If you aren’t on Catholic Twitter (in which case, good for you), you may not be aware that there’s been a brouhaha over the weekend regarding working mothers. It started with Catholic author and podcaster Timothy Gordon appearing on Matt Fradd’s podcast and making the rather startling claim (see timestamp 45:42) that married women shouldn’t work outside the home.
Subsequently, Matt Fradd posted a rebuttal article in which he clarified that he does not agree with Timothy Gordon on this point.
Timothy Gordon was shocked and disappointed by Fradd’s article, and tweeted the following:
Bro, the Church teaches in over a dozen places that no “nuance” is possible on women working outside the home, though. What you’re calling nuance is just eisegesis. Or just rationalized disobedience
— Timothy Gordon (@timotheeology) August 17, 2019
Timothy Gordon’s wife, Stephanie, entered the conversation, and it’s her tweets I’m addressing in this article. When several people brought up St. Gianna Beretta Molla as an example of a canonized saint who was a working mother, Stephanie said:
Already addressed that. Saint Gianna was a saint because she laid her life down for her child, not because she was a working mother. Not everything a saint does in her/his life is “saintly”—one even killed Christians, etc. This is just faulty thinking.
— Steph Gordon (@AskYourHusband) August 17, 2019
And she doubled down the next day:
Saint Gianna Molla became a saint b/c she laid her life down for her unborn child…NOT because she was a working mother. Not everything a saint does in their life is “saintly.”
Saint Paul murdered Christians. (��, don’t @ me about doctors helping people—not compelling)
— Steph Gordon (@AskYourHusband) August 18, 2019
Is This True?
Was St. Gianna Beretta Molla canonized only due to her sacrifice for her unborn child, and in spite of her status as a working mother?
In a word: no.
As I write in Chapter 2 of my book:
In St. Gianna Beretta Molla, A Woman’s Life, author Giuliana Pelucchi recounts this story from Pietro Molla:
Gianna’s work outside the home was not undertaken due to financial necessity; her husband was an engineer and his income would have been more than adequate for his family’s needs. Instead, she worked outside the home because she felt she had been called by God to serve the members of her community as a doctor while also serving her husband and children as a wife and mother. Per her biography on the Vatican website, “with simplicity and equilibrium she harmonized the demands of mother, wife, doctor and her passion for life.”
It is true that Gianna had made the decision to give up her medical practice once her fourth child was born, but her decision was not because she had come to the conclusion that working outside the home was somehow wrong or inappropriate. As her husband, Pietro Molla, said in a biography about his wife:
Already during our engagement, Gianna had asked me about continuing her profession at least as long as her obligations as wife and above all as mother allowed it. I did not oppose that because I knew well how enthusiastically she practiced medicine, how attached she was to her patients. Later, by mutual agreement, we made the decision that she would stop at the birth of our fourth child. In this understanding, she continued her profession until her last confinement (74).
After returning to Ponte Nuovo, Gianna tried to reorganize her life, wanting to find time for everything: Pietro and her children, the management of her household, and her medical practice. Pietro saw how busy she always was and asked if she would consider giving up her practice. The look Gianna gave him in response, however, discouraged Pietro from asking again.
“I promise you,” she told him one day, “that when we have one more child, I will stop my medical work and will be a full-time mother, even though that will be difficult for me” (91).
A study of Saint Gianna’s life, including the letters she wrote to her husband, reveals a faithful Catholic woman who had been immersed in the teachings of the Catholic Church from infancy, and who was devoted to serving God throughout her life.
Yet if what her detractors say was true, Saint Gianna would have instead lived a life of willful disobedience prior to what was essentially a deathbed conversion, but this is not at all how she is characterized by her many biographers, not to mention her friends, colleagues, and relatives — including a brother who was a priest, a sister who was a nun, and her husband and children.
It simply doesn’t make sense that Saint Gianna would be perfectly pious and obedient in all other aspects of Church teaching, but would then casually disobey this alleged teaching about women not working outside the home. As quoted above, her Vatican biography makes no mention of Saint Gianna’s alleged sinful behavior, but instead praises her ability to balance her competing priorities.
Her status as a working mother was not, as Stephanie Gordon claims, “unsaintly.” Her willingness to serve her brothers and sisters in Christ is part of her life of heroic virtue, not a detraction from it.
When a person’s cause for canonization is opened, per Fr. William Saunders, “the congregation examines to see if the candidate was motivated by a profound charity towards his neighbor, and practiced the virtues in an exemplary manner and with heroism.”
If the Church taught that it was objectively gravely sinful for a mother to work outside the home, the congregation would not have recommended that Gianna’s cause move forward — because a woman who knowingly persists in manifest grave sin for years on end is not someone who practices Catholic virtue in an exemplary manner and with heroism.
St. Gianna’s willingness to sacrifice her own health and life for her unborn child was indeed heroic, but it was also her life of virtue as a wife, mother, and doctor that advanced her cause and led to her eventual canonization.