, after his birth in 2007. (CNS/Courtesy Now I Lay me Down to Sleep)

by Jennifer Mertens

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U.S. church employees considering parenthood, choose your diocesan employer carefully. While some dioceses have paid maternity and paternity leave policies, a startling number lack any such guarantees.

Of course, it's not unusual. In the only industrialized nation without a federal paid parental leave policy, childbirth and adoption can incur a significant financial -- and emotional -- toll on working parents. It's a disturbing American norm that moms and dads must exhaust sick time and vacation to pay for a life transition that doesn't fit either category. As national debate on the issue remains limited, paid parental leave has become a pro-life perk for some, dream for most. The same can be said for the U.S. church.

Meet Debbie.* As a parish employee in an East Coast diocese, Debbie speaks highly of her colleagues' moral support at the births of her two children. From baby showers to a space for pumping breastmilk and positive affirmation of her parenting, Debbie feels valued by her parish community. The diocese's lack of paid maternity leave, however, sends a different message.

After each of her two cesarean sections, all of Debbie's sick time and vacation were gone. She was then fortunate enough to receive a paid eight-week short-term disability policy. And while certainly helpful, Debbie's loss of all compensated time after each pregnancy meant that her return to work was still grueling. It felt painfully early to place her 2-month-old infants in day care, but she could not afford to take additional unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Back at work, an unexpected sickness or child-related absence inevitably meant lost income. Since Debbie's pregnancies, her husband has worked two jobs. After just two paid weeks off at his children's births, he is saddened by their lack of time together. The family's financial strain has placed Debbie in the difficult situation of needing to ask family members for additional monetary support; it has also necessitated that she work during a child's illness or when sick herself. While she "survived" the stress of bearing two children without a specific, guaranteed paid maternity leave, Debbie describes the experience as "hard enough to make me feel very hesitant to welcome another child into our family."

Debbie is not alone. Despite the church's pro-family stance, countless U.S. church employees can testify to the exhaustion of forming young Catholics -- building up the "domestic church" -- without much help from our national one. This exhaustion is largely suffered in private, as parents often confide a fear that their struggles may be perceived, however inaccurately, as compromising their love for the church. Such fear persists and will continue before the scandal of a U.S. church whose strong history of labor rights activism falls uncomfortably silent before the needs of its own "co-workers in the vineyard."

Currently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has no national policy on maternity or paternity leave benefits for church employees. And while this approach grants certain flexibility to local churches, its absence has bred a disparate patchwork of diocesan practices that can fail the very women and men who breathe life into our Catholic schools and parishes.

The state of parental leave in today's church

This "patchwork approach" became evident from a nationwide survey conducted for this column. Inquiries into 177 archdioceses/dioceses yielded information on the parental leave policies of 37. (The survey did not include the Archdiocese of the Military Services.) Of these 37, only one archdiocese offers a one-week specific, guaranteed parental leave policy at 100 percent pay for all diocesan parents (as soon as benefits begin after date of hire).

Three archdioceses and one diocese offer paid maternity/paternity leave of up to 20 days for some church employees (e.g., chancery offices) or if the employee meets certain eligibility stipulations, such as a specified length of employment. In the remaining 32 archdioceses/dioceses, parents rely on paid time off, vacation time or accrued sick days. While some available short-term disability policies were reported, they often provide only a percentage of pay. These statistics reflect diocesan-level policies; some responses indicated that parishes or schools individually opt to offer (or increase) paid leave.

"I had no idea this was the situation!" exclaimed Elizabeth, another diocesan employee and mother. After 13 weeks of paid leave with each of her pregnancies, Elizabeth has praised her diocese's policy as "absolutely essential" to honoring her call both as a mother and as a lay minister. Unlike most female church employees, however, Elizabeth's story is "extremely lucky" -- the diocese now no longer offers 13 weeks of paid leave.

Despite these various practices, all 37 archdioceses/dioceses comply with the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. As the nation's only federal family leave policy, FMLA guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to qualifying workers.

Problem solved? Look again.

Fewer than half of all workers (and about 20 percent of new moms) are eligible for FMLA coverage. And as lay employees struggle to survive the church's wage gap, 12 weeks of lost income can be a plunge into poverty. Among those diocesan employees fortunate enough to qualify, the ministerial exemption granted to religious institutions can render FMLA protection particularly tenuous.

If budgets are theological statements, so are human resource policies. As lay leaders assume an increased presence in the U.S. church, our lack of guaranteed paid parental leave is a serious theological problem -- and moral failure. While our church celebrates family as "the first and vital cell of society," a painful dissonance exists between church teaching and practice. This dissonance fuels lay workers' lifetime resource gap and devalues the very moms and dads whose dedication enlivens our faith.

Given this context, female employees, who make up 80 percent of lay ministers in parishes, bear an especially disproportionate burden. Women's lack of access to guaranteed paid maternity leave intensifies the stress of a challenging life transition -- one in which they also bear the responsibility of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. Unfortunately, the absence of paid leave reinforces subtle messages that after the transition to motherhood, a woman belongs at home. Whether it's a new church mothers group that only meets during workdays or policies barring children in the office, female employees relate common practices that communicate hostility to the ministerial contributions -- and needs -- of women.

In the meantime, the exodus of U.S. Catholic millennial women worsens. As it does, our failure to proactively support working moms exacerbates many young women's experience of Catholicism as uninformed -- and thus irrelevant -- to their lived realities. A church alienated from its young people ultimately dies.

