Educational Options for Catholic Parents
In our last article, we spoke about the basic principles of education in light of the modern errors of secular society. It is no secret that finding ways to educate our children in today’s world, a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah, is no easy task. Not only are we faced with a sea of immorality in society at large, but parents cannot trust most institutions to safeguard their children from occasions of sin, even those specifically charged with forming children well.
Furthermore, even many Catholic schools have fallen into traps which beset government schools (secular state-run schools often generically referred to with the misnomer of ‘public’ schools). In many cases, the ‘private’ Catholic schools have devolved into more expensive public schools that happen to have the ‘odd Crucifix’ on the wall. So, what must we parents do to properly educate our children?
The Right and Duty to Educate
It is important to keep in mind a couple of key principles. The first is that the Church and parents have the inalienable right to educate children. The second is that the state does not have the inalienable right to educate children — although they can aid the family and the Church in the rearing of children and forming good citizens.
The Church and parents have this right because they have the duty to do so. A right is only properly understood in relation to its corresponding duty. Since God entrusts children to parents, He expects parents to raise them with their primary end in mind — to help them reach Heaven. In order to attain Heaven we must know the truth and choose the good, we must believe the faith and adhere to God’s commandments. Children must therefore be educated with this goal in mind. Hence, it makes perfect sense that the Church has an inalienable right to educate, for outside the Church there is no salvation.
We see evidence of this in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, where Christ says to the Apostles, “Teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Since Christ is God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, He is issuing a divine command to educate.
Notice that the purpose of education is to be saved, namely through Baptism and observing the commandments (catechesis is necessary). Christ’s command is also universal. He gives His Church the duty and right to teach all nations and all peoples, without exception. Therefore, on account of her divine mission, the Church has a divine right to educate. This right is thus higher than a natural right or a mere man-made right.
Parents’ rights to educate are inalienable because they stem from Natural Law. They are “built into” the very nature of what it means to be a parent. In fact, parents forming their children is a universal reality that spans all time, cultures, tongues and races.
Note that this is not a universal characteristic of all governments. Not every state — across all time and cultures — has acted as if it had the duty and right to educate children. Indeed, a state’s right to educate is not inalienable and is clearly secondary to the right of parents and of the Church. Note too that parents are expected to educate as per the Natural Law, and always under the higher purview of the divine command which Christ entrusted to His Mystical Bride.
This Parental Duty May Be Supplemented
Now, it is the duty of parents to ensure that children are educated, but it is not necessarily their responsibility to provide all the formation. They will certainly play the first and most important role in forming their own children, but they can also rely on support from godparents, family, priests and religious, and other well-respected members of their community.
In many cases, parents are not able to provide the actual academic formation or technical skills a child may require. This is why parents for centuries have done things like sending a young man off to an uncle’s farm in order to learn the virtue of hard work, etc. While the parents in the situation are not educating this child explicitly, they are providing the means for a good education of virtues by delegating the responsibility to someone they deem trustworthy.
When someone educates our children for us, we say that the teacher is acting in loco parentis, which means to act ‘in the place of the parents.’ We do this often for our children in various areas of their development, like with musical instruction or athletics. It is necessary to ensure the person who acts in your stead is trustworthy, but there is nothing wrong with delegating the responsibility to certain adults if you prudentially judge it to be good for your child.
Does This Mean Children Must Attend Catholic Schools?
Many people believe it is a ‘traditional teaching’ of the Church that children must be sent to a Catholic school. This is not traditional in the sense that it has been the way of things for many centuries, but it is rather an understanding that has only been around for the past couple of centuries. State governments only began to make grade school education compulsory in the 19th century. By then some nations were no longer confessional states and even less were Catholics states. Naturally, this meant that a government school would be incapable of fully forming children correctly — that is, with a view to their final end.
In response to this innovation, the Church began to exert great efforts to provide for a Catholic option. This was a means to uphold its constant teaching that children must be educated correctly, with proper religious formation, and with all possible aids to achieve their supernatural end. Catholic schools were almost always staffed by religious nuns, brothers and priests. Many Catholic parishes had a school and attendance was free. (That’s a viable option when the school is staffed by consecrated men and women who have vowed celibacy and poverty for the love of God, and religious are supported by the generous tithing of a pious Catholic populace.)
