Chicago Archdiocese Announces Parental Leave Policy

The Archdiocese of Chicago recently did something bold: It announced a decision that it will now offer twelve weeks of paid leave and twelve weeks of unpaid leave to both mothers and fathers employed by the archdiocese. If both parents are archdiocesan employees, this parental leave policy allows for up to a full year in which one parent can stay home to take care of a new child. Chicago would be the first diocese in the United States to offer such a benefit.

Some on the political right may suspect that this parental leave benefit is being offered to pander to the politically-correct spirit of the age or simply as a way for the archdiocese to stay competitive in the marketplace. Conversely, some on the political left may offer that this change was made so that the Church could demonstrate its opposition to abortion and contraception by showing concern for life at all stages. I believe, however, that a deeper motivation—knowingly or unknowingly—could be at the root in this change, one rooted in a holistic Catholic view of life, a view that occasionally finds itself at at odds with the “Protestant work ethic” that undergirds much of the American ethos and experience.

Before sharing my thoughts on this issue, here is some background on Archbishop Blaise Cupich’s recent decision. In his February Catholic New World column entitled “Renew My Church”, Archbishop Cupich suggests that he is interested in making decisions that, while difficult in the short term, favor the long-term viability of the Church. In this context, the expansion of the archdiocese’s parental leave policy makes sense, given that many recent studies indicate such policies can have extensive, wide-ranging and long-term social and economic benefits. Only time will tell if other dioceses follow suit. I am certain, though, that they will certainly at least watch the effects of the Chicago archdiocese’s policy to see if it actually works for the benefit of everyone involved.

As a Catholic fiscal conservative, I understand the tension that sometimes is felt between sound business practices and Catholic social teaching. I subscribe to the idea that capitalism has generated greater financial wealth for a larger number of people than any other economic system in human history. Little or nothing in the world can compare to the temporal comforts enjoyed by the majority of Americans today. That said, a solidly formed Catholic understands that economics and profit cannot be the only considerations in business decisions.

On this point, the brilliance of Catholic social teaching comes to bear, as it causes us to look beyond traditional “left” versus “right” distinctions. The Church’s rich understanding of the human person challenges us to conclude that every human institution—whether “for profit” or “non-profit”—must respect the dignity of the individual and the family if it is to succeed. During the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Pope Francis emphasized that institutional support for the family is a crucial element of society, stating “[W]e cannot call any society healthy when it does not leave real room for family life. We cannot think that a society has a future when it fails to pass laws capable of protecting families and ensuring their basic needs, especially those of families just starting out.”

Of course, these words of the Holy Father do not imply that a company or institution must put itself at serious risk of survival by instituting overly generous family-friendly policies. Every company and institution, however, must demonstrate in its policies that people are not objects to be used but rather unique individuals to be respected. This Catholic teaching on the value of the individual is sometimes at odds with the traditional Calvinistic “work ethic,” which often sees material blessing flowing from a person’s righteousness. Such a view can lead a business to adopt a utilitarian mindset, which can cause the elimination of benefits such as paid family leave. Some might be surprised to hear that there is some meaningful evidence of a positive economic impact to a company that comes with granting paid parental leave. If these studies are true, perhaps economic success and Catholic social teaching are complementary realities, after all.

A respect for the value and dignity of the human person is one area where I think many of our European counterparts have actually got it right—even though nearly all formerly Catholic countries in Europe have become largely secularized and are even overtly hostile to Christianity. I think there a deep-seated Christian humanism—a Catholic “DNA,” if you will—that remains ingrained in the ethos of these countries.

Here is another curious example of how I think this Catholic DNA manifested itself in Europe: A few years ago, nearly 800,000 French citizens publicly opposed the government’s push for same-sex marriage. Given that few Frenchmen actively practice their Catholic faith, I initially found this rather surprising. But when you consider this idea of a deeply-rooted Catholic DNA—and that it could well be at the root of the French intuitively knowing (and strongly believing) in the complementarity of men and women and importance of sex—this idea becomes tenable. This is what I also think could be at the root of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s parental leave policy.

While the United States does not have the 1,500+ years of Catholic tradition that Europeans share, let’s hope we see growth in many companies and institutions toward a more holistic understanding of the person. While such expanded policies may cause a certain anxiety to some business owners and fiscal conservatives, it is my hope Catholic social teaching—the Catholic “DNA”—will become a true trend and begin to inform the policies of business and government in a more significant way.

*For those of you following along with previous columns, and how I’m attempting to connect various trends to Cardinal Avery Dulles’ Six Models of the Church, the Archdiocese of Chicago would, in this case, be revealing itself as both “Herald” and “Servant.”