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Question 15: Must a businesswoman do voluntary parish work?

Our parish is trying to set up a day care program, a service some parishioners not only want but badly need since for many the alternatives are unsatisfactory—the better day care programs charge a great deal, while the poorer ones are wretched. Individuals who provide day care in their homes are not monitored, and they sometimes mistreat or neglect the children. Seldom does any day care operation provide the attention and affection children need. A committee set up by the pastor has worked out a plan to offer the best possible care at a reasonable cost by using parish facilities and employing a small, full-time staff of well-qualified people assisted by many volunteers.

The plan’s success depends on getting good volunteers from the parish who will do their work just as dependably as if they were being paid. The pool of people free to help out is limited, and, despite the fact that I operate a catering business that takes a good deal of my time, the pastor is pressing me to commit myself to a full day each week. When he talked with me and I demurred, he asked how I managed when my own children, now grown, were younger. I told him I used various kinds of day care over the years, and none was entirely satisfactory. He then asked whether I would not have been glad to use a service like that planned for the parish, and I admitted that I would have been glad if a good program like that had been available. He then said: “Well, you surely can afford to give one day a week, and our Lord taught, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you,’ so you ought to volunteer!” I said an obligation to volunteer doesn’t make much sense to me, and he replied: “Then consider yourself drafted! Seriously, you do have a real obligation to help with this.” I said I would think about it.

As far as the money is concerned, the pastor is right—I could afford to give one day a week. My husband has a good job, we have a beautiful home and no debts, and we could live quite comfortably on his salary alone, now that our children have finished college, without the income I derive from the catering business. Yet I am reluctant to volunteer because it would be burdensome and would interfere with my work.

The business has been very successful. While my work is heaviest on weekends, I normally have some things to do every weekday and seldom take a full day off, except when I close down for vacation. I employ two full-time people and about twenty more on weekends, and we give such good service that we never need to advertise, since we get plenty of business by word-of-mouth referrals and are booked up well in advance. Contributing a day every week to the parish, I would have to cut back somewhat on the jobs we accept while still having to work harder on the other weekdays than I do now. In short, while I could afford the money, I don’t feel I can afford the time and energy to volunteer. Besides, I enjoy my work and find it fulfilling. I could do the day care work, but caring for other people’s children is outside my field, and I am not enthusiastic about the idea.

Do you think I have an obligation to volunteer? Will I be violating the Golden Rule if I don’t?


This question concerns the application of the Golden Rule. The pastor’s use of it is not sound. The questioner’s capacities for service and existing responsibilities might differ significantly from those of persons who would have appropriately volunteered for the day care program of which she would have wished to take advantage. The questioner does have an obligation as a parish member to make an appropriate contribution to its good projects. But it is for her to discern how to fulfill this obligation. As aids to discernment, the response might well include discussion of considerations for and against volunteering service outside one’s field.

The reply could be along the following lines:

If you do not volunteer for the day care program, I doubt that you will be violating the Golden Rule. The fact that you would have been happy to take advantage of a program of day care to which others volunteered their services does not by itself imply that you have an obligation to volunteer your service to the program planned at your parish. The Golden Rule requires only that in our behavior toward others we follow the same sound principles and norms we apply when making claims for ourselves and those near and dear to us. One may not change one’s standards or ignore some of them when they happen to be inconvenient. However, in applying the Golden Rule, differences between individuals’ capacities to serve and existing responsibilities cannot be ignored.

It follows that, where there is no reason rooted in an intelligible human good to prefer one person to another and we are consulting our feelings regarding various goods and bads, the Golden Rule requires that we set aside the differences in our feelings toward different persons. One may not adjust one’s estimate of the magnitude of burdens and benefits according to who happens to be suffering or enjoying them, unless some reason distinguishes one person from another, and not merely the fact that this person is myself or someone near and dear while that person is someone I am indifferent to or dislike. But the Golden Rule does not require us to ignore reasons that affect the significance of a burden or benefit for different persons.

In considering whether to volunteer for the day care program, then, you can legitimately take into account the fact that it would interfere with your work—which benefits not only you but many others—and so perhaps judge it better not to volunteer. And without any inconsistency, you can think at the same time that it would have been appropriate for others, with more energy and free time, to have volunteered for a similar program of which you would have taken advantage. Moreover, even now, you can judge without inconsistency that it would be appropriate for others to volunteer while you do not.

