When I first read that juicy humdinger quote your friend sent you, I was floored, too. Did the Council of Trent really say that women shouldn’t work outside the home?
According to the excerpt that you quoted, it might seem like the answer is “yes”:
To train their children in the practice of virtue and to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns should also be special objects of their attention. The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; and she should never presume to leave home without her husband’s consent.
However, when we understand what this passage actually is and the historical context in which it was written, and when we place it in light of the Church’s teachings on the dignity of women and the home, we see that God cares more about how and why we work than about where we work.
First and foremost, this quote is not actually from the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent was a long ecumenical council that took place from 1545 to 1563. It was called in order to refute Protestantism and clarify Catholic teaching, particularly on issues like the authority of the Church, the nature of the sacraments, and how exactly we are saved by God’s grace.
The quote comes from the Roman Catechism, also known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Because there was so much confusion at the time, the Council called for a catechism to explain Catholic teaching, especially for parish priests to use.
Like all catechisms, including the current 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Roman Catechism is not authoritative as such. Catechisms are useful because they contain a clear and succinct summation of already authoritative teaching, but they themselves are not binding. This means that you will occasionally find statements in a catechism that are more like a current assumption or popular opinion than unchanging Truth.
In light of these facts, you need not worry about disobeying the Council of Trent, but that doesn’t really address the main issue at hand. Whether or not this particular quote from the Roman Catechism is strictly authoritative (it’s not), there are still plenty of exhortations and encouragements from Church tradition that seem to send the same message.
So, is it true that a woman’s place is in the home, and does the Catholic Church teach this?
St. Paul says that younger women should “be sensible, chaste, [and] domestic” (Titus 2:5). In Greek, that word “domestic” is oikourgos, a compound word combining oikos (meaning family or household and its property) and ergon (meaning work). It can also be translated “workers at home” (NASB), “busy at home” (NIV), or “good homemakers” (NABRE). You get the idea.
Scripture, along with the tradition of the Church, encourages women to be good homemakers: to care for our families with genuine love, to be hardworking and prudent in managing a household, and to generously raise any children God gives to us. But does this mean that women shouldn’t work outside the home?
Not at all.
The idea that wives and mothers shouldn’t do paid work outside the home is a modern invention. In pre-industrial societies, there was no meaningful distinction between the two. The division between “home” and “work” only emerged with the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century.
The idea that wives and mothers shouldn’t do paid work outside the home is a modern invention.
In a very literal sense, housework was the economy. That Greek word oikos means both family and property. It is the root origin of our word “economy,” which simply means to manage (nemein) the household (oikos). Before the Industrial Revolution, nearly everyone worked in their own homes. Most were peasants, tending to their farms or working their lord’s lands. Others lived in towns and worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, and merchants. Even until recently, if you ran a shop, you often lived above it. We must avoid projecting our twentieth-century assumptions onto pre-industrial texts. Such a projection is anachronism at its finest.
History shows us that women have always gone “out” from the home to work, participating fully in a society’s economic life. St. Lydia, the first recorded Christian convert from Europe, was a respected cloth merchant who sold expensive purple dyes. St. Zélie Martin was a remarkable lacemaker who established her own business and raised five daughters. And let us not forget about the full description of the Proverbs 31 woman.
Since the Industrial Revolution, women have needed to go “out” to work, because “out” is where the work is. In pre-industrial societies, the bulk of economic activity centered around the oikos or domus, the family household. It was where wives worked, as much a part of the economic life of the village as their husbands, who either worked in the next room or out in the fields. There was a distinction in labor, but not a geographical division.
Edith Stein doesn’t hold back in explaining what this shift did to women:
The Industrial Revolution transformed average domestic life so that it ceased to be a realm that engaged all of a woman’s potential. For those with passive temperaments, this climate led to an immersion into an overly sensual life or empty dreams or flirtations. In strongly active temperaments, there resulted a turning away from the house towards professional activity (Essays on Woman 105).
To be clear, Edith Stein doesn’t claim that “domestic life” isn’t enough for women and that every woman needs a paid job in order to be fulfilled. She is saying, however, that the domestic sphere has been impoverished: As things currently stand, it cannot provide enough occupation for all women — or even all wives and mothers.
Dorothy L. Sayers, the famous whodunit author and a devout Christian, notes in her work Are Women Human?:
It is all very well to say that a woman’s place is in the home — but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry, to be directed and organised by men at the head of large factories. Even the dairy-maid in her simple bonnet has gone, to be replaced by a male mechanic in charge of a mechanical milking plant (Sayers 32).
Most people don’t realize how much medieval women participated in the economy. During the Middle Ages, women controlled or dominated nearly all textile production, including spinning, dyeing, weaving, embroidering, and design. They managed the baking, brewing, milling, cooking, distilling, curing meats, and pickling vegetables. They played an important role in accounting, nursing, teaching, and a good portion of land management.
To do the kind of “domestic work” that most women did in the past, a woman today would need to leave the house, commute to the office, and arrive in time for a 9:00 a.m. meeting on textile investments in China or water drainage in new public housing allotment — because this is the modern equivalent of the activities that were historically managed from the home.
Returning to the excerpt from the Roman Catechism, if we know what this kind of passage doesn’t mean, we still need to ask what it does mean.
Can we just ignore it, or is the Roman Catechism still onto something?
As countercultural as it might be, the Roman Catechism is correct in that, as wives and mothers, our first priority after God is our family. If God calls us to married life, then our primary vocation is to love and serve our spouse and our family. As the Roman Catechism says, “Let wives never forget that next to God they are to love their husbands.”
One of the privileged tasks of motherhood is “to train their children in the practice of virtue.” Wives and mothers are also asked “to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns,” because that is how we love each other in a practical way — but that is a far cry from saying women shouldn’t work outside the home.
Being an oikourgos — a homemaker — isn’t about where you work but, rather, why you work. The question for every woman, whether or not she earns a paycheck, is simple: Does my work glorify God, serve my household, and promote the common good? Some women work outside the home so that they can contribute to the family oikos. Others do not work outside the home for precisely the same reason.
Being an oikourgos — a homemaker — isn’t about where you work but, rather, why you work.
It sounds like your friend has her heart set on being a stay-at-home mom, which is a wonderful and empowering decision to make. But if she is looking for an ironclad, magisterial statement that her decision is the only decision a woman should make, it simply doesn't exist.
The Church, as a loving Mother, gives us the freedom to discern how to work for the good of our families — either in the home or outside the home. But we need to remember that, in the sixteenth century when the Roman Catechism was written, the distinction between economic activity inside and outside of the home didn’t exist.
To borrow a quote from St. Paul: Wherever and however you work, “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Laura McAlister is an Aussie Catholic, freelance writer, and history lover. She is engaged to an Irishman; has a Master’s in Medieval History; and can usually be found discussing Jane Austen, mysticism, and gender roles over tea and biscuits. She writes about prayer, peace, and overcoming perfectionism at www.cravinggraces.com.