Are Catholic working mothers kosher?

July 23, 2014

This is a topic that I have thought about a great deal, and my thinking on it has gone through a bit of an evolution in recent years.

Prior to having children, I was sure that I wanted to stay home with them full time. Part of my thinking was that I believed, and still do, that children need their mothers more than anyone else, and that it was best for them. I still think I made the right decision in that regard.

But another part of my thinking was that I believed at the time that to be a good Catholic mother, I ought to stay home full time unless I really needed to work in order to make ends meet financially for our family. On that count, I have changed my perspective.

In fact, some self-described Catholic organizations do preach this thinking. Without picking on anyone in particular, I have come across organizations which present themselves as Catholic and use that platform to propagate the idea that women should stay home as mothers and wives, going as far as to say that any woman who wants to work outside the home has been brainwashed by feminism.

I have even seen such Catholic organizations say that young Catholic women should be encouraged to get married right out of high school and avoid going to university, because getting university degrees would just sidetrack women into careers that they shouldn't be chasing. These organizations present their attitude as faithful to Catholic teaching.

But as it happens, the Church already spoke on this topic more than 30 years ago in a document called Familiaris Consortio, and it left no doubt about its own position on these matters. Here are some quotes from the section "Women and Society" in this illuminating document:
Without intending to deal with all the various aspects of the vast and complex theme of the relationships between women and society, and limiting these remarks to a few essential points, one cannot but observe that in the specific area of family life a widespread social and cultural tradition has considered women's role to be exclusively that of wife and mother, without adequate access to public functions which have generally been reserved for men.
Notice how Familiaris Consortio identifies the practice of women staying exclusively in the home as a "social and cultural" tradition, not a "religious tradition". This clearly indicates that our faith does NOT actually require women to stay home exclusively as wives and mothers. God is not asking this of women; rather, it is men who have traditionally asked this of women.
There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women's access to public functions. On the other hand the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.
This is a very clear statement. The Church believes that women should be able to work on a footing equal to men. The Church is NOT sending women back to the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. The Church is saying that work and motherhood should be harmoniously combined. It is possible to be a good Catholic wife and mother, and still have a job outside the home. The Church is not saying that women should focus exclusively on motherhood to the exclusion of any work outside the home.
...While it must be recognized that women have the same right as men to perform various public functions, society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family.
The way I read this: women who choose to work outside the home should be fully able to do so. Women who choose to stay home should be fully able to do so. Makes perfect sense. It is tragic when mothers have no other choice but to work, especially when their children are small and need them most.
...Furthermore, the mentality which honors women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome. This requires that men should truly esteem and love women with total respect for their personal dignity, and that society should create and develop conditions favoring work in the home.
That would be a great development, but in a culture obsessed with personal success and achievement, good luck with that goal happening anytime soon. Society has a long way to go before it fully appreciates the work that, for the upper castes of our society, is mainly done by maids, nannies, personal shoppers, secretaries, taxis and hired drivers, gardeners, meal-delivery services and take-out restaurants.
With due respect to the different vocations of men and women, the Church must in her own life promote as far as possible their equality of rights and dignity: and this for the good of all, the family, the Church and society. But clearly all of this does not mean for women a renunciation of their femininity or an imitation of the male role, but the fullness of true feminine humanity which should be expressed in their activity, whether in the family or outside of it, without disregarding the differences of customs and cultures in this sphere.
I love this passage from Familiaris Consortio, because even 30 years ago the Church clearly understood the need that the secular world is only starting to appreciate: the need for the working world to treat women as women, not as clones of men.

Women have their own way of participating in the working world. Their role as mothers often puts women on a different trajectory than men in the early years of their employment. Small children need their mothers, and women should not be penalized for making a space for children in their lives early in their careers.

The linear workplace is heavy on face-time and long on hours, and reduces the career potential of anyone who ventures off the full-time career path for any length of time. Women don't do well with arrangements like that. We need on-ramps and off-ramps, we need part-time arrangements and work-from-home arrangements, we need more flexible deadlines and the ability to incorporate family responsibilities into our work day.

Some workplaces are now starting to understand and accommodate these needs. It's quite amazing that Familiaris Consortio already recognized the need for these things in 1981.

Photo: Paul Mayne via photopin cc

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