Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Home-Schooling, Canon Law and the Catholic School Apostolate
In the interest of disclosure, I should say at the outset that the rise of the Catholic home-schooling movement is a personal issue for me. I have been a Catholic school teacher, principal and president for over twenty years, while friends whom I admire greatly have opted not to send their children to any of the Catholic schools available to them, choosing instead to home school.
Using these friends as an example, this is the dilemma for our Church: They are wonderful, creative, well-educated parents--in other words, fully capable of educating their children well. On the other hand, it is precisely these kind of parents that Catholic schools depend upon to be leaven for the school communities they serve.
Reflecting on this issue has led me to re-read many of the documents of our Church regarding parental responsibilities and rights and Catholic schools. The materials are voluminous, but I believe I can fairly present the essence of our Church's teachings in a couple of statements from the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law:
"Parents and those who take their place are bound by the obligation and possess the right of educating their offspring. Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children, according to local circumstances." (Canon 793);
"Parents are to entrust their children to those schools in which Catholic education is provided; but if they are unable to do this, they are bound to provide for their suitable Catholic education outside the schools." (Canon 798)
The first canon recognizes a long-standing principle in Catholic theology and educational philosophy, that parents are the primary educators of their children and as such have both a right and duty to educate them in the faith without undue interference from the state (see also canons 226, 1136, or "Gaudium et Spes" #50, Vatican II). Thus our Church gives parents wide latitude in making educational decisions they believe are in the best interest of their children, including, when necessary, the right to home-school, as long as they are making a sincere effort to educate their children in the Catholic faith.
At the same time, canon 798 indicates that Catholic schools should be the presumptive choice of Catholic parents to educate their children in the faith, unless these parents are unable to do so (see also "Gravissimum Educationis" #8, Vatican II). Obviously, "unable" would apply in the case of parents who find themselves in areas without Catholic schools, or those who, if their parish or school doesn't provide financial assistance, cannot afford a Catholic school. But in light of the latitude parents enjoy as primary educators, might the meaning of "unable" be extended further?
In a widely circulated article over the internet ("Home Schooling in Canon Law", see www.catholiceducation.org) Benedict Nguyen, chancellor of the diocese of La Crosse, WI, a canon lawyer and home-schooler, argues that "unable to do so" could either mean physically or morally unable. Thus, if parents believed that a Catholic school misrepresented the faith, or wasn't "Catholic enough" or even if parents had no religious objections to a school but instead thought the school could not academically challenge their child, they would be "morally unable" to send their child to the Catholic school and acting within their rights as primary educators, in accord with both canons 793 and 798.
I find Mr. Nguyen's position ultimately persuasive, but with the following considerations:
First, our teachings do make clear that Catholic schools are to be the presumptive choice of parents absent compelling or serious reasons to the contrary. Catholic schools are not to be regarded as one choice among many options, but the preferred choice of our Church for our children. To argue to the contrary is to render canon 798 and other like statements meaningless.
Second, in the event that parents exercise their right to choose to home-school their children, they have a duty in conscience to be well informed about the serious reason they reject the Catholic school option. Frankly, as a Catholic school principal, I am often astounded how many good, well meaning folks are willing to judge a school on the basis of a rumor, an impression or an isolated incident. Often their impression is formed by recurring myths, like "Catholic schools don't challenge the top students" or they "don't teach the faith" or they "accept too many problem kids" or whatever else might be said. They would never buy a car or an investment property on the basis of such scant information, but they're willing to render judgment on the local Catholic school with almost no facts. As a principal, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with these parents, talk directly about their concerns and invite them to talk with other, informed parents prior to their decision to home-school. I'm sure many pastors would feel likewise.
Finally, while I believe Church polity gives parents both the right to choose and benefit of the doubt in making these choices, there is an other layer to this question beyond "rights" which ought to come into play, reflecting back to my comment that Catholic schools need parents like my friends as leaven. Specifically, Vatican II makes it clear that as laity, we share in our Church's apostolic mission to bring Christ to the world (Apostolicam Actuositatem, Vatican II). This is a mission that extends beyond the mere reaches of our family. When Catholic families embrace our schools and become active within them, when they become board members, room mothers, coaches, team moms, guest speakers, lawn cutters, cafeteria workers, PTO representatives and all the other hundreds of things they can become as a school parent, they participate in a very concrete, powerful way in our school's apostolate--our Church's apostolate--to bring Christ's healing and wholeness to a broken world.
For sure, it's quite possible that a home-schooling family can be actively involved in some other parish apostolic activity outside of their primary mission to educate their young. But let's also recognize this reality: there's only so much of us to go around! When our child enters kindergarten, as parents we begin a journey that for the next 13 years will consume our time, energy and passion. Choosing a school will not only define our child's fate, but will also determine who we are by our friendships and the commitments of our time to our children's various causes. By joining a vibrant Catholic school community and becoming active within it, we are able to simultaneously and seamlessly contribute to the education of both our own and other families' children.
Or, to put it in another way, speaking as a Catholic school principal, directly to my friends and other home-schoolers across the country:
We need you!