This article can be read in its entirety in the April 2004 issue of Catholic World Report, or at the Catholic Education Resource Center
Parents’ Rights & Duties to Educate
The begetting and educating of children are intimately linked. One does not have to look very far in the teachings of the Church on marriage and family to find strong, repeated affirmations that parents have the innate right to beget and educate their children. The Second Vatican Council clearly teaches that marriage and conjugal love “are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and education of children” and that parents “should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those [to] whom it has been transmitted” (Gaudium et Spes, 50).
In its Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis (GE) 3, the Vatican Council also forcefully reminds parents of this natural-law right and obligation to educate their children, teaching: “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.” Vatican II’s decree on the apostolate of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem (13), places a duty on Christian married partners “strenuously to affirm the right and duty of parents and guardians to educate children in a Christian manner.”
Because parents have the duty to educate their children, they must also possess the right to do so, particularly if they choose to do so personally. It would be absurd in any legal system, whether natural or positive, to place a duty on a group of persons without also allowing for the right of those persons to carry out this duty. So much more would this be the case if the right and duty were primary and inalienable, such as the right of parents to educate children personally.
The Primacy of Parents
As Catholics who believe in the grace inherent in the sacrament of Matrimony, we must conclude that Catholic parents who take seriously the obligation of educating their children can, with the help of God’s grace, educate their children personally through homeschooling. Canon 1134 clearly supports this notion in teaching that “a special sacrament strengthens and, as it were, consecrates the spouses in a Christian marriage for the duties and dignity of their state.”
. . . canon law requires parents to live up to their obligation and determine what is the best means by which a Catholic education can be transmitted to their children. If the parents can best accomplish this through homeschooling, then homeschooling is not only a legitimate means, it is a laudable labor of love for parents who are trying to take seriously their vocational duties.
“Primary,” not “Only” Educators
“Primary” here is a sequential and qualitative term, not a quantitative term. In other words, the parents of a child are the first educators to whom the child is exposed, and the most important educators. They indeed have a relational influence over the child that cannot be replaced, but also, and just as importantly, it is they who must make the determination of whether or not to delegate part of this child’s formation to others — and, if so, to whom and how much. Thus homeschooling parents are on firm ground to invoke the principle of “primary educators” not because it allows them to be the “only” educators — it does not — but rather because it affirms the fact that they are the most important educators who must decide the course of the child’s education. They are “primary” because it is they who must decide, prayerfully and reasonably, the proper means of education for their child under Canon 793 §1.
Homeschooling & the Canons
While the now abrogated 1917 Code of Canon Law emphasized “schools” in its section on education, the current 1983 Code of Canon Law employs a more general “Catholic Education” as its focus, with “schools” being among the elements considered under Catholic education. Many canonists have pointed out that this was no accident. During the revision of the Code of Canon Law, the revision committees deliberately chose this broader title of “Catholic Education,” fully knowing the significance of this change.
Under this canon, the right of Catholic parents to opt for homeschooling as the means to provide for the Catholic education of their children is clearly protected. The canon declares that Catholic parents have the duty and the right to determine not only which institutions can help to provide for their children’s Catholic education, but first and foremost, which means are the best means by which to accomplish this task. Catholic parents are well within their canonical rights to choose the institution of the family instead of the institution of the school to achieve this goal. Pastors of souls should not be offended when parents choose homeschooling to provide for the Catholic education of their children. Rather, they should feel proud that their teaching and pastoral leadership have fostered parents who take their Catholic faith and their vocational duties — especially the Catholic education of their children — seriously enough to make the often difficult decision to homeschool.
Homeschooling parents must remember that they are to hold schools in high esteem (cf. 796 §1) and to support the Catholic schools in whatever ways they can, proper to their situation. They also must keep in mind that they indeed do belong to a larger community of the Church as manifested in the parish and the diocese. However, these obligations in no way preclude the right of Catholic parents to choose homeschooling. Neither Vatican II nor canon law forbids the right of parents to undertake personally the Catholic education of their children. On the contrary, the canonical laws of the Church protect this right.
Benedict T. Nguyen is a husband, homeschooling father of four, canon lawyer, and chancellor of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.