The signs of the times

"Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

A national paid parental leave policy for church employees is a necessary demand of our modern church's pro-life Gospel witness. Read the signs of the times -- paid leave is also the moral, economic and socially responsible stance adopted by a widespread number of nations, corporate entities and religious institutions.

Since 1979, the United Nations has advocated for "maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits" in a convention commonly known as the International Bill of Rights for Women. (The United States is the only industrialized democracy to not yet ratify this convention.) Today, every single nation offers some degree of national paid maternity leave except for the United States, Papua New Guinea and Suriname. Support is also growing for paid paternity leave policies as its many social and economic benefits are increasingly recognized.

The European Union, in particular, grants mothers at least 14 weeks paid maternity leave. An amendment is now being debated to further extend this time off and provide two weeks of paid paternity leave. Such EU policies can be supplemented by individual nations. Spain, for example, offers many protections beyond its 16-week paid maternity leave law. Some of these include an expectant mother's right to attend prenatal appointments during working hours, extended leave when caring for a child with a disability, and a daily hour of nursing leave upon the mother's return to work. Other national paid leave policies include 52 weeks in Canada, 42 weeks in France, and 39 weeks in the United Kingdom.

Many leading corporations have also implemented paid leave. Bank of America, Kellogg Company, Goldman Sachs and IBM are just a few whose average fully paid maternity leave ranges anywhere from eight to 26 weeks. The Working Mother Research Institute's 100 Best Companies of 2014 also average three weeks of fully paid paternity leave and five weeks of fully paid adoption leave.

Beyond secular organizations, other Christian churches advance pro-life policies far beyond the U.S. church. In many cases, the leadership of married male and female clergy seems to foster a sensitivity to the demands of parenting that is simply absent in the Catholic world.

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, for instance, urges dioceses and congregations to offer leave "equally for parent(s) -- clergy and laity, both in cases of birth and adoption -- consistent with local employment laws and generous industry standards." Specifically, Director of Human Resources Jim Colón said, all employees in the churchwide offices of the Episcopal Church can opt for up to six weeks of new-child parenting leave at 100 percent pay or eight weeks at 75 percent pay.

Parental leave options are also available in the national Presbyterian Church. While all six of its agencies have their own human resource policies, Director of Human Resources Sheldon Dennis described the two options at his agency, the Board of Pensions. Here, male and female employees can choose to receive two months leave at 75 percent of regular pay or three months at 60 percent of regular pay. Unpaid leave is permitted for the remaining weeks (up to six months total paid/unpaid leave) but can be supplemented with an employee's available paid time off.

While these examples highlight the initiatives of just a few churches, organizations such as Baptist Women in Ministry have also emerged to assist congregations in developing leave policies that adequately support ministers and their families. Although many such examples are formed in communities distinct from the Catholic church, they demonstrate an invaluable pro-life awareness for us all.

An invitation to dialogue

Undoubtedly, considerable debate must be given to the details of implementing a paid parental leave policy in the U.S. church. Such conversation can identify -- and reinforce -- forms of positive support that parents may already experience. We also need to investigate how to balance a national initiative with unique local contexts. Hopefully, this process would nurture a broad dialogue on the many creative ways we can express our care for church employees.

Parents, of course, have tons of ideas. Debbie praises the possibility of working from home when necessary. Elizabeth emphasizes Pope Francis' welcome of breastfeeding women at Mass and the Vatican, an invitation that could also be encouraged locally. Anthony, a father and the husband of an archdiocesan employee, describes shorter workweeks and, where possible, on-site child care as potential supports for his own family. All of these examples, as Anthony and his family share, would serve the formation of a "family-friendly and celebratory" church.

At the diocesan level, some valuable actions have already emerged. For example:

  • The Indianapolis archdiocese offers eligible employees up to $8,000 in financial assistance for adoption; expectant mothers who complete a prenatal wellness program earn an $800 health savings account contribution.
  • Employees in the Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., diocese may donate extra sick time to a "sick day bank" that can be used to extend a mother's paid time off, diocesan spokesman Bryan Minor said. Expectant mothers with a physician's note can also work from home; upon return to work, these at-home hours are credited back to their sick day balance. 
  • With the environmental challenges present in the missionary diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska (39 churches off the road system!), Director of Human Resources Ronnie Rosenberg related how people in particularly remote villages often develop a communal understanding of child care and necessarily fluid work environments. Full-time Fairbanks employees can also accrue up to 720 hours of paid time off per year.

As these examples demonstrate, we are each keepers of one another, called to ensure the dignity of all workers, especially those in our own church. With the upcoming World Meeting of Families, the U.S. church has an ideal forum to promote dialogue on the issue of paid parental leave. Such a conversation would be exciting, challenging and eye-opening -- especially for those of us who are not parents.

What will it take -- for each of us -- to begin this dialogue?

We must explore the answer both individually and as a faith community. As we do, we can remember that dialogue begins with invitation. An invitation for church employees to share their joy and struggles as parents. An invitation for the U.S. church to strengthen its Gospel witness. Laity and clergy, women and men: The Spirit invites us all to listen, share and, hopefully, to be deeply heard.

As we prepare our hearts for the World Meeting of Families, let us courageously extend -- and accept -- the invitation to dialogue as a church on the topic of paid parental leave. Led by the Spirit, may we discover together what it means to support all our families -- to choose life that we may live!

*All employee names have been changed or shortened.

[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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