The Catholic Church possesses both a right and a responsibility to educate according to the truths of the Christian Gospel. This right and responsibility is inherent to the Catholic Church. It exists because our Lord created the Church to evangelize all people. Thus this right and responsibility to educate comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. As such, it is independent of any human authority.
In the Book and in Our Lives
The Code of Canon Law contains many of the Church’s fundamental laws. The code is divided into seven books of which the third book concerns the Church’s teaching office. The canons within Book III provide Catholics with much wisdom when discerning how we should understand the canonical right and obligation to educate.
To begin, canon 774 establishes that every Catholic bears some responsibility for teaching the Catholic faith. By virtue of our baptism and confirmation, Christ entrusts us with the right and the responsibility to teach others the truths of the Gospel. The right and responsibility to educate do not merely fall upon the shoulders of clergy and religious. Rather, laity also possess this right and responsibility.
In fact, canon law identifies certain individuals who have a special duty in this regard. The most important example is found in the second paragraph of canon 774, which recognizes parents as bearing the primary responsibility for the Catholic education of their children. “Before all others,” the canon states, “parents are bound to form their children, by word and example, in faith and in Christian living.”
Of interest is how parents should educate their children. Parents should do so by word, which entails good catechesis in Catholic faith and morals. While parents have freedom of choice when it comes to Catholic schools (canon 797), they should choose those schools that will best provide for their children’s Catholic education (canon 798).
Yet canon 774 also obliges parents to teach their children by example, that is, by living according to the Church’s faith and morals. As an aside, this is one of the reasons why Christ raised marriage to the dignity of sacrament: He wanted husband and wife to act as a reflection of His love. Because children learn by imitation and observation, their education begins with parents living their wedding vows in a godly manner. Archbishop Chaput once shared that he would not have discerned the call to the priesthood had his mother not taken him on her knee as a child and taught him to pray.
What Kind of Education?
This brings us to another important question, namely, how should we understand the expression “Catholic education” in the context of our youth? Canon 795 answers this question as follows:
Education must pay regard to the formation of the whole person, so that all may attain their eternal destiny and at the same time promote the common good of society. Children and young persons are therefore to be cared for in such a way that their physical, moral and intellectual talents may develop in a harmonious manner, so that they may attain a greater sense of responsibility and a right use of freedom, and be formed to take an active part in social life.
In contemplating this canon, we see that Catholic education ought to be ordered toward the good of souls. First and foremost, this means teaching our children to love God with their whole hearts, bodies and souls. Secondly, we must teach our children to love their neighbours as themselves. These lessons should already be familiar to us as Catholics. After all, Jesus teaches that the love of God and neighbour are the two most important commandments in Sacred Scripture. Thus a good Catholic education teaches children what is necessary for their eternal salvation as individuals, as well as how to bring our Lord’s message of eternal salvation to others.
Yet a child’s education is not solely catechetical or academic. Rather a child’s education concerns the whole person. It should develop his or her academic talents, but it should also develop the child’s physical, moral and social talents. A Catholic education should deepen the child’s spiritual life and commitment to serving our Lord, but in so doing it should recognize the many different ways through which an individual may serve Christ. Although Jesus calls some of us to serve Him as clergy or religious, He calls the rest of us to serve Him as professionals, secretaries, truck drivers, mothers and fathers. Thus a good Catholic education prepares our children to become missionaries of Christ in the workplace, the market, the arena, and the family.
“That close intimacy you have with Christ means that you have a duty to bear fruit,” writes St. Josemaria Escriva in The Forge. “And yours will be a fruit that will satisfy the hunger of men who come up to you in your work, in your day-to-day life and in your family environment. When you carry out your duties in a cheerful and generous way you obtain abundant grace from God for other souls also. Make an effort to spread your Christian spirit to the world about you, so that there may be many friends of the Cross. As well as having given you abundant and effective grace, the Lord has given you a brain, a pair of hands, and intellectual powers so that your talents may yield fruit.” A good Catholic education imparts this Christian spirit while developing a child’s talents. A good Catholic education ensures that a child will bear good fruit in his or her life.
We Are All in This Together
Of course, the rest of the Church must support parents in providing children with a good Catholic education. Thus canon 775 charges the diocesan bishop with the responsibility of preparing standards for catechetical instruction within his diocese. He must ensure that catechetical resources are available within his diocese and that catechetical instruction is promoted among the faithful. Similarly, canon 777 charges the parish priest with ensuring that children and young people within his parish are properly catechized to receive the sacraments, that their catechetical formation continues after receiving first Holy Communion, and that children with special needs also receive catechesis insofar as their condition allows.
Besides our clergy, teachers and catechists also help parents provide for the Catholic education of their children. In fact, canon 796 supports Catholic schools as the principal means of helping parents provide their children with a Catholic education. This canon exhorts parents and teachers to cooperate closely in their children’s education. Additionally, the Church obliges every Catholic to help parents and clergy establish, maintain and promote Catholic schools (canon 800, §2).
In the end, providing our children with a Catholic education is one the Church’s most important works. Through Catholic education, we impart to our youth the lessons necessary for going forth into the world and proclaiming Christ’s message of redemption and eternal salvation. For this reason, Catholic education is both a right and a responsibility. Moreover, this right and responsibility falls upon the shoulders of every Catholic.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Pete Vere is a canon lawyer and a Catholic author. He recently co-authored Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law (Servant Books) with Michael Trueman and More Catholic Than the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor) with Patrick Madrid. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.