Motherhood Matters. But Do Catholic Maternity-Leave Policies Reflect That?

A recent study revealed that Church practices may lag behind its own teachings, but some Catholics are calling for change.

Geri Andre-Major holds her two-and-a-half-week-old son, Maverick, in Mount Vernon, New York. Catholics are calling for dioceses to bring their family-leave policies in accord with most secular companies, as well as Catholic social teaching.
Geri Andre-Major holds her two-and-a-half-week-old son, Maverick, in Mount Vernon, New York. Catholics are calling for dioceses to bring their family-leave policies in accord with most secular companies, as well as Catholic social teaching. (photo: 2020 John Moore / Getty Images)

When Tambi Spitz Kilhefner was struggling to secure just one month of paid maternity leave from her Catholic employer, it became a family joke that her husband — an employee of a secular company — would receive more paid time off than she did following the birth of their first child. 

His company offered eight weeks of paternity leave, no questions asked. Her Catholic organization’s official paid maternity-leave policy consisted of a mere five days of “sick leave.”

“I had to fight for every inch of maternity leave that I had,” said Kilhefner of her experience working for a Catholic higher education institution in northern Virginia. She eventually managed to secure four weeks paid leave, plus one additional month of unpaid leave, but told the Register that she still felt pressured to return to work before she was ready, even after delivering her child via an unplanned cesarian section. 

In addition to the prospect of an additional month without income, her supervisors — while happy for her — impressed upon her how challenging it would be to have her out of the office for so long. 

“To this day, when I look back,” she said, “that was the most stressful year of my life.” 


Coming Up Short

Kilhefner’s experience isn’t out of the ordinary for working mothers in the United States, the only first-world country without mandated paid maternity leave. Although Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, the legislation requires only those companies with 50 or more employees to provide job-protected leave to new mothers. 

In order to qualify for FMLA, an employee must have worked for the employer for at least a year and for a minimum of 1,250 hours. The legislation makes no stipulations about continued payment during leave.

Within these parameters, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 23% of U.S. citizens are eligible for paid parental leave. 

The consequence is that many female employees of U.S. companies with limited or nonexistent paid maternity-leave policies feel financially pressured to return to work before they are physically healed from childbirth. 

Current guidelines used by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggest this process can take six to eight weeks, but Lester Ruppersberger, a retired board-certified OB-GYN with 40 years of clinical experience who previously served as president of the Catholic Medical Association, told the Register that time for healing “should be at least 12 weeks” for a standard delivery — “more like 16 to 18 weeks” for someone who experienced complications — like Kilhefner, who required a C-section.

The status of maternity leave in the U.S. comes at odds with statements by several popes over the last century who highlighted the particular gifts that women bring to society, including the workplace. For instance, in his 1995 apostolic letter on the dignity of women, Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “No program of ‘equal rights’ between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.” 

More recently, Pope Francis explicitly mentioned maternity leave in his 2015 address to an Italian government agency, saying, “May your priorities include special attention to women’s employment, as well as to maternity assistance, which must always defend new life and those who serve it daily.”

But despite this guidance from the popes over the past half-century, many Catholic organizations in the U.S. are offering little support to new mothers beyond what is required by law, a reality substantiated by a recent study on the status of maternity-leave policies in dioceses across the country. 

FemCatholic, an apostolate dedicated to helping young Catholic women navigate the tensions between their faith and contemporary living, conducted a study of the status of maternity-leave policies in U.S. dioceses, the result of which was published earlier this year. 

Of the 176 Catholic dioceses in the U.S., FemCatholic found that only four provide full paid leave for 12 weeks, 31 offer some form of full paid-leave policies, 32 offer a percentage of the employee’s salary, and 44 do not offer any paid leave at all. The journalists conducting the study were unable to obtain information from the remaining U.S. dioceses.

“I don’t blame the Church for not having these policies,” said Samantha Povlock, founder and CEO of FemCatholic. “I truly believe it’s a lack of awareness and adapting to the ever-evolving culture.”

One of those changes is an increase of women in the workplace over the past 60 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 53% of American families had earnings from both the husband and wife in 2018, compared to only 44% of families in 1967. Additionally, while families in which only the husband worked represented 36% of families in 1967, today that figure is only 18%.

With every new child born into a family, working parents are confronted with the choice between returning to work after the baby is born versus staying at home full time. 

Teresa Violette, a licensed professional counselor with the Catholic Psych Institute, told the Register that “this a large question with many nuances” and involves mutual discernment between the spouses of what is best for their family as a whole.

