Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bishops and Working Moms: A New Alliance?

I'M STILL PONDERING the NY Catholic Bishops' enthusiastic support of government day care programs, wondering why Catholic bishops have wandered so far from the Church's traditional esteem for the full-time mother and homemaker to their current position which not only tolerates the phenomenon of working mothers, but actively advocates its continued existence and expansion.

It's not just the bishops of New York; the conservative National Catholic Register featured a glowing article in their business section last week praising the CEO of a large business firm who was also a mother of three young children.

Come to think of it, I don't believe I've ever heard a Catholic priest or bishop encouraging mothers to stay at home full-time. On the contrary, working moms are widely accepted and accomodated in the typical Catholic parish and school. Catholic working moms, I venture to state, have actually become the sine qua non, the indispensable element without which the average diocesan mechanism cannot exist.

They staff the chanceries and rectories, they teach in the schools, and, most importantly for the schools, their second income provides the tuition without which the schools could not exist. I know of many Catholic moms who stayed at home until their children reached school age, but, because they wanted their children to attend Catholic schools, were forced to go out to work in order to afford the tuition, especially the exorbitant cost of Catholic high school, now an average of $7,000/year in our diocese.

Of course, this deplorable situation came about in large part because of the mass exodus of teaching nuns from the Catholic schools a few decades ago. Lay women took up the slack and tuition costs rose accordingly since the Church could no longer depend on the voluntary services of the nuns. Working moms, the bishops discovered, were a handy solution to the crisis caused by the sudden lack of religious vocations.

The great difficulty, however, with the present symbiotic relationship between Catholic bishops and working moms is that has not worked to the advantage of either party. The Catholic schools, staffed largely by laywomen, who are well-meaning and dedicated, but unfortunately poorly trained in the Catholic faith, are not producing well-formed Catholic young people. The results are indisputable: the tens of thousands of Catholic high school graduates churned out in the last few decades, regardless of years of Catholic education, are not remaining in the Church.

Moreover, it is a disturbing fact that our Catholic schools are closing at a rapid rate despite the omnipresence of working moms in them. Also, vocations to the priesthood and religious life are still in steep decline, the once large orders of teaching nuns now almost non-existent. The present system has clearly not been a viable solution to the dire problem the exit of the teaching nuns caused.

This lack of vocations and the general loss of faith cannot be discussed without connecting it to the high incidence of contraceptive use among Catholic women, necessary to maintain the working-mom lifestyle. I'm afraid all the two-child Catholic couples we see in our parishes and schools are mostly using artificial birth control, the use of periodic abstinence being most unlikely given the fact that only 3% of Catholic married couples use Natural Family Planning.

Fr. Paul Marx, the founder of Human Life International, often lamented the high use of contraception among Catholics and insisted that contracepting women could not pass on the Catholic faith or foster vocations, "Nor will contracepting, sterilized teachers in "Catholic" schools and CCD classes inspire the young into religious life."

The only way Fr. Marx could see out of this downward spiral was the return of the traditional family. If this cannot be done without some economic sacrifice, so much the better, as far as he was concerned. The comfortable, affluent lifestyle Americans have become accustomed to and think is essential for their children, is deadly for vocations, he maintained.

The great pro-life crusader was not completely discouraged by the grim prospect. The potential he discovered for vocations in the traditional Catholic families he encountered cheered him immensely:

I put great hope in sacrificing, one-income, home-schooling families to produce young people more ready to offer their lives to God in religion. There are one million home-schooled in such families; the number is growing fast, as are independent private Catholic schools maintained by parents.'

Encouraging one-income traditional families is the message the Catholic bishops ought to be proclaiming, instead of the ill-considered path they are pursuing now. Their insistence on a living wage for heads of families and promotion of legislation to keep mothers of young children home would help create the family-friendly environment necessary for vocations to thrive again.

Using working moms to replace the Catholic teaching nun, that long-missing but essential cog in the life of the Church, has been a disastrous, stop-gap experiment by our bishops. Correcting the situation will not be easy, but it is essential for the future well-being of our Church.

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