Effective July 1, the Archdiocese of Chicago began offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave to its staff.

We have no idea how common this policy is among archdioceses and dioceses, but a priest in the Chicago archdiocese says it’s rare. That’s too bad, because we think it’s praiseworthy and would be happy to see it become the norm wherever the Catholic Church employs people.

Every time I see a “Best Employers” or “Top 10 Places to Work” story in a business magazine, I’m reminded that I’ve never seen a church agency on any of these lists. I can understand that to some extent. Money is tight at nonprofit church agencies, and they rely on the charity of others to cover their payroll. If these agencies became notorious for offering top-of-the-line benefits, their donors might object and turn off the spigot.

Yet, how people – including employees – are treated is integral to the church’s mission, as are pro-life and family values. Presumably, the church would want to not only teach but also model behaviors that are pro-life, affirm human dignity and acknowledge the critical importance of the family to the common good.

A story in Catholic New World (CNW), the Chicago Archdiocese’s official newspaper, indicates that all of these things were factors in the decision to approve a new parent leave policy.

Old versus new policy

The new policy is offered to both fathers and mothers who have just had children or adopted them. They must be eligible for archdiocesan benefits and have worked at the archdiocese at least one month. Employees who have worked less than one year receive one week paid parental leave for every month they have worked.

Under the previous policy, female staff members who gave birth or adopted could use sick time and vacation time for payment during their parental leave. According to the archdiocese, employees who worked for at least three years usually had accumulated enough sick time to cover about six weeks of leave. In addition, mothers and fathers could take up to six months of parent leave, but the leave was not paid.

“We’ve had a policy that met the needs of most people,” said Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago, in the CNW story. “For most people it worked, because they accrued sick time and used it. In other organizations they would have lost it. Here they keep it.”

But there were instances when it didn’t work for everyone. Newer employees or people who had to use their sick time for illnesses could find themselves in a crunch.

In line with church teaching

“When Archbishop Cupich came on board he wanted to ensure that the personnel policies were in line with church teaching,” the CNW story said.

“Obviously we do want to be a voice for pro-life, family friendly kinds of policies,” Bohlen said. “The idea was to make sure that we have something that can work for all staff.”

Under the new policy, fathers can also take paid parental leave. The decision to include fathers “grew out of discussion from the human resources committee of the archdiocesan Finance Council about what it means to the church today in a world that is increasingly less family-friendly,” the CNW story explained.

When Archbishop Cupich received the Finance Council’s recommendation, he approved the new policy. The archdiocese is trying to be on the “leading edge” of family friendly policies, Bohlen said.

Likely to cost $1 million

The new policy is more than a gesture. The archdiocese expects it will cost it up to $1 million a year and could be used by as many as 200 employees.

But there is also a benefit to the archdiocese. “The other reason to do this is that we want to be able to attract strong talent and we think this is an attractive feature,” she said.

Bohlen is a mother of two children and said that as a parent she can appreciate the changes. “I do think the time soon after birth or adoption is a very important time for young families. The church can be viewed as a very attractive place to work if we’re seen to be more family-friendly than other organizations might be.”

Weighing pope’s words

According to Father Peter Wojcik, co-director of the archdiocese’s Department of Parish Life and Formation, few dioceses offer 12 weeks of paid parental leave. Wojcik quoted Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love” in explaining why the archdiocese took the initiative.

Pope Francis writes: “At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”

Archbishop Cupich is especially sensitive to family issues after participating in last year’s Synod on the Family at the Vatican, Wojcik explained in the CNW article. The church shouldn’t just write about or talk about families but must also accompany them on their journey.

“It’s hard to have a relationship as a family if you have to go back to work right after having a small child. Or if as a father you cannot be part of this because you can’t afford to take unpaid leave and don’t have a lot of time off,” the priest said.

“I think it’s a practical way of saying yes, the families are at the center of the church, the church is built on the families, and families need time to be with each other and accompany each other.”

As the oldest of 10 children, father of five and grandfather of 17, I couldn’t agree more.