Child protection and family subsidiarity important, say Catholic bishops

13 Aug 2009 | GENERAL INTEREST

The New Zealand Catholic bishops say that both the protection of children and family subsidiarity should be taken into account when considering child discipline.

Family subsidiarity is a concept rooted in Catholic social teaching and means that government should not interfere unnecessarily with decisions that families are able to make for themselves. Family subsidiarity should be respected unless a child’s safety is at risk.

The bishops have not discussed the current child discipline referendum as a group, but in 2007 released the statement Children are Precious Gifts in relation to the debate surrounding Section 59 of the Crimes Act. Here they outline social issues and Catholic social teaching which could assist Catholics in making a decision regarding the referendum.

When the statement was released the bishops said the extremely polarised positions dominating the public debate, endorsing either violence against children in the name of discipline, or seeking the elimination of minor or intermittent acts of physical restraint of children by their parents, were unhelpful.

They restated the importance of protecting children as vulnerable members of families and of society, and also of respecting the right of families to make decisions for themselves, unless children are at risk. Their 2007 statement is reprinted below.

Children are Precious Gifts


"Our basic Christian teaching applies equally to children as to adults:
every person is made in the image and likeness of God
and therefore has an innate dignity.”
(New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference: The Protection of Children, 2002)


Children are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. As some of the most vulnerable members of society and of families, they are entitled to special protection.

As our society debates the issues around Section 59 of the Crimes Act and the physical punishment of children, we wish to restate the principles of our 2002 statement on the protection of children, written as our Church faced up to incidents of abuse against children, sometimes in the name of discipline. We learned through this experience that general concern for children is not always enough to protect them from harm.
Catholic social teaching recognises that every person is alike in human dignity, including both children and adults. We know there are many wonderful families who care for and protect their children, and surround them with love.

At the same time as a society we must face up to New Zealand’s unacceptably high numbers of child deaths and injuries, which occur mostly at the hands of parents and guardians. There is widespread acceptance among the many agencies and groups working with children in the Catholic community that the legal status quo, where parents have been able to defend violence against children as “reasonable force” under the Crimes Act, has not adequately protected children.

However, we also recognise that alongside the need to protect children’s safety and wellbeing, there is also a need to protect the subsidiarity of families, which means government should not interfere unnecessarily with decisions that families are able to make for themselves. Family subsidiarity should be respected unless a child’s safety is at risk. We do not see minor and infrequent acts of physical punishment as putting a child’s safety at risk. Many families need support, education and empowerment so they can make the best decisions possible for the upbringing of their children, and government and the community need to assist families in these ways.

Some voices which claim to represent Christian thinking on the discipline of children use the Bible inappropriately. They see children as less than human, or even as intrinsically evil beings from whom Satan must be driven out. Selective Bible passages should not be used to justify this position while ignoring the genuine respect and love that Christ had for children, telling adults we must become “like these little ones”. Jesus speaks of children: Let the children come to me and do not stop them, because the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Matthew 19:14)

We believe that the extremely polarised positions dominating the public debate, endorsing either violence against children in the name of discipline, or seeking the elimination of minor or intermittent acts of physical restraint of children by their parents, are unhelpful.

Families, communities, and politicians must consider how both the safety of children and family subsidiarity can be protected and valued.