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What Paul Ryan Could Learn From Pope Francis About Family Leave

The pontiff points to a model in which multiple institutions pitch in

Alberto Pizzoli / Getty Images

Advocates of better parental leave policies have a new ally as of last week: Pope Francis. Speaking to the Christian Union of Italian Business Executives, Francis declared that working women “must be protected and helped in this dual task: the right to work and the right to motherhood." Francis went on to outline the responsibilities businesses have to their female employees, emphasizing that “the challenge is to protect their right to a job that is given full recognition while at the same time safeguarding their vocation to motherhood and their presence in the family.”

Francis’s emphatic support of maternity leave comes on the heels of a debate about state leave mandates partly prompted by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s insistence on family time for himself, and simultaneous rejection of leave mandates for others. On a recent installment of Meet the Press, Ryan, a practicing Catholic, explained that he opposes paid leave mandates because loving his own children does not require “taking money from hardworking taxpayers to create a brand new entitlement program.” Paid leave for those who can afford it, in other words, and no help from the government for those who can’t.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis’s position reflects not only a disagreement on policy particulars with Ryan and his supporters, but an entirely different way of imagining society.

“It sounds like Pope Francis was specifically talking about the responsibility of businesses to offer family leave,” Julie Rubio, professor of Christian Ethics at St. Louis University, explained in email to the New Republic. “However, he is echoing statements of other popes that have a broader context.” Rubio, whose research focuses on Christian family ethics and policy, noted that Francis’s remarks strongly resembled those of Pope St. John Paul II, who wrote in 1981 that:

“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.”

Maternity leave, in other words, guarantees that women will not be forced to choose between work and family, but will rather be allowed to value both equally: this much is usually advanced in favor of fair leave policies. What Francis and his predecessor note is that businesses are not only wise to offer generous leave, but obligated to do so by their role in society.

“I've heard people say that the pope is anti-business,” Rubio said, “but I don't think that's correct. He affirms the importance of business, saying, ‘Businesses are an asset for the common good.’ But he is critical of what he calls the 'sacralization of the free market,' inequality, and exclusion. ... Businesses that recognize their employees' rights to a just wage and just working conditions would be assets to the common good because they would be working for a more just, inclusive society.”

While the purpose of business in American society is rarely considered outside providing returns to shareholders and goods and services to the purchasing public, Francis takes a more spiritual view: Businesses are instruments for the common good, meaning they should consider themselves at the service of inclusivity, justice, and overall societal well-being. This means creating not only value for the market, but creating an atmosphere in which families can thrive.

Which Ryan and his political allies would likely all agree with, at least superficially. But for employees of small businesses, part-time workers, and other employees with meager job benefits, the goodwill of an employer might not be enough to guarantee stable family leave. While women in those employment situations might be able to theoretically take time off, there is little assurance they would be able to support themselves and their children while away from work.

“There is no one size fits all for making sure public policy reflects CST [Catholic social teaching],” Charles Camosy, a Fordham University professor of theological and social ethics, noted in an email to the New Republic, “but it is perfectly obvious that—especially for the most vulnerable—unpaid leave often isn't enough. If, say, one is a single parent living paycheck to paycheck, and a pregnancy and/or nativity would mean taking time off of work, then such unpaid leave could mean being kicked out of one's apartment.” Rubio echoed Camosy, adding that “the problem with unpaid leave is that those who earn less can't afford to take unpaid time off. And certainly Pope Francis is concerned with the poor and has been critical of the ways capitalism devalues human life.” A leave mandate without pay, then, doesn’t exactly live up to Francis’s expectations for business or society at large.

Other countries with generous parental benefits tend to rely on hybrids of state and employer pay to make time off possible for new parents, with the government paying some percentage of an employee’s regular pay, and the employer matching the rest. Arrangements vary by nation and employer, but nearly all of them surpass the United States in both guaranteed duration and pay. “This is not a problem that can be solved by government or families or businesses alone,” Rubio said, “rather many different institutions can play a role.” Indeed, the participation of multiple institutions—state, employer, family, and so on—helps to explain the success of many of the best paid leave programs in the world, including Sweden’s and Norway’s.

In this sense, Ryan and his allies in the GOP are being short-sighted: For families to balance life and work, the participation of some willing and able businesses is not enough. Nor should state-mandated paid leave policies excuse employers from supporting their employees. Instead, all institutions will have to cooperate to create the sort of society that supports flourishing in all aspects of life, and to prioritize that flourishing above all other interests.