Is the Public School System a Grave Offense against Natural Justice?

[The following is taken from Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, by The Most Reverend M. Sheehan, D.D, Archbishop of Sydney, Imprimi potest: Eduardus, Archbishop of Dublin, 12 August 1929. Some might object that its contents are irrelevant in twenty-first century America. The response is that, if that’s true, they were just as irrelevant in early twentieth-century Australia; but, in fact, they are quite relevant, as evinced by the sad state of religious, civil, and academic life we witness now. Additionally, this small excerpt is a very good primer on the Catholic teaching on the roles of Church and State.]

By the command “Feed My lambs, feed My sheep,” Christ has imposed on His Church the twofold duty of instructing her children in the wholesome doctrine of salvation, and of guarding them against the poison of false teaching. It is His desire that she should so train them, that His image may shine forth in the soul of every one of them. It is not surprising therefore that, in her legislation on the subject of Catholic Education, she should speak with much solicitude, and with much definiteness and determination.

Being well aware that youth is the time when the deepest impressions are made on mind and character, the time when moral and religious convictions, of lifelong influence, are formed, she has laid grave obligations on pastors and parents to see that there be nothing either in the atmosphere of a school or in its courses of instruction that might prove a stumbling-block to the souls for whose training they are responsible to God.

The authority given to the Church by Christ includes the right to conduct schools herself, to safeguard the faith of her children in the schools under the control of others, to supervise the selection of teachers and of the matter taught, and to condemn any school or educational system which she considers to be hostile or dangerous to holy religion.

The teaching of the Church is also manifested in the doctrines she has condemned. Thus the following three propositions were declared by Pope Pius IX to be contrary to Catholic teaching (Denzinger 1700):

45. “The whole government of public schools in which Christian youth are educated, can and ought to be in the hands of civil authority, and so completely in their hands that no right of any other authority is recognized to interfere with school discipline, with the order of studies, with the conferring of degrees or with the selection of teachers.” Condemned!

47. “The best theory of civil society requires that popular schools, open to children of every class of the people, and generally all public institutes intended for instruction in letters and philosophical sciences and for carrying on the education of youth, should be freed from all Ecclesiastical authority, control, and interference: and should be fully subjected to the civil and political power, at the pleasure of the rulers, according to the standard of the prevalent opinions of age.” Condemned!

48. “Catholics may approve that mode of education which is disjoined from the Catholic Faith and the power of the Church, and which concerns itself exclusively, or, at least, primarily, with the knowledge of natural things, and the ends of earthly social life.” Condemned!

Thus, by her laws and her untiring vigilance, does the Church fulfil her office of good Shepherd towards the tender nurslings of her fold, her little ones and adolescents, whom, with the divine assistance, she ever leads to eternal life.

The Church provides for the spiritual wants of man: the State provides for some of the greatest of his temporal needs. The end or purpose of the Church is to give him eternal happiness: the end or purpose of the State is to assist him towards temporal well-being in such a manner as will be helpful to the working out of his eternal destiny. All spiritual blessings are in the hands of the Church: they cannot be obtained from any other source: — all temporal blessings are not in the hands of the State, still those which are in its power to bestow, are of vast importance: the chief service which it can render is to guard our lives and property, to encourage the practice of religion, and to promote the development of all that is best in us. Each of the two societies is supreme in its own sphere: each is provided with all the powers necessary for the attainment of its end. Each is, therefore, what is termed a perfect society.

Matters spiritual, i.e., Divine worship, the education of the clergy, belong exclusively to the Church; matters temporal, i.e., the choice of a form of government, the development of industries, exclusively to the State. Matters of mixed character which affect both societies alike should be dealt with by mutual arrangement [e.g., laws concerning marriage], but in case of conflict, the State, inasmuch as it pursues the less important end, must yield to the Church. Though directly concerned with spirituals alone, the Church is obviously entitled to all temporal aids necessary, or useful, for the success of her mission: she is entitled, i.e., to build Churches and Seminaries, to collect revenue, and to conduct schools for the education of the laity.

Since there can be no lasting temporal prosperity without sound morality, and since there can be no sound morality without true religion, the Church maintains that it is not only the duty, but the interest of the State:

  1. to respect the law of God and the Church in all its enactments,
  2. to be subject to the Church in all spiritual matters,
  3. to discharge, through the ministers of the Church, its debt of public worship,
  4. to protect the Church, to promote her interests, and, in general,
  5. to act in perfect harmony with her.

On the other hand, it is the duty of the Church to inculcate obedience to the State, to encourage patriotism, industry, frugality, public spirit and all civic virtues.

Such is the ideal for which the Church strives; in countries predominantly Catholic, she urges her claim for its realization; elsewhere she refrains from doing so, and is, as a rule, content, from motives of prudence, to demand nothing more than liberty of worship, and such protection as is usually accorded to private societies within the State. She has expressly declared that the separation of Church from State is an evil, and that she admits it only with a view to avoid greater evil.

The authority, i.e., the right to give commands and exact obedience, which is essential for the very life of the Church and of the State is from God. “There is no power but from God” [Rom. 13:1. Notice, power does not come “from the people.”] To Christ is given all power in Heaven and on earth; He is the Lord of lords, and King of kings, He is the Head of the whole human race: we belong to Him, because He has purchased us with His life-Blood; all the means that assist us in any way towards the salvation of our soul owe their value and efficacy to Him. He rules us through the Church; He rules us through the State. Directly through the Church, indirectly through the State, He helps us on our way to His Eternal Kingdom.

(1) Among those engaged in public life, the notion prevails that any measure whatever, if passed by a majority of the citizens, thereby becomes a true and valid law, binding the consciences of all. According to this view, if worked out to its logical conclusions, the State would possess unlimited power; it could, for instance, suppress all religious worship; it could abolish marriage and private property, and it could withdraw children from the custody of their parents, and bring them up in public institutions. This doctrine of State-absolutism is completely erroneous. The State is subject to the law of nature which prescribes Divine worship, sanctions marriage and private property. The State is not the master but the guardian and servant of the family; the rights of parents precede those of the State and cannot therefore be restricted or abrogated by civil authority.

(2) The family being prior naturally to the State, parents have the right to educate their children, a right with which the State cannot interfere. The State as such is not an educator; it provides facilities for, and supervise education; if parents absolutely neglect their duty to provide for the education of their children, the State, in the general interests of the citizens, is entitled to demand that they fulfil it.

(3) If, on the demand of a majority of the citizens, the State should establish purely secular schools of which the minority disprove, the State in such a case acts, not as a State, but merely as an agent of the majority; if it requires the minority to pay for schools to which they cannot conscientiously send their children, it is guilty of a grave offense against natural justice.