The Role of the Family and Parental Rights

“The family, a natural society, exists prior to the State or any other community, and possesses inherent rights which are inalienable.”

― Charter of the Rights of the Family

Societies once almost universally respected the family and the rights of parents to raise and educate their children, recognizing the family’s unique role as the essential unit and “vital cell of society” (Familiaris consortio, 42). They upheld that parents have an irreplaceable responsibility and are best suited to teach and transmit cultural, social, spiritual, moral, and religious values that are not only essential for the good of the family itself, but also are essential for the good of society.

The Church considers the family as the first natural society with inherent rights that are proper to it. She teaches that the family “does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, no. 214). Furthermore, she places the family at the center of social life, warning that to exclude the family from its rightful position in society would be to cause grave harm to society.

Yet, despite these warnings regarding the central role of the family in the authentic well-being and growth of society, the family has come under increasing scrutiny and attack around the world, especially in so-called developed nations that have rejected Judeo-Christian principles. Having chosen instead to embrace secular “values,” many in Western society and government see the family, the cornerstone and foundation of society, as a threat to their vision. They see the family as one of the two institutions forestalling their plans, the other being the Church.

With dire consequence, these “new visionaries” are having enormous impact on how people view marriage and the family and are increasingly mandating how parents should raise their children. And they know that the best way to undermine the impact of the family is to break the links of the family, especially the links between God and the family and the links between parents and their children.

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Children Are Not “Property” of the State

Parents are being bullied by school boards, state legislatures, and by the federal government, pitting parents against the well-being of their children. The overarching view—the view of the culture of death—is that children are not the “property” of the parents, but of the State. And the best way to transform society, to realize the “new visionaries” goal, is to undermine and redefine the family, which requires and involves targeting the children.

Dozens of U.S. states are passing legislation to protect a parent’s right to know what their children are learning in classrooms, particularly on issues of gender identity and race theory. But several states are trying to take children from parents because they believe that marriage is between a man and woman, that the sex of their children is a matter of biology, or because they seek to protect their children from sterilizing drugs and mutilating surgeries or from perverse sex-education curricula.

For example, state lawmakers in California have introduced a bill, Assembly Bill 1955, that would prevent schools from notifying parents if their child exhibits gender identity confusion, is struggling with sexual orientation, or is requesting a different name and pronoun. And recently, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a Maryland school district’s policy against informing parents if their children identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming and permitting schools to develop gender support plans for students without parental consent. Moreover, the policy does not allow parents to opt their child out of any classroom instruction or presentation.

Parents, not only in the U.S. but around the world, face an imminent and invasive threat from the State, which fails to recognize the preeminent role of parents, particularly in the religious and moral education of their children. Every parent has a God-given responsibility to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their own children. And no parent should be coerced into giving up this right or threatened with potentially losing custody of their children because their opinions or religious beliefs are unpopular with their government.

Though parents may obtain the help of others or institutions in the education of their children, these always remain secondary, answerable to parents as principal educators. And as the Compendium states, “parents have the right to choose the formative tools that respond to their convictions and to seek those means that will help them best to fulfill their duty as educators, in the spiritual and religious sphere also,” requiring recognition of the virtues of “justice and charity” (no. 240). The Compendium also insists that all education be directed to the proper formation of the human person “in view of his final end” (no. 242). In other words, a God-less education is unacceptable.

Whereas the “new visionaries” seek to diminish and redefine the family, the Church, with respect for God’s vision and plan for His creation, seeks to shape society with a clear priority for families. She advocates for the development of policies and laws that support families, uphold parental rights, and protect children from the moral, social, and cultural forces that threaten their future, and ultimately threaten society.

 

The Role of the Family in Building a Healthy Society

“The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society,” the Second Vatican Council teaches, “is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family” (Gaudium et Spes, no 47).

The Catholic Church’s long-standing position holds that parents have the right and responsibility to educate their children—protecting the rights of children, respectively—a truth expressed by a long history of magisterial documents and teachings. And this right and responsibility of parents is “of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2221).

During a meeting with the European Parents’ Association (EPA) in November 2023, Pope Francis highlighted the preeminent role parents play in educating their children, saying, “the fundamental role of parents in the social order” must “be acknowledged at every level.” The Holy Father reiterated the need to protect the right of parents to form, raise, and educate their children, stressing that they should not be prevented “in any sphere, particularly in that of schooling, to accept educational programs contrary to their beliefs and values.”

In the same meeting, Pope Francis reminded parents of “their educational mission” and the importance of teaching their children “what it means to be fully human.” To this end, he called for greater support of the family, highlighting the importance of “mutual support and encouragement, so that parents can be helped to develop a ‘passion’ for their educational mission.” The Holy Father also reminded parents that this mission “can be said to be successful when [their] children come to realize the beauty of life” and “grow confident and enthused about the prospect of embarking on the adventure of life,” which “presupposes the deeper realization of God’s immense love for us.”

