When I was growing up in the 1960s and '70s, Catholic education didn't seem that complicated to me. Like most of the other kids from St. Elizabeth parish, I attended the parochial elementary school for eight years and then went to one of the Catholic high schools in the area.
Now, as the father of six children, I understand that there's much more to providing an education for my children than meets the eye. There are now more educational options than ever, and Catholic schools are very expensive for medium-to-large middle-class families.
My wife Maureen and I annually survey the horizon to find what's best for each particular child, keeping in mind his or her needs, gifts, and interests, but above all our duty to provide for our children's formation in the Catholic faith. We're well aware that many of our own contemporaries stopped practicing the faith upon graduation, and so we see clearly the need to discern the matter with great care.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that parents not only should select a suitable school, but even more "they have the mission of educating their children in the Christian faith." It seems to me that this "mission" from God should not be taken lightly.
What Are the Options?
There are many ways that Catholic parents can fulfill their mission to educate their children in the Christian faith. Among the various choices, pride of place still belongs to Catholic schools, where the faith is taught in the context of a thoroughly Catholic curriculum and environment. In fact, Vatican II's Declaration on Christian Education says, "Catholic parents are reminded of their duty to send their children to Catholic schools wherever this is possible, to give schools all the support in their power, and to cooperate with them in their work for the good of their children" (no. 8).
In addition, there are now a growing number of independent schools. Many of these schools have arisen in response to perceived deficiencies in the existing Catholic and public schools. They tend to be smaller and more autonomous, giving parents greater control over curriculum and student life.
Other private schools, including Protestant-run Christian schools, often provide a high-quality education coupled with strong moral formation. The downside, of course, is that the Catholic faith is not taught and in fact the child will likely be challenged early and often regarding his or her distinctively Catholic beliefs. The child will require very strong grounding in the faith at home to flourish in that setting.
Public schools are always an affordable option, and in some cases they may be the best choice because of the range of special educational services and programs they provide. Given the pervasively secular nature of the public school system, however, parents need to be especially vigilant.
Homeschooling continues to be the fastest-growing option. In the United States, more than 2 million children are homeschooled, and that number is increasing 7-15 percent every year. My own family homeschools. No doubt, it can be demanding, especially for larger families. Yet by seeing our home as a "Catholic school," we believe that we are embracing our mission as the primary educators of our children in a singularly proactive way.
We must consider all of these options in light of the reality of today's political and social climate. Societal attacks on marriage and family life filter their way down to individual families in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. If someone today speaks out against perverse lifestyles, he's vilified and sent away for "sensitivity training." However, large families are fair game, and derogatory comments about one's family size are commonplace and socially acceptable.
Further, exercising our right to educate our children as we see fit comes at a significant cost. For example, as a homeschooling father, even before buying books and school supplies for my home, I support the public and Catholic school systems through my taxes and tithes.
While assistance from the government in the form of vouchers would be most welcome, parents should also be able to expect assistance and support from the local church when it comes to our educational choices. It seems to me that a culture of cooperation would be much more constructive than a culture of competition and suspicion. One encouraging example of this cooperation occurs when Catholic schools, taking their lead from the public schools, allow homeschooling families to use some of their resources.
For many reasons, there is a natural tension among proponents of the educational alternatives available to us. The fact is that in choosing what's best for their particular children, Catholic parents should enjoy the fullest liberty in their choice of school. The Catechism affirms the parents' right to choose a school that corresponds to their own convictions (no. 2229).
In response to all this, I'd like to offer four principles that have guided my family's decisions regarding the education of our children.
The faith is primary. When the Church teaches that an end of marriage is "the procreation and education of children," she does not mean raising the next generation of Harvard, Yale, or even Notre Dame graduates. Rather, the Church has always understood "education" in the sense of educating children for the worship of God — in other words, helping them discover and fulfill their vocation as children of God.
Given this mind-set, our first question must be how well our educational choice will ensure that the faith is communicated to our children. Religious training isn't simply an extra-curricular activity like sports, music, or art, but rather must be the most basic element of their education, one which informs everything else our children do. That's why our homeschool has adopted the Ignatian motto "ad majorem Dei gloriam" which means "for the greater glory of God." We try to use this as a means of reminding ourselves and our children what our first priority truly is.
One size doesn't necessarily fit all. While faith is the primary concern, academic achievement and human formation should not be discounted. As we know from our catechism, "grace builds on nature," and the educational process is meant to cultivate "nature" as a means of preparing our children for their vocations in life. Each child has his or her special gifts and talents that should be developed.
Sometimes doing what's best for our child might call us out of our comfort zone. Maybe we always had planned on homeschooling our children or sending them all to the local Catholic school, but for whatever reason that choice doesn't work for little Johnny or Sally. In that case, we need to be flexible and docile to the Holy Spirit in selecting an appropriate alternative.
It takes a parish. Even if we choose not to send our children to the parish school, we should still view the parish as the center of our educational endeavors. The Catechism calls the parish "the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families;…a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents" (no. 2226). Pope John Paul II wrote that "as far as possible, the lay faithful ought to collaborate in every apostolic and missionary undertaking sponsored by their own ecclesial family [i.e., parish]."
I realize that for some people there is a disconnect. Communion with the Holy Father is one thing, but communion with one's bishop and diocese or even with one's pastor and parish is an entirely different matter. Sometimes legitimate frustrations concerning what is, or isn't, being taught in the parish school lead parents to opt out of the Catholic school system. Yet one of the principal ways that parents educate their children in the Christian faith is by "participation in the life of the Church" (Compendium, no. 461). Difficulties with the local pastor or school should not create an antagonistic, "separatist" attitude toward one's parish.
We're all homeschoolers. Twenty years ago, I taught a seventh-grade CCD class composed of public school kids. The class met one hour per week during the school year. After one or two classes, it became abundantly clear to me that there were a couple of kids who were being trained well at home and this class merely supplemented and enriched what they already had learned. The rest were religiously illiterate and not getting much out of the class. Upon some inquiry, I found that most of them were not even taken to Mass on Sunday or in any meaningful way catechized at home.
This experience brought "home" to me the reality that "the role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute" (Catechism, no. 2221). Other individuals and institutions can help us immensely, but they can't really be expected to compensate for our own failure to educate our children. After all, "family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith" (Catechism, no. 2226).
Let's renew our resolve to help our children and grandchildren achieve not only honor rolls and achievement awards, but even more the "crown of life" (Jas 1:12) or "imperishable wreath" (1 Cor 9:25) that awaits God's faithful children.