The Archdiocese of Chicago will begin offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave to its staff beginning on July 1.
The new policy is open to fathers and mothers who just had children or adopted children. Staff who are eligible for benefits—those who work at least 26 hours a week—and who have worked at the archdiocese at least one month qualify for parental leave. Archdiocesan employees who have worked less than one year will receive one week of paid parental leave for every month they worked.
Under the previous policy, female staff who gave birth or adopted used paid sick time and vacation time during their parental leave. Employees who worked for at least three years usually had accumulated enough sick time to cover about six weeks of leave.
"We've had a policy that met the needs of most people," said Betsy Bohlen, CEO for the Archdiocese of Chicago. "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."
There were some instances when it didn't work for everyone, such as in the case of newer employees, she said, or someone who had to use their sick time for other health reasons.
When Archbishop Blase J. Cupich came on board as Chicago's new archbishop in the fall of 2014, he wanted to ensure that the personnel policies were in line with church teaching.
"Obviously, we do want to be a voice for pro-life, family-friendly kinds of policies," Bohlen told the Catholic New World, Chicago's archdiocesan newspaper. "The idea was to make sure that we have something that can work for all staff."
Under the new policy, fathers also can take paid parental leave. The prior policy was generous on time off, allowing up to six-month leave, but did not provide pay during the leave.
Including fathers under the new policy grew out of discussion from the human resources committee of the archdiocesan finance council about what it means to be church today in a world that is increasingly less family-friendly.
That committee made recommendations to the finance council, which were then approved and sent to Archbishop Cupich for review. He approved the new parental leave policy.
The archdiocese is trying to be on the "leading edge" of family-friendly policies, Bohlen said.
The new policy is expected to cost the archdiocese up to $1 million a year and could be used by as many as 200 employees, including fathers.
"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 she can appreciate the changes as a parent.
"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."
Few dioceses offer 12 weeks of paid parental leave, said Father Peter Wojcik, co-director of the archdiocese's Department of Parish Life and Formation.
Father Wojcik quoted Pope Francis' recently released apostolic exhortation, "Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love"), in explaining why the archdiocese changed its policy.
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 last year in the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, Father Wojcik said.
The pope's document, released April 8, is the conclusion of a two-year synod process that gathered hundreds of bishops together with the pope to discuss issues surrounding marriage and the family.
The church shouldn't just write about or talk about families but also must accompany them on their journey, said archdiocesan officials.
"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," Father Wojcik 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."
Through time together, families become stronger and ultimately the church becomes stronger, the priest added.