Still, like every other member of the parish, you do have an obligation to help meet its needs insofar as you reasonably can. These needs include all it requires for the success of its legitimate and worthwhile projects. On this basis, perhaps some members of the parish ought, morally speaking, to volunteer their service in the day care program, and you could be among them.54 However, since the moral responsibility to help meet the parish’s needs is limited by each parishioner’s resources and other responsibilities, no law or pastoral precept can reasonably determine what this duty requires in each particular case. Each parishioner must conscientiously judge what his or her appropriate contribution is, and this judgment will specify the individual’s moral responsibility. Therefore, you need to stir up your sentiments of love for Christ and his Church, and consider the value of the proposed day care program, what will be required for its success, your own limitations and resources, and your other responsibilities, including those pertaining to your business. Having done all this, you must discern what would be a suitable contribution for you to make (see LCL, 291–93).

In his eagerness to promote this worthwhile project, your pastor seems to be trying to do your discerning for you. While you certainly should submit to his decisions within his proper sphere of authority, your resistance to his pressure in this matter is understandable. Even so, be open to God’s will and fulfill your obligation to discern your appropriate contribution. As an aid, not a substitute, I offer the following considerations and suggestions.

First, though your reluctance to cut back on your business is partly a matter of self-interest, that concern may well be legitimate, for we really fulfill ourselves by using our talents in doing good work (see LCL, 755–58). Moreover, assuming you conscientiously manage this successful business for the common good of everyone involved, your work significantly benefits your employees, customers, and suppliers. Therefore, your duties related to your business are moral responsibilities. The commitments underlying them should not be lightly set aside or compromised in favor of other claims on your time and resources.

Second, you make the point that taking care of other people’s children is not your field, and you are not enthusiastic about the idea. That certainly is relevant, for in discerning what work to do one generally should strive to use one’s talents as appropriately as possible, and lack of enthusiasm often is a sign that a job’s requirements and one’s talents are more or less poorly matched. Still, members of any community sometimes ought to take on jobs that do not make full use of their talents or accept tasks for which they are not very well qualified. That is so not only when the job must be done and nobody else is available to do it, but also when the mutuality—of love, respect, camaraderie—among a community’s members requires the specially talented and better placed to set aside talents and position and share common tasks. In a family, for instance, the husband and father who is a highly paid professional still must be ready to pitch in; he may not evade household jobs and the less enjoyable aspects of parenting as outside his field. Similarly in other communities, setting aside specific roles and pitching in to share in carrying out some common undertaking sometimes is appropriate and doing so in a generous spirit powerfully builds up community. Taking care of other people’s children is hardly likely to be the proper field of anyone in the parish free to volunteer for the day care program. Still, pitching in probably is appropriate for some, and you should not rule out the possibility that you might be among them.

Third, even many Christians share the modern idea that people may keep for themselves any money they earn or do with it whatever they please. On the contrary, excess income carries with it a strict duty to use it to meet others’ urgent needs (see LCL, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14). You make it clear that you and your husband could live comfortably on his salary alone and no longer need the income from your business. Perhaps you already are donating your excess income to good causes, but if not, you either are accumulating wealth unjustifiably or spending money on luxuries. In any case, when you consider your own resources in discerning, do not overlook the portion of your income you could contribute to your parish without slighting any other moral responsibility.

Fourth, rather than considering only the two possibilities—agreeing to serve in the day care program as the pastor wishes or refusing to help with it—try to think of alternative ways of contributing to the program and consider making one or more counterproposals. For instance, you could donate money to help finance the project. Then too, just as we are bound to share our excess income with others, so we ought to share any spare capacity to exercise our special gifts. With your experience in organizing and managing, you might be able to help set up the program, train people, manage finances, or deal with licensing and insurance problems. No doubt, snacks and lunches will be provided for the children, and at least in that regard you should be able to put your talents to work very helpfully, even without committing yourself to being present for a certain number of hours every week. Again, you might be able to make it easier for others to volunteer by using your talents and resources to help volunteers provide good dinners for their families on the days they serve in the program.

54. In granting that the project is worthwhile, I am not conceding that it is desirable to place children in day care. Caring for children, especially those under three, is a demanding job that requires the affection, skill, and commitment of strong and psychologically healthy people; Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson, People under Three: Young Children in Day Care (New York: Routledge, 1994), specify what good day care requires and thus provide a standard by which available day care might be judged—and, I expect, often found wanting. Therefore, parents should care for their own children. But sometimes that is not feasible, and day care is a necessary evil; see Marian Blum, The Day-Care Dilemma: Women and Children First (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1983), whose research and analysis led her to conclude (115): “There are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no victimless solutions to the problems of child care for working parents.”