Primary Education

The Church has always taught that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. This traditional formulation dates back at least as far as St. Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century Doctor of the Church.

In 1944, the Holy See unequivocally affirmed in response to a formal question (dubium) that the procreation and education of children is the one and only primary end of marriage.

It is true, nonetheless, that over the past 50 years the Church has used slightly different terminology that gives greater attention to the unitive dimension of marriage. Yet the Church still affirms that marriage “is by its nature ordered toward…the procreation and education of offspring” (Catechism, no. 1601). This teaching can be traced to the first command given by God to man: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gn 1:22).

With regard to the phrase, “the procreation and education of children,” the first part of this formulation gets most of the attention. After all, “procreation” conjures up a host of issues, from Humanae Vitae and women’s “liberation” to the complementarity of the sexes and the intrinsic value of motherhood. It’s the second part of the formulation — the “education of offspring” — that is sometimes overlooked. What does the Church mean when she says that an objective “end” or purpose of marriage entails the education of offspring?

The Church does not simply mean raising the next generation of Harvard, Yale, or even Notre Dame graduates. Rather, the Church has always understood “education” in the sense of preparing children for the worship of God — in other words, helping them discover and fulfill their vocation as children of God. As Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have affirmed in recent decades, the Church is by her nature missionary, sent by Christ to make disciples of all the nations. The Church’s mission, then, is to extend Christ through space and time. Great missionaries like St. Francis Xavier, who brought thousands to the faith, have the particular vocation of extending Christ through space — indeed to the four corners of the world. Catholic parents, on the other hand, have the challenging vocation of extending Christ through time, by raising up the next generation of disciples. How parents are to fulfill this vocation is beautifully summarized in the Catechism, nos. 2221-33. I think this perspective helps us to keep sight of the big picture when we examine Catholic education.

The Church esteems scientific advances, technological expertise, and academic excellence. In fact, her record in the educational arena, by any standard, speaks for itself, whether it’s the rise of the great universities in medieval Europe or the establishment of the extensive Catholic school system here in the United States. The Church has long distinguished herself as the champion of arts and sciences. Yet our Lord cautions us, “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26).

Applying this haunting question to contemporary education, we must look beyond the fancy degrees, the prestigious schools, and the state-of-the-art programs and ask whether our children’s education is ordered to making them saints. “Catholic” when applied to education doesn’t mean “second class,” but it also doesn’t mean keeping up with the secular Joneses. It means instilling a living faith in our children. This involves sound catechesis as well as allowing the faith to penetrate and inform all areas of life, including academic endeavors.

Far from being in competition with science, the Church understands truth as one, such that honest intellectual pursuits enrich rather than threaten our spiritual formation. The problem comes in when social agendas or unsubstantiated opinions that conflict with our holy Faith are presented to our children as the truth. The problem here, of course, isn’t the truth or science, but the agendas and the opinions — as well as any educational setting that would allow such false teaching.

The Catechism, quoting Vatican II, says that “the role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute” (no. 2221). This suggests that when a child’s education in the faith is simply delegated to teachers, catechists, and pastors, it will almost certainly be inadequate. Striking the right balance between the parents as the “primary educators” of their children and the valuable assistance that others can provide is sometimes difficult to achieve. Even the most exemplary Catholic parents can benefit from the support of the local Church when assistance is offered in ways consistent with parental rights.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are exasperated religious educators whose fine efforts to evangelize and catechize our children are not supported by the parents. Keeping in mind the goal of raising the next generation of Christian disciples, religious education cannot be allowed to degenerate into mere babysitting, “niceness” training, or damage control. Perhaps the best thing that religious educators can do is to help those parents who have lost their way. Focusing more catechetical energies on parents often yields two generations for the price of one, and it empowers parents to accept their pivotal role in their children’s education.

Peter Drucker, perhaps the most respected management expert of our time, stresses the fact that employees are a company’s greatest asset, not a cost or liability to be avoided. A wise company, then, puts its resources and creative energies at the service of developing and training its personnel. We should join the late Pope John Paul II in recognizing the bright, often untapped potential of youth. Today children are too often seen in terms of dollar signs. Families are downsizing. A child will cost too much or infringe upon the couple’s autonomy or lifestyle. Yet, the Church sees in the bringing forth of new life God’s blessing and gift. Scripture considers barrenness, not fertility, a curse, and speaks of children positively, as olive shoots around the table (Ps 127:4) or as arrows in the hand of a warrior (Ps 128:3).

The lie of the past century has been that women need to work outside the home to do something really important, to be truly fulfilled in life. The “lie” has nothing to do with women’s rightful participation in social, economic, and political life, free from unjust discrimination. It also doesn’t speak to the often heroic mothers who find themselves in situations where they must work outside the home to support the family. The lie, rather, is the relative devaluing of motherhood. This added “burden,” this little “bundle of bills,” is nothing other than a child of God, a saint in the making. There is nothing more important that a mother can do than pour herself into her child so that he or she is equipped to fulfill his or her vocation in Christ.

Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is

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