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rights and responsibilitiesThe outcome of a recent court case, in which parents had taken a local school to court for refusing to re-enroll their children, signifies a victory for both Catholic schools and for religious freedom.

“The court does not have the authority to meddle in this decision,” Superior Court Judge Donald A. Kessler said in his ruling on the case in which St. Theresa’s School in Kenilworth, New Jersey, denied the parents’ applications for thirteen-year-old Sydney Phillips and her younger sister, Kaitlyn, to return to classes. Judge Kessler said the girls’ father, Scott Phillips, and their mother, Theresa Mullen, who had sought an order compelling the school and the Archdiocese of Newark to accept the girls, had “cited no law that would allow the court to interfere with the ecclesiastical (or religious) decision” denying the girls’ application.

Judge Kessler, reading his three-hour-long decision from the bench, criticized the parents for disrupting the school community and vindicated school administrators for taking steps “to control the atmosphere that Mr. Phillips and Ms. Mullen created.” The daughters were not re-enrolled, Judge Kessler said, because of the parents’ conduct.

Christopher Westrick, the attorney representing the school and the archdiocese, was pleased with the decision, citing that it had “upheld our First Amendment rights.”

It is true that the court’s decision was rooted in the First Amendment, which protects religious institutions from government interference in their internal affairs, but, from a Catholic perspective, it also conforms to the principle of subsidiarity, as enshrined in a series of papal encyclicals, including Rerum Novarum by Leo XIII (1891), Quadragesimo Anno by Pius XI (1931), Centesimus Annus by St. John Paul II (1991), and Caritas in Veritate by Benedict XVI (2009). In essence, and in its broadest applicable sense, the principle of subsidiarity can be said to have originated with the words of Christ that we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s. The key to discerning the role of subsidiarity is, therefore, summed up in the title of a book by Jacques Maritain, published in 1930, entitled The Things That Are Not Caesar’s. If “Caesar” represents worldly power or authority, it is a question of discerning and defining the limits of such power. When the power of the state, or the power of commerce, encroaches upon that which is rightfully God’s, or rightfully Man’s in his true ordered relationship with God, it is a usurpation of political or economic authority that should be condemned and resisted. A Christian is always a subsidiarist to the extent that he insists that there are limits to Caesar’s power and, indeed, that there are areas of life in which Caesar has no rightful power at all. In this sense, it might be said that the First Amendment is an expression of subsidiarity as a central pillar of the Constitution of the United States.

In the context of the rights implicit in the principle of subsidiarity, and in the rights explicit in the First Amendment, it can be seen that the Judge in this recent case was absolutely right in concluding that the law of the state, as an arm of the government, has no right to interfere in the internal affairs of a school which is owned and administered by an Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. He judged that this was a clear case in which Caesar must render unto God the things that are God’s.

But what of the rights of parents? How does the principle of subsidiarity apply to parents seeking the best for their children?

It applies to the right of parents to remove their children from any school and to their right to homeschool their children, should they wish, but it does not apply to the right of parents to compel a school to enroll their children. The reason for this is simple enough and is enshrined in the principle of solidarity, the other great pillar of the Church’s social teaching. This principle is articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in terms of “friendship” or “social charity” and as “a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood.” In other words, if subsidiarity is rooted in the necessity of rendering unto God the things that are God’s, solidarity is rooted in the commandment that we love our neighbors. This being so, Mr. Phillips and Ms. Mullen had no right as parents to dictate to a school what it must do, thereby riding roughshod over the common good of the rest of the school community, though they had every right to withdraw their children from the school if they disliked the manner in which the school was treating their children. What Mr. Phillips and Ms. Mullen had failed to do was to accept their responsibility as members of the school community to seek the common good of all the students and their parents, as well as the good of the teachers and administrative staff, and the good of the Archdiocese, in addition to the good of their own children. In seeking the enforcement of rights they did not have they were reneging on the responsibility they did have to be loving neighbors. They were responsible as part of this Christian community to seek and foster that spirit of solidarity, beyond self-interest, which the spirit of Christian brotherhood demands. In failing to act in the spirit of “social charity” and in fostering enmity instead of friendship, these parents had failed in their responsibilities and had excommunicated themselves, and sadly their unfortunate children also, from the Christian community they had failed to serve. In this sense, the judgment of the court in New Jersey last month was not only a victory for religious liberty but also a vindication of the principle that parents have responsibilities and not simply rights.

Republished with gracious permission from the Journal of the Cardinal Newman Society (2017). 

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