Stephen Beale has been a freelance writer and journalist for over 10 years, reporting on presidential politics, government corruption, and other public affairs. He also writes frequently about Church history, spirituality, and theology. He holds an undergraduate from Brown University in classics and history. He currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island.
Buried deep in Donald Trump’s speech to Congress last week—amid his headline-grabbing plans on immigration, taxes, and health care—was a pro-family proposal that Catholics should welcome with open arms:
My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women’s health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure.
In U.S. politics, paid family leave historically has been a Democratic issue, but Republicans have started catching on. In 2015, Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer co-sponsored a bill on paid family leave and, the following year, a conservative think tank issued its own plan. During the presidential campaign, Trump floated a plan for paid family leave as did opponent Marco Rubio.
Whatever the politics of paid family leave, it has a clear endorsement from the Church. In his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Pope St. John Paul II outlined the theological basis for the policy:
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.
Recently, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015, Pope Francis was a bit more explicit:
[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.
Paid family leave would ensure that both mothers and fathers are able to take time off of work to bond with their newborns. Under current U.S. law, in place since 1993, workers can take time off for family and medical reasons. But, because that time is unpaid, it is a meaningless benefit to the many lower-income workers who simply cannot afford to take so much time without a paycheck.
According to the Pew Research Center, the United States is the only developed nation that has no form of mandated paid family leave. Even Trump’s proposal of six weeks off would still put us dead last, after New Zealand, which has 18 weeks of paid leave for both new mothers and fathers. Most generous is Estonia, which allows for two years.
Trump’s speech was short on details, but during the campaign his plan was to grant six weeks of paid leave, apparently funding it through states’ unemployment insurance programs, according to a CNN synopsis. (Clinton’s alternative plan would have instituted a new tax.) The plan, according to the CNN report, carries a $2.5 billion annual price tag, which seems like a small price to pay when compared to some of the other things our federal government is currently shelling out cash for—such as the $1.6 billion missile defense system we just gifted to South Korea, the $400 billion F-35 fighter, or the $623 billion our government spent bailing out big business and big banks during the financial crisis.
Trump’s speech contained one significant detail: he called it family leave, rather than maternity leave. As a CNN report put it, “dads need time to bond with babies as well.” Also, the shift means that younger workers will be covered if they need to take time off to care for aging parents.
From a Catholic perspective, paid family leave not only respects the dignity of fathers and mothers but it also builds upon the Church’s emphasis on fair wages and humane working conditions, according to ethics scholar Julie Rubio. It also is very much a pro-life policy, she added (in my interview with her last year):
One could certainly argue that paid family leave is a pro-life policy, in that it would enable women in crisis pregnancy situations to take time off to give birth without compromising their well-being or job security. Among the top reasons women give for having abortions are not being able to afford a baby or a baby interfering with work or school. Paid family leave, along with affordable health care, could be a factor in lowering the abortion rate.
Trump’s plan appears to be more than simply an olive branch to Democrats. Paid family leave, along with affordable child care, is a top priority of his daughter, Ivanka Trump, who continues to be a close confidante of the new president. Catholics should get firmly behind the plan as well. Although there may be plenty to quibble about in terms of the details—such as the cost, funding mechanism, or its relatively short duration of the leave—it certainly seems to be a baby step in the right direction.