Is It a Sin for a Mother to Work Outside the Home?

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I've been asked by a good number of people of late whether I think it is a sin for a mother to work outside the home. I've also been asked whether I think it's a good idea, all things being equal, for a mother to work outside the home.

These are two very different questions. What the Church teaches about this issue is a factual question we can answer by examining magisterial documents like the Catechism or papal writings. What I think about it is just my opinion, which I’m happy to share (in another article, perhaps) and you’re free to accept or reject.

But before I answer that first question, in the interest of full disclosure you should know that my wife works part-time away from the kids (though often inside the house) when she produces her podcast Among the Lillies. And I’m bloody proud of her for it, honestly. It's not uncommon for me to encounter women after I have given a presentation somewhere who will say something to the effect of, "oh yeah, Pints With Aquinas is fine, good job, but Among the Lilies has changed my life.

So, I might be biased when it comes to this question, but we’re all biased in some respect or another. However, if I truly thought that what she was doing was a sin or bad for our children then I’d tell her to quit for the good of our family. But I don’t think it is and here’s why.

What the Church Teaches

First, I need to point out that I hate the term “working mother.” All mothers work, in many cases they work harder than men at some jobs. Even in so-called “egalitarian” countries like Sweden many men prefer to go to back to work after children are born and don’t take all their available paid leave because it’s easier to be at work than at home (a sentiment I know full well sometimes!). Pope St. John Paul II said, 

“Toil is something that is universally known, for it is universally experienced. It is familiar to those doing physical work under sometimes exceptionally laborious conditions . . . It is familiar to women, who, sometimes without proper recognition on the part of society and even of their own families, bear the daily burden and responsibility for their homes and the upbringing of their children. It is familiar to all workers and, since work is a universal calling, it is familiar to everyone."

If it were wrong for mothers to work outside the home, we would expect the Church to tell us it’s wrong. Instead, in 2004 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, spoke about society valuing women’s work both inside and outside the home saying:

"Women who freely desire will be able to devote the totality of their time to the work of the household without being stigmatized by society or penalized financially, while those who wish also to engage in other work may be able to do so with an appropriate work-schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one's own equilibrium and the harmony of the family."

So why would mothers work outside the home? One reason is necessity. Joanna Wahlund writes in her book, The Catholic Working Mom's Guide to Life about “other Catholic working mothers [like her] who are in the same boat” of finding it difficult to provide for the needs of the family. She says, “It is getting harder and harder these days to scrape by on one income alone. Inflation has skyrocketed, along with the cost of living but salaries haven’t kept pace.”

The Catechism says nothing about mothers committing a sin by working outside the home. It instead speaks of “parents” (rather than “fathers” and “mothers”) having equal responsibilities. In paragraph 2228 it says, for example, “Parents' respect and affection are expressed by the care and attention they devote to bringing up their young children and providing for their physical and spiritual needs.” 

Notice that the duty of raising children and providing for their needs is ascribed to “parents” and not to mothers and fathers specifically, as if only one were allowed to work outside the home.

Only the home will do?

Catholics who say women shouldn’t work often rely on citations from older magisterial documents that are taken out of context and do not prohibit mother’s from working because it is sinful. For example, in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, he said, “a woman is by nature fitted for home-work” and that’s true when we see that throughout history most women have worked within the home. This included raising children, but also tending to farms and home-based workshops where they created goods to be sold in marketplaces and fairs.

But that doesn’t mean it is immoral for women to work outside the home, especially in the modern workplace.

In the context Rerum Novarum, “work” usually referred to hard labor in form of mining, farming, manufacturing or construction. That’s why Leo XIII said, “work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child.” This usually refers to work that converts brute strength into usable resources. But over one hundred years have passed since the time of Leo and, subsequently, the nature of work has changed for most people.

In 1910, 46% of the U.S. economy was devoted to mining, farming, manufacturing, and construction. Only 3% of workers provided professional, business, and health care services (source). Today, the largest group of workers provide these services and less than 10% of people are involved in industries like manufacturing, which through the use of automation, is not the backbreaking endeavor it was in the 19th century. This means women have the opportunity to share their unique “genius” through work that often relies on creative thought and not mere brute strength or stamina.

But what about when Pope Pius XI chastised “false teachers” who claimed a “woman is to be freed at her own good pleasure from the burdensome duties properly belonging to a wife as companion and mother?” Or in Quadragsemino Anno when he said, “Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity?”

In these encyclicals from the 1930’s, the Pope is not combatting radical feminism that tried to “liberate” women from the responsibilities of family, but Marxism and mission to destroy the family by erasing any distinction between men and women. That’s why the early communist leader Leon Trotsky said, “ “The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called ‘family hearth.’” He desired “complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society.”

In Casti Connubii Pope Pius XI condemned women working outside the home when it is “to the neglect” of her family and “against the wish of her husband” not working mothers in general, which was mostly unheard of at the time anyway. Instead, the Pope condemned the communist State and its desire to erase the natural bonds that exist between parent and child and replacing them with the idea that we all serve the State equally. 

That’s why in Quadragesimo Anno the Pope said, “Communism is particularly characterized by the rejection of any link that binds woman to the family and the home . . . The care of home and children then devolves upon the collectivity.” Rejecting the idea that there is no natural bond between women and families does not entail that the only bond that can exist is mothers staying at home and raising their children. Pope John XXIII even said that “women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers.” This doesn’t mean women must always work from home, but that solutions are offered so that their family life does not experience more hardship from them working (such as providing women with maternity and family leave time or the ability to pump breast milk at work).

But the most important thing to take away is that none of the papal writings ever says that just being a working mother is a sin. They may take for granted that most women work in the home, and argue against dangerous or degrading work to women, but the concept of working mothers as a sin is not condemned. 

The Feminine Genius

Finally, it isn’t just economic reasons that justify women working outside the home, women are also geniuses and the world needs their genius.

I could speak to many of the subjects Cameron addresses on Among the Lillies, but it still wouldn’t communicate the unique perspective and insights Cameron brings to the discussion, some of which are because she is a woman. In his letter to women Pope St. John Paul II said, “society certainly owes much to the ‘genius of women’” saying part of this genius is revealed in the fact that:

Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them. 

Cardinal Ratzinger refers to this unique genius women possess when he says that, “women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.”

But at the end of the day, even if you’re providing “genius” to the world, if you’re family is suffering, then they have to come first. I love Pints with Aquinas, but if I start to see that I’m spending too much time producing the podcast and not enough time at home, then there is no doubt the podcast is going to be scaled back and I’d expect the same commitment to our family from Cameron. But if we both maintain a proper balance, we can glorify God through out work.

"Work can be a prayer," said St. Gianna Beretta Molla, "if we offer to the Lord all the actions that we perform, so that they might serve His glory.”

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