Since grade school education was compulsory and a viable Catholic school was geographically near and gratis, it was quite unthinkable for Catholics to send their children to a school run by a group professing a false religion or one run by a secular government. It was in this context that it was often stated that sending your children to a Catholic school was ‘obligatory’. Failure to do so meant parents were consciously choosing an option which would not adequately provide for the religious and supernatural formation of their child. Opting for a non-Catholic school meant worldly values were being placed above the soul’s eternal fate. If this was indeed the conscious choice of a Catholic parent, then one can see why it would be considered a grave dereliction of a solemn duty — in common parlance, a mortal sin.
However, if the nearest Catholic schools are too far away or too expensive, then the Church would not impose an obligation on parents to send their children to a Catholic school. Moreover, if the Catholic school does not provide for the proper religious and supernatural formation of a child then there can be no obligation to send them there. This would be true in cases where, for example, the Catholic faith is being misrepresented or heresy is taught, where proper morals are not fostered, or where sacrilege, blasphemy or immodesty abound.
Nevertheless, Catholic parents are still obligated to strive to adequately provide for the proper spiritual formation of their children. It may be more challenging in difficult circumstances, but God will provide the graces necessary for those parents who strive to be faithful.
What’s a Modern-day Catholic Parent to Do?
It is understood that for many families the optimal way for children to be educated would include attending a parish school or a school run by a religious order. In the past, the institutional aspect of the Church was much healthier, and as a result there was a plethora of good schools. If the option to attend a good Catholic school is available, it is to be strongly considered. However, it is not obligatory. There are a variety of practical and prudential reasons why a parent may choose to seek other options, like homeschooling, for their children. Cost, distance, family rhythms, the special needs of the child, etc. are all factors that can be taken into account.
If parents choose to seek other means for their children, they must do so with the intent of educating with the mind of the Church, by instilling good doctrine and philosophy into their children. And, when possible, they should seek to make the local parish or chapel a focal point of their life.
The Homeschool Option
Homeschooling is a growing trend. Surveys show that in 1990 about 275,000 students in the United States were being homeschooled. A generation later, in 2016, that number had increased to 2.3 million. Although many parents pursue this option for religious or moral reasons, many more are beginning to opt for it merely out of formation and academic motivations. And, of course, in the wake of the many COVID-related restrictions, there has been a significant spike in the number of children now being homeschooled. Reasonable estimates indicate that the number of homeschool children in grades K-12 has increased this school year by ten percent and some homeschool curricula have had an increase of 50% and even 100%!
Today, there are many homeschool curricula, including some sound Catholic and classical programs. The possibility of online classrooms and remote-distance teaching has also greatly enhanced the variety available to homeschooling families. There are even tutors, counselors, conferences, camps, athletic associations, science labs, etc. that cater to homeschooling families. Parents who choose to homeschool realize that they can follow any number of set programs or cobble together their own unique curricula to individually suit each one of their children.
There are a number of traditionally-minded priests I know who strongly support the homeschool option for Catholic parents.
One will often see church parishes form homeschool co-operatives where groups of parents — usually mothers — work with other parents in the parish to give their children opportunities to interact with other kids their age, and to do projects together. Even if there is no such group in your area, you might consider getting together with some families and starting one. After all, every such “co-op” has had to start somewhere, and it’s almost always small at first with just a few interested families.
There are even various academies that have developed in recent years that offer a sort of hybrid model, where students are in class a couple days a week, and at home the other days. These methods are usually called “homeschool support,” with the idea being that larger groups are helpful for things like sports and drama, but that the small-class / home environment is optimal.
I might add, there are also Charter Schools in certain states that offer exemplary education with a Classical Curriculum, and also good morals and discipline through a parent-guided school culture. These schools are not Catholic per se, but they do educate through the lens of the great books and classical philosophy, which is always part of a good Catholic education. In many cases, they also have strict disciplinary and behavior norms that you would expect in any good school.
It is possible that parents could prudentially utilize a non-religious Charter School, while still ensuring their children are catechized through the parish and the home. A caveat, however, not all Charter Schools are created equal, so parents should be careful that the curriculum doesn’t have any harmful ideas that are presented in an indifferent manner.
It may be that parents prudentially choose any number of options for their children, and it may be that they choose different options for various children with different strengths and goals. In the end, what is important to remember is that parents and the Church have the duty to educate children with Heaven as their final end. Catholics of all centuries have experienced a variety of educational models, and modern-day parents can utilize a variety of available options.