By Allan Carlson
ROCKFORD, Illinois, JULY 9, 2009 (Zenit.org).- As the press has widely reported, “Caritas in Veritate” stands out for its critical stance toward contemporary global capitalism. However, on one matter, the encyclical letter is ambiguous about a long-standing principle of Catholic social justice: the principle of a “family wage” resting on distinctive social and economic roles for men and women.
In his great encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (1891), Pope Leo XIII declared it “a most sacred law of nature that the father of a family see that his offspring are provided with all the necessities of life.” For their part, mothers were “intended by nature for the work of the home […] the education of children and the well-being of the family.” Consequently, Leo argued the principle underlying all employer-worker contracts must be that the wage be at least “sufficiently large to enable [the worker] to provide comfortably for himself, his wife, and his children.”
In “Quadragesimo Anno” (1931), Pope Pius XI termed it “an intolerable abuse […] to be abolished at all costs” for mothers to be forced by their husbands’ low wage to work outside the home, thereby neglecting their natural responsibilities, “especially the training of children.” He added that “[e]very effort must therefore be made” to insure “that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately.” He rendered “merited praise to all, who with a wise and useful purpose, have tried and tested various ways of adjusting the pay for work to family burdens.”
Pope John Paul II’s “Laborem Exercens” (1981) avoided direct discussion of complementary male and female roles, saying instead that the just wage for an adult responsible for a family is that “which will suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family.” However, the encyclical praised social policy measures such as allowances or grants to mothers devoting themselves exclusively to their children.
And in his apostolic constitution “Familiaris Consortio,” also issued in 1981, John Paul II clearly stated that “society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote themselves full time to their own family.”
In contrast, “Caritas in Veritate” seems to assume that mothers will be in the workforce (No. 63). It makes no mention of the special work of women in the home, while acknowledging “the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.” In discussing “decency” in regard to work, Benedict XVI describes “work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labor.” Earlier Popes would have added “and mothers” to that last phrase; Benedict XVI seems to have quietly accepted the two-earner or two-career family as the new social and economic norm.
This may be a case of simply acknowledging current reality. In the developed world (and starting in the late 1960s), capitalism’s hunger for the labor of adult women broke though the legal and cultural barriers created over the prior 100 years to protect the mother in the home. In the developing world, women’s labor is now simply assumed. To progressive eyes, the mother in the home is at best an antiquarian curiosity.
However, this potential shift raises troubling questions about the nature of the Catholic family. Has the rich concept of complementarity — men and women being equal in dignity but different in function — been deemphasized? Has the Christian Democratic defense of the full-time mother subtly given way to the Swedish model of gender equality in the workplace?
Benedict XVI has spoken about the dignity of motherhood in many other settings, but the silence in this encyclical concerning familial roles has created an ambiguity that could undermine the very institution the Pope is strenuously trying to protect. Perhaps a future apostolic letter will clarify these points.
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Allan Carlson is President of The Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, and author, most recently, of “Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies — And Why They Disappeared” (ISI Books).