One of the criticisms of the recent discussions surrounding the synods on the family was that so much attention was being given to the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried that not enough was being given to broader challenges threatening the stability and welfare of the family. One such issue in this country is the question of paid parental leave. That the wealthiest nation in the world dwells at the very bottom of a long list of countries whose governments provide varying amounts of paid and unpaid leave is not news. It is, however, shocking. The United States remains the only country in the developed world not to offer paid assistance to families welcoming new children, dealing with a family death, or facing any crisis in-between. While some private-sector companies are beginning to offer such support, particularly in higher paying or more competitive industries, there is growing pressure for increased government regulation in this area. Even on the campaign trail, more is being said about this issue that is fundamental to the support of families.
The advantages of paid family leave are undeniable. Study after study show that families and children only benefit when provided with both paid parental leave and job protection: a reduction in the infant mortality rate, an increase in breast-feeding and its many benefits, an increased chance for the child to receive critical vaccinations, and greater mental stability for the mother. Such statistics do not take into account the many spiritual and developmental benefits that come from the bond that is formed between mother and child during the critical weeks and months after birth.
Only a groundswell of public opinion can help bring this issue to its deserved prominence, and the Church, with its pro-life, pro-family teachings and advocacy, is uniquely positioned to be a leading force. Pope Francis has indicated such a priority. “We cannot call any society healthy when it does not leave real room for family life,” he said in prepared remarks for the Festival of Families in Philadelphia last year. “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. How many problems would be solved if our societies protected families and provided households, especially those of recently married couples, with the possibility of dignified work, housing and health care services to accompany them throughout life.”
Of course, economic challenges exist when it comes to enacting such policies. Such a change requires a thoughtful and responsible reprioritization of resources, flexibility and a willingness to consider creative solutions. It is important here to recognize the many parish and diocesan programs and volunteers that attempt to fill in the gaps left behind by the lack of more formal solutions. Leaders of such efforts work tirelessly to assist and support young families economically, physically and spiritually, but private charitable efforts can only help a fraction of those in need.
As we prepare to celebrate the great gift of our mothers in the U.S. on May 8, may this be an opportunity for further reflection, discernment and action when it comes to supporting families through the implementation of paid family leave.
The Church in this country has often been in the forefront of economic reform. With so many social and economic pressures on the well-being of families in our society, helping to lift up families facing economic burdens can only assist in this critical effort, the fruits of which benefit us all.
Editorial Board members: Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief