Ethics & Public Policy Center

Excerpt from “Can Catholic Women Lean In? Working Women in the Church”

Published in Promise and Challenge on November 13, 2015

The following is an excerpt from “Can Catholic Women Lean In? Working Women in the Church,” by Mary Hallan FioRito, JD,  published in Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity, and the Church (Our Sunday Visitor, 2015).

[For footnotes and to read the entire chapter, purchase Promise and Challenge here.]


Catholic Women: Ahead of the Trend

As a woman who has spent almost three decades working for the institutional Church, I submit that it is Catholicism that can most definitively contribute to a conversation about where women “fit” into the workplace and how to best accommodate women’s unique contributions to society—especially, but not exclusively, our ability to bear children. As evidenced by [Sheryl] Sandberg’s book and the public’s reaction to it, this is a conversation that seems to be going full circle every decade or so—from “women should be fully present in the workplace” to “women should be at home more when their children are small” and back again. Perhaps—and surprisingly, no doubt, to many—what could really change the conversation about how women are viewed both at home and at work would be a truly Catholic influence. An authentic Catholic contribution to the public discourse on the dignity and value of women and their unique contributions would —far from undermining women’s advancement—significantly help in bringing about the kind of change for which Sandberg hopes. As St. John Paul II notes in his Letter to Women, “Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life—social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of ‘mystery’, to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.”

Perhaps the public conversation remains stagnant because it has not engaged a number of truths, grounded in the natural law, about the human person that the Church acknowledges and articulates—the truth about the dignity of each human life, the truth that, as Pope Francis has noted, “it is necessary to reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family, with a father and a mother,” the truth about people being more important than profit, the truth about service being more influential than power. By introducing natural law arguments into the conversation, the Church can help to create workplaces where gender differences are not only respected, but also celebrated, where those with different vocations are accommodated, where marriage and family life (which sociologists have noted most often protect women from poverty) are supported, and where work—for both women and men—is a path to holiness, to wholeness, and to a place where one’s gifts and talents are well used.

The Church’s insistence that your work—whether at home or in a workplace—is not necessarily all about you and your personal fulfillment is not heard well in a culture that is increasingly narcissistic. But that message is a necessary component to creating successful companies, schools, hospitals, and public service sectors. And the Church’s proposal that one’s work can actually be a path to holiness, a way or service, and a method of prayer would be seen as positively revolutionary! If every man and woman were confident that their daily activities held such potential, we would see dramatic changes that would cross all demographic, educational and business sectors…


The “Indispensible Contribution of Women”

The Church could not possibly image God’s presence to the faithful without the complementary gifts of women being brought to bear on ministry, evangelization, and service. Women’s influence, ideas, and input are necessary, not only for the practical purposes they serve, but also because an authentically Catholic environment demands it. The Holy Father has noted the benefits to all from the presence of women in Church structures: “I have rejoiced in seeing many women sharing some pastoral responsibility with priests in accompanying people, families and groups, as in theological reflection.”

Yet Pope Francis also points out that a woman’s contributions also remain “indispensable” within the domain of the family, thereby implying that whatever “pastoral responsibility” a woman undertakes for the Church, her role at home is essential and therefore should be accommodated as such.

At this point it is natural to ask: how is it possible for women to increase their effective presence in many contexts within the public sphere, in the world of work and in places where the most important decisions are made, and at the same time maintaining their presence and preferential and entirely special attention in and for the family? Here it is the field of discernment that, aside from reflection on the reality of women in society, presupposes assiduous and persistent prayer.

The Holy Father’s comments are music to the ears of any woman who works for the Church in any Arch/diocesan, parish or institutional setting, especially those who are familiar with the Church documents that call for equality in the workplace and for the rightly placed priority given to the dignity of each human life. Although he’s made quite good use of social media, I am quite certain Pope Francis has never read Lean In, yet he really asks the same questions that Sandberg does (though hers lack the “assiduous and persistent prayer” component): What can be done to make certain that women who feel called to work outside the home nonetheless also maintain “preferential” attention to their families?

It seems that the secular world, not the Church, has been more innovative in offering those benefits that provide women with what they need if they are to serve both the Church and their children. Janne Matlary, a Norwegian political scientist, Catholic convert, member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family has noted,

The housewife of yesteryear cannot cease to exist. On the other hand, fewer and fewer families these days have the possibility to sustain two adults and children with one salary. The question becomes more complicated when children are introduced into the equation. What should be a natural process, and a happy one, becomes distorted and dramatic in our modern societies. The birth of a child becomes a drama, a destabilizing element in the modern family, rather than a fruit of love. If this is the norm, then something is wrong.

Yes, something is wrong when the arrival of a child provokes crisis in a family, and it seems that, at least on paper, the secular working world in the United States has understood and responded to some degree, at least in white-collar jobs. For those women who work in the service industry, or are part-time employees, a pregnancy may mean that she must resign from her position, depriving her already-struggling family of much needed financial resources. Moreover, across the board, companies seem to assume that maternity leave will be at most three to four months, leaving few opportunities for women to temporarily exit the work force for, say, a year or two and then return to it at the same level of compensation and responsibility they held when they left.

Yet, it remains troubling that Church-sponsored institutions or entities lag far behind—even when compared to other charitable institutions (including religious non-profits) —in offering those options that would make the ideal of service to the Church and service to the family possible:

  1. Flexible schedules, allowing for the natural rhythms of family life to takeplace without placing an undue strain on either mother or father;
  1. Paid maternity and paternity leave so that our places of employment acknowledge in both word and action that each human life is a gift to be celebrated and welcomed;
  2. For Church employees with children, assistance with tuition for Catholic education at all levels, so that parents who are called to vocations in the Church are not consequently precluded by tuition costs (and lower salaries) from obtaining a religious education for their children;
  3. Time and funding for retreats and/or spiritual direction as well as ongoing formation in the Catholic faith, so that the “assiduous” prayer that the Holy Father mentions can be a more intentional part of the workplace. In my experience, it is not at all common for either ongoing formation in the Church’s theology or social teachings or spiritual direction to be made available on a regular basis for employees, even when those employees are responsible for ministerial tasks where such guidance and education would be invaluable.

Sandberg and others in leadership roles in for-profit corporations have widely noted that one of the primary reasons for offering such family-friendly policies and incentives is that it helps the bottom line: employee retention is far greater in an organization that allows for flexibility for its employees. And long-term employees save companies time and money that would otherwise be spent recruiting, hiring, and training new employees to replace those who leave.

While prudence and an obligation to use resources wisely can and should motivate Church-sponsored institutions to weigh those considerations, the primary consideration for offering family-friendly policies should be, simply, that it is the right thing to do. In order to allow mothers and fathers to do justice to their primary vocations as spouses and educators of their children, Church-sponsored places of employment must never engage in practices that undermine or discourage family life. These family-friendly policies would reinforce not only the Church’s teachings on what St. John Paul II called “responsible parenthood,”[1] but also the Church’s teachings on women, who are inextricably linked to their children and who are likewise to be treated with justice and equality…


[For footnotes and to read the entire chapter, purchase Promise and Challenge here.]

[1] John Paul II, “Responsible Parenthood Linked to Moral Maturity,” General Audience of September 5, 1984, EWTN,

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