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The Obligation & Right of
Parents to Form their Children

In view of the growing offensive against the rights of the family to raise their children well, which we have seen in many countries that oblige parents to send their children to public schools, we remind our readers of the fundamental obligation and right of the parents to educate and form their children. These principles reinforce the wise decision of parents to home-school their offspring.

Pope Pius XI in the Encyclical Divini Illius Magistri gives us sound doctrine on this topic, which should be at hand for all Catholic parents.

Pope Pius XI

In the first place the Church's mission of education is in wonderful agreement with that of the family, for both proceed from God, and in a remarkably similar manner. God directly communicates to the family, in the natural order, fecundity, which is the principle of life, and hence also the principle of education to life, together with authority, which is the principle of order.

The Angelic Doctor with his wonted clearness of thought and precision of style, says: "The father according to the flesh has in a particular way a share in that principle which in a manner universal is found in God. ... The father is the principle of generation, of education and discipline and of everything that bears upon the perfecting of human life." (1)

The family therefore holds directly from the Creator the mission and hence the right to educate the offspring, a right inalienable because inseparably joined to the strict obligation, a right anterior to any right whatsoever of civil society and of the State, and therefore inviolable on the part of any power on earth.

That this right is inviolable St. Thomas proves as follows: "The child is naturally something of the father ... so by natural right the child, before reaching the use of reason, is under the father's care. Hence it would be contrary to natural justice if the child, before the use of reason, were removed from the care of its parents, or if any disposition were made concerning him against the will of the parents." (2)

And as this duty on the part of the parents continues up to the time when the child is in a position to provide for himself, this same inviolable parental right of education also endures. "Nature intends not merely the generation of the offspring, but also its development and advance to the perfection of man considered as man, that is, to the state of virtue," (3) says the same St. Thomas.

The wisdom of the Church in this matter is expressed with precision and clearness in the Codex of Canon Law, can. 1113: "Parents are under a grave obligation to see to the religious and moral education of their children, as well as to their physical and civic training, as far as they can, and moreover to provide for their temporal well-being." (4)

On this point the common sense of mankind is in such complete accord, that those who dared maintain that the children belong to the State before they belong to the family, and that the State has an absolute right over their education, would be in open contradiction with it. The reason they adduce is untenable, namely, that man is born a citizen and hence belongs primarily to the State, not bearing in mind that before being a citizen man must exist; and existence does not come from the State, but from the parents, as Leo XIII wisely declared:

"The children are something of the father, and as it were an extension of the person of the father; and, to be perfectly accurate, they enter into and become part of civil society, not directly by themselves, but through the family in which they were born." (5) "And therefore," says the same Leo XIII, "the father's power is of such a nature that it cannot be destroyed or absorbed by the State; for it has the same origin as human life itself." (6)

It does not, however, follow from this that the parents' right to educate their children is absolute and despotic; for it is necessarily subordinated to the last end and to natural and divine law, as Leo XIII declares in another memorable encyclical, where He thus sums up the rights and duties of parents:

"By nature parents have a right to the training of their children, but with this added duty that the education and instruction of the child be in accord with the end for which by God's blessing it was begotten. Therefore. it is the duty of parents to make every effort to prevent any invasion of their rights in this matter, and to make absolutely sure that the education of their children remains under their own control in keeping with their Christian duty, and above all to refuse to send them to those schools in which there is danger of imbibing the deadly poison of impiety." (7)

It must be borne in mind also that the obligation of the family to bring up children includes not only religious and moral education, but physical and civic education as well, principally insofar as it touches upon religion and morality.

  1. Footnote 1
  2. Footnote 2
  3. Footnote 3
  4. Footnote 4
(Pius XI, Encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, December 31, 1929, 30-36 )

Posted October 8, 2011