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 New Zealand society must face up to the 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 – the 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. The government and the community must help the many families who need support, education and empowerment so they can make the best decisions possible for the upbringing of their children.
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; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’. (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.