The Family, the Education of Children, and the Role of the State

Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.”

God created man in His image;
In the divine image He created him;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, saying to them: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”.
(Gen 1:26-28)

The marriage of man and woman is the primordial sign or sacrament that makes visible the image of God, of divine life and love, in the created world. Open to procreation, be fertile and multiply, the family becomes a path common for all, yet one which is particular, unique and unrepeatable, just as every individual is unrepeatable; it is a path from which man cannot withdraw. The family has its origin in that same love with which the Creator embraces the created world, “in the beginning”, in the Book of Genesis (Letter to families, 2).

In the first letter of John it is written that “God is Love, it is not that we loved God, but that God loved us first” (cf. 1 John 4:8-10). The family is an expression and source of this love. Through the family passes the primary current of the civilization of love, which finds therein its “social foundations (Letter, 15).  Raising children begins with the parents and the task of educating them belongs fundamentally and primarily to the family. The function of the state is subsidiary: its role is to guarantee, protect, promote and supplement (Libertatis conscientia, 94).

What is involved in the raising and education of children? In answering this question two fundamental truths should be kept in mind: first, that man is called to live in truth and love; and second, that everyone finds fulfillment through the sincere gift of self. This is true for both the educator and for the one being educated. Education is thus a unique process for which the mutual communion of persons has immense importance. The educator is a person who “begets” in a spiritual sense. From this point of view, raising children can be considered a genuine apostolate. It is a living means of communication, which not only creates a profound relationship between the educator and the one being educated, but also makes them both sharers in truth and love, that final goal to which everyone is called by God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Letter, 16).

Parents are the first and most important educators of their own children, and they also possess a fundamental competence in this area: they are educators because they are parents (Letter, 16).  Whenever the state lays claims to an educational monopoly, it oversteps its rights and offends justice. It is parents who have the right to choose the school to which they send their children and the right to set up and support educational centers in accordance with their own beliefs. The state cannot, without injustice, merely tolerate so-called private schools. Such schools render a public service and therefore have a right to financial assistance (Libertatis conscientia, 94).

The family is a community of persons and the smallest unit. As such it is an institution fundamental to the life of every society (Letter, 17).  No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole. The contrary is true: it poses a threat to the mature growth of individuals, the cultivation of community values and the moral progress of cities and countries (Amoris Laetitia, 52).

What does the family as an institution expect from society? First of all, it expects a recognition of its identity and an acceptance of its status as a subject in society.  With that said there is the almost organic link existing between the family and the nation. This link is founded above all on a participation in its culture. In one sense, parents also give birth to children for the nation, so that they can be members of it and can share in its historic and cultural heritage. From the very outset the identity of the family is to some extent shaped by the identity of the nation to which it belongs (Letter, 17).

In regard to the State, the link with the family is somewhat similar and at the same time somewhat dissimilar. The State, in fact, is distinct from the nation; it has a less “family-like” structure, since it is organized in accordance with a political system and in a more “bureaucratic” fashion. Nonetheless, the apparatus of the State also has, in some sense, a “soul” of its own, to the extent that it lives up to its nature as a “political community” juridically ordered towards the common good. Closely linked to this “soul” is the family, which is connected with the State precisely by reason of the principle of subsidiarity. Indeed, the family is a social reality which does not have readily available all the means necessary to carry out its proper ends, also in matters regarding schooling and the rearing of children. The State is thus called upon to play a role in accordance with the principle mentioned above (Letter, 17).

Whenever the family is self-sufficient, it should be left to act on its own; an excessive intrusiveness on the part of the State would prove detrimental, to say nothing of lacking due respect, and would constitute an open violation of the rights of the family. Only in those situations where the family is not really self-sufficient does the State have authority and duty to intervene (Letter, 17).

Beyond child-rearing and schooling, State assistance can find expression in institutions such as those founded to safeguard the life and health of citizens, and in particular to provide social benefits for workers, unemployment insurance being one of them (Letter, 17).

Every effort should be made so that the family will be recognized as the primordial and, in a certain sense, “sovereign” society! The “sovereignty” of the family is essential for the good of society. A truly sovereign and spiritually vigorous nation is always made up of strong families who are aware of their vocation and mission in history. The family is at the heart of all these problems and tasks. To relegate it to a subordinate role, excluding it from its rightful position in society, would be to inflict grace harm on the authentic growth of society as a whole (Letter, 17). Moreover a society built on a family scale is the best guarantee against drifting off course into individualism or collectivism, because within the family the person is always at the center of attention as an end and never as a means (Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine, 213).

Photo by Joshua Reddekopp on Unsplash

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Jack Rigert is a co-founder of the John Paul II Renewal Center and the host of the "Become Who You Are" podcast. Jack was a professional chef and entrepreneur who owned restaurants, real estate, and a financial service company. Dramatic “encounters” with Jesus Christ at his dying brother’s bedside and again in the Eucharist at his brother’s funeral, brought him back into the Church after a twenty-year absence. While attending graduate school in Theology Jack came across the teaching of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” He immediately understood that this was the treasure he had been seeking all his life, sold everything, and now travels the country presenting Parish Missions, Retreats and Classes. Jack has three grown children and six grandchildren. He lives in Elburn, Illinois with his wife, Jeannie, and is an active member of St. Gall’s Parish. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44).

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