For the sake of spouses feeling connected “in this living of a shared vocational life,” Violette said, “the mutual discernment may lead the mother to decide that working is a value for the greater good of the family, especially if it offers financial stability to the home.”

While some parents may have the choice to stay at home, there are many families who cannot be supported on a single income.

Noting this reality, Povlock said that “people who need paid maternity leave truly are also the same people who don’t have a choice whether or not to stay home.”  

“They don’t have that privilege anyway,” she told the Register. “It’s almost a cruel suggestion that we’re not going to pay them or let them have that time home. It’s almost a slap in the face to people who need that income.”


Responding to a Need

The FemCatholic study demonstrated that most U.S. dioceses fall short of the 12-week mark recommended by Catholic medical professionals like Ruppersberger. However, it also revealed a few dioceses that stood out as providing robust maternity leave for female employees, including the Archdioceses of Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and Omaha, Nebraska, and the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Register was able to confirm that the Archdiocese of Chicago, for instance, allows for employees who work 26 hours a week or more to receive three months’ parental leave at 100% of their salary, with an additional three months of unpaid leave.

A representative of the archdiocese told the Register that these policies are “a demonstration to the entire Chicago community that pro-life policies promote the common good.”

“Our parental-leave policy makes it easier for young people to remain employed by their faith communities, thus enabling them to fulfill their aspirations of contributing their gifts and talents for the benefit of the Church,” the Chicago representative said.

Some Catholic-run organizations are also rising to the challenge to support the family needs of their employees. 

For instance, Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group founded by Alan Sears, a Catholic, offers 16 weeks of leave for parents, six of which are fully paid. Employees can additionally carry over accrued PTO (paid time off) and can apply for short-term disability reflective of the employee’s medical needs. 

“When we learn about our team members’ need for maternity leave, HR schedules a maternity benefit orientation to go over all the information and assist team members with planning for the leave,” said Kate Anderson, senior counsel and director of the Center of Parental Rights at Alliance Defending Freedom, in an email to the Register.

Speaking of the inspiration behind the policy, John Bursch, senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy at ADF, points to Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens, which highlights the importance of supporting women in the workplace. 

“The true advancement of women requires that labor should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement ... at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role,” wrote the Pope.

“That is why all employers must find ways that women can harmoniously combine their roles as mothers and professionals,” said Bursch, noting that the policy “results naturally in more women taking on leadership positions and responsibilities.”


Paid-Leave Campaign

Regarding the disparity in diocesan maternity-leave offerings, Povlock told the Register that she had expected greater maternity-leave offerings to be associated with wealthier dioceses. However, the study indicated otherwise.

“I was surprised and impressed and encouraged that the common denominator seemed to be just the fact that awareness had been raised in those dioceses by different people,” said Povlock, a wife and mother of three in the Philadelphia area.

FemCatholic aims to push for greater maternity-leave offerings, with its study serving as the launch pad for a paid-leave campaign, entitled “Building a Civilization of Love.” The campaign’s goal is to “begin a conversation with our bishops on paid-family leave in the Catholic Church,” and others are encouraged to support the effort through prayer, spreading the word, and signing a petition to the U.S. bishops.

After observing that the number of dioceses in the U.S. makes the Church one of the country’s largest “employers,” who in turn help to support millions of Catholics, Ruppersberger called upon the USCCB, as well as the Catholic Medical Association, to “adopt a position statement in support of mandatory paid family leave of at least 12 weeks.”

With her background in corporate America, Povlock is realistic about the logistical challenges in providing maternity care for employees.

Nonetheless, she believes there is enough talent in the Church to make it happen.

“I would love to see creative businesspeople put their heads together and be more creative with how the Church could even develop its own diocesan business models,” she said.

By prioritizing maternity-leave policies for employees, she added, “the Church could be a really prophetic voice and say: Women in their dignity were designed by God to deliver babies, and this is how families are designed.”


Valuing Women and Their Gifts

Povlock told the Register that FemCatholic’s efforts are grounded in the Church’s teaching, and she urged Catholic institutions to extend their support of female employees.

“As parishes and dioceses are struggling to find employees or help, there is a need for more lay gifts to be brought to the table,” she said. “Women are the greatest untapped resource. But if we’re going to bring women in, we also have to acknowledge their needs.”

Reflecting on her own experience in the workplace, Kilhefner stressed that “women are essential in the everyday operation of our lives, even outside of the home.” 

“I can’t imagine not having the virtue of women in the workplace and what they bring to the table — their talents, their [God-given] gifts. If we don’t own those talents, what are we saying about those gifts that women have?”