Beyond Male and Female in the Work/Home Balance Equation

Here at New Ways Ministry, we frequently point out that LGBTQ people offer great gifts to our church.  Since their lived experiences are often so different from heterosexual and cisgender people, their spiritualities often develop strengths in particular areas that are of great benefit to the church:  courage, truth-telling, enduring and overcoming persecution, appreciating the unconditional love of God, to name a few.    Our institutional church would benefit greatly by welcoming  and affirming these gifts of LGBTQ people.

I was recently reminded that LGBTQ people also offer gifts to another kind of “church” beyond the institutional:  the domestic church, meaning the family home. In the April 2019 edition of U.S. Catholic, theologian Jacob Kohlhaas examines the conflict that parents experience because Catholic teaching about the dignity of work and the sacredness of the family are often controlled by outdated gender roles and stereotypes.  He succinctly presents the case:

“The tradition of Catholic social teaching provides helpful guidance in clarifying the dignity and importance of both work and family. But the concerns of this tradition and the realities of life for many American parents do not mesh perfectly, particularly for working mothers, caregiving fathers, and couples pursuing the present cultural ideal of negotiated roles between equal partners. As a consequence of the gendered distinctions employed in Catholic social teaching and sometimes reflected in U.S. society, the tradition presents differing messages to men and women about how to seek balance and fulfillment within the realities of work and family.”

Catholic social teaching was developed in the early 20th century, when strict gender roles were much more accepted.  Kohlhaas points out:

“Catholic social teaching was made easier by neat and tidy gender roles. Catholic teaching of the early 20th century sought to protect family stability and well-being by advocating for better working conditions for male heads of households. Meanwhile women were instructed quite seriously not to desire participation in the labor force. Instead, women were to remain on their ‘regal thrones’ within the household.”

Although Vatican II “ushered in support for egalitarian marriage and a more qualified backing of women’s right to participate in the workforce and public life,”  this directive has not been put into practice, so “portions of the former ideal family order, where the man works and the woman stays at home, persist in both Catholic teaching and popular culture.”

The example and witness of households headed by LGBTQ people offer a great corrective to moving beyond gender roles about work and home. While a foolish, old stereotype of same-sex couples was that one would be the “man” and one would be the “woman” in terms of their domestic and labor roles, in fact, LGBTQ people have offered a new model for being family where gender roles are not an issue.  Who works? Who cleans? Who cooks? Who takes care of the children? These tasks are usually decided by LGBTQ people by more practical issues:  whose job brings in more money?  who is better at cooking and cleaning?  who is more nurturing?

Yet, the model of family that LGBTQ people offer even goes beyond a simple division of tasks and roles.  More often, all the tasks of bread-winning, housekeeping, and child-rearing are shared as equally as possible.  Fulfillment in careers can be experienced by both members of the couple, just as the creativity, joys, and struggles of housekeeping and raising a family are also shared.

I don’t want to paint a picture that all families headed by LGBTQ couples always offer an ideal division of labors and promote harmony.  Social realities often impinge on all family configurations, and equality may be a goal, but not always a reality, for any kind of family.  But, the fact that gender roles are non-existent (or at least, much less downplayed) in LGBTQ couples means that there is a greater likelihood that equality may be approached.

Kohlhaas rightly points out that the problem with both society’s and the church’s traditional models of gender, work, and the home have a much more negative impact on women than on men.  A few items from his essay:

  • “In contrast to men, the vocation and social roles of women in Catholic teachings are much more tightly bound up with women’s vocation to motherhood, nurture, and domestic caregiving. Even women who are not mothers are called to exercise this essential motherly dimension of their feminine identity. Consequently, employment is seen as a potential source of conflict for women, as it can compete with or distract from family obligations.”
  • “. . . [W]omen’s involvement in their family is prioritized over and often against their professional aspirations. This doesn’t necessarily mean that women must find greater fulfillment in family than in work, or other spheres of life, but it certainly stacks the deck in that direction, as it sets these responsibilities at odds with one another. Catholic teachings of recent decades have been somewhat attuned to this gendered imbalance, but remain firmly committed to essential gender distinctions.”
  •  “Disparities in hiring practices among men and women are becoming well known. In terms of compensation, men typically benefit from getting married (the marriage bump) while women tend to lose ground (the marriage penalty). Fatherhood remains linked to employment, with relatively few expectations for childcare (e.g., dads “babysitting” their children), while mothers are subject to higher expectations of caregiving and supervising children in public settings.”

The model of equality in work and home relationships that LGBTQ people offer can thus be of special benefit to ending constricting gender expectations for women.

The reason that there has been such a struggle to accept LGBTQ people and relationships is because so much in our society and church is undergirded by gender.  While LGBTQ people have often been demonized as being a threat to marriage and family, they are sometimes catastrophically viewed as a threat to civilization and social order.  Although this threat to culture has never been described in terms of gender and is usually described in terms of sexual perversion, the fact that LGBTQ people’s existence offer an alternative to traditional conceptions of gender is really at the basis of these terrifying concerns.   That’s why LGBTQ people are so important (but also feared) in our society and church.  They can help us envision a world where people are valued because of their humanity, not because of their gender.

Kohlhaas stated this idea nicely in his conclusion: “In theory, no sphere of human interaction can possibly be closed to God, who calls us to become more fully ourselves across the various facets of our lives.”

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 7, 2019

3 replies
  1. Kris
    Kris says:

    I should think debate on Catholic social teaching is academic (irrelevant) to most families today, except to those paragons of traditionalist Catholic patriarchy at Church Militant.

    Most loving families, however constituted, now probably just get on with the business of living as best they can. They know instinctively, through personal conscience, what is right for them and are, I suspect, all the better and happier for it.

    Looking to teaching on family life from a bunch of supposedly celibate males in an exclusively patriarchal setting has always struck me…well…as the height of absurdity, really. As something that wouldn’t be out of place in postprandial conversation at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

  2. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Thank you, Frank, for a great article. Perhaps it should be sent to all the Bishops! Or the New York Times where more people see it!


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