Back to School on Catholic Teaching on Education
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
August 2005

Now that “back to school” time has arrived, it seems appropriate to review what the Church’s social doctrine has to say about education. Catholics and non-Catholics alike typically rank education as a major social and policy issue. However, other than concern about “moral” issues in schools like those involving human sexuality, many Catholics do not consider and apply what the Church teaches about education. Focusing on what the new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has to say, let’s go “back to school” and educate ourselves about education.

Education is a human right. The dignity bestowed upon every human person extends not only to the person’s life, but also to the full potential of the human person. Like food, shelter, health care, and work, access to education is essential and the lack of it offends the dignity of the human person. This principle should serve as the reference point for all discussions regarding education policy. Keeping it in mind will help create a policies focused on the common good, rather than narrow interests.

Parents have a primary right and duty to educate their children in matters of religious education and morals. This duty to educate cannot be neglected or delegated. Parents take note – you cannot leave the religious and moral education of your children to the priests, nuns, religious education directors, Catholic schools, or youth ministers. They may help, but the primary responsibility rests with the parents. Delegating the task to the parish or school will not suffice.

Parents have a right and duty to educate their children in all matters that are not uniquely religious or moral. From a Catholic perspective, it is difficult to separate religion and morality from other parts of knowledge. Thus, the parents’ right to educate extends to education in general, and not just matters of religion and morals. This right is “irreplaceable and inalienable” and cannot be completely delegated to others.

Parents are the first educators, not the only educators, of their children.
Too often, parents take an “all or nothing” view of their role in educating their children. Some parents seem content to turn over more and more of the responsibility to civil authorities. Other parents view their place as “first educators” as absolute, giving very little or no role to government or church authorities in the education of their children. The Church, however, teaches that parents must exercise their responsibility “in close and vigilant cooperation with civil and ecclesial agencies,” noting that both government and churches play necessary parts in the task of educating children.

Parents have a right to choose the educational means that best reflect their convictions. In short, this means that parents have a right to choose whether to send their children to public schools, nonpublic schools, or to educate them at home.

Public authorities have the duty to guarantee this right and ensure the concrete conditions necessary for it be