Pope Francis also spoke of the benefit to society when parents fulfill their God-given duty “to form free and generous persons who have come to know God’s love, and to bestow freely on others what they themselves have received as a gift.” In this regard, parents help to transmit Gospel values that help to foster a healthy society. “Raising a child represents a genuine contribution to society,” said the Holy Father, “because it means training a young person in sound and respectful relationships with others, a readiness to cooperate in view of a shared goal, responsibility, a sense of duty and the value of sacrifice for sake of the common good.”

Pope Francis reaffirms that the family is a community of persons where moral values are taught and the spiritual and cultural heritage of society are passed on. He upholds the irreplaceable role of the family in its contribution to the dignity of human persons and the common good. This is essential in ensuring people are strong in their commitments and promotes both social responsibility and solidarity.

The Holy Father concluded his reflection by warning parents (and society) that to neglect “their education mission” would result in “children grow[ing] up as ‘islands,’ disconnected from others, incapable of a common vision, and accustomed to considering their own desires as absolute values. As a result, society ‘deconstructs,’ grows impoverished, and is progressively weakened and dehumanized.”

Pope St. John Paul II sums it up well when he said, “as the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live” (Perth, 1983). In other words, marriage and the family, established by God, are the remedy that will help us to rediscover what is good, true, just, and beautiful about the human person and the ultimate meaning of life.

 

What is the Government’s Role?

Every person is a unique and unrepeatable imprint of the image of God. The Church believes the purpose of life and the reason why any of us exists is for each soul to search for and find the truth, which is God, the highest good (summum bonum). God wants to share with us His very nature. It follows, then, that the proper role of government is to provide, with the support of the Church, a moral framework in which the human person can flourish and fulfill their vocation. And in seeing its proper role as serving human persons—individuals and the family—the government’s aim is to assist people to use their God-given freedom to seek truth and return to Him.

As the Compendium states,

The priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed. The family in fact is the condition for the existence of the state and all society… The family possesses inviolable rights and finds its legitimization in human nature and not in being recognized by the State. The family, then, does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family (no. 214).

Hence, the government’s role, as well as all social institutions, is directed toward both serving and assisting each human person and the family to fulfill their vocation. It is to assist parents in their role and duties, providing reasonable aid, and never in any way to limit the freedom of couples in deciding about their children—who with love for their children know what is best for them. This implies that parents should have the individual autonomy to raise their children outside of government control. Acting in any other regard, the State oversteps its rights and would “constitute a grave offense against human dignity and justice” (Charter of the Rights of the Family, Article 3).

 

The Essential Role of Parents

As the Catechism teaches, “parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons. Showing themselves obedient to the will of the Father in heaven, they educate their children to fulfill God’s law” (no. 2222). In the Rite of Baptism, the Church reminds parents of this duty toward their children: “You are accepting the responsibility of training [your child] in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring [your child] up to keep God’s commandments…” (no. 77).

First and foremost, the way in which parents educate is fundamentally rooted in their love for their children. They catechize by the way they live, giving witness to their vocation and mission through the teachable moments of daily family life: “Parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children” (Lumen gentium, no.11).

Parents, who have shared in the begetting of human life, have a duty to nourish the gift of life entrusted to their care through education and formation. As primary catechists, an irreplaceable role, parents should speak naturally about God and their faith:

“The witness of Christian life given by parents in the family comes to children with tenderness and parental respect. Children thus perceive and joyously live the closeness of God and of Jesus made manifest by their parents in such a way that the first Christian experience frequently leaves decisive traces which last throughout life” (General Directory for Catechesis, no. 226).

Parents should not only pray for their children but also teach their children how to pray, introducing them to Sacred Scripture, to the Rosary, to the lives of the saints, and to the rich treasuries of the Church’s prayers and traditions. Prayer should be experienced as something natural in the family home, incorporated throughout the day. Most importantly, parents need to bring their children to Holy Mass, teaching them the prayers and what happens during the Consecration. And the more prayerful and faithful parents are to the Holy Mass and to the tremendous graces that are available in the Mass, the better able they will be to communicate the faith to their children.

Also, parents should create an environment, both inside and outside the home, where their children can grow in faith, helping them to understand and to respect their own dignity as sons and daughters of God. Parents are to assist their children in developing a strong moral compass by modeling moral behavior and helping them understand that making moral choices may not be easy but is necessary for living a life of virtue.

Without doubt, families face many challenges in responding to their vocation and mission, especially in an invasive society that has set its will against God’s plan for the human person and the family. So, let us unite in supporting families, beginning in our own homes, with our extended families, and in our faith communities, developing vital and vibrant families rooted in faith and solidarity with each other. Let us also encourage families to grow in faith and not to be afraid of the difficulties but to see the ultimate end for which we all work and aim, eternal life with God. And let us engage families, helping parents in the education and formation of their children, especially in our Catholic schools and catechetical programs.

And finally, let us pray for families and for the transformation of our world.

 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

in you we contemplate

the splendor of true love;

to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

grant that our families too

may be places of communion and prayer,

authentic schools of the Gospel

and small domestic churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

may families never again experience

violence, rejection and division;

may all who have been hurt or scandalized

find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

make us once more mindful

of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,

and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

graciously hear our prayer. Amen.

― Pope Francis

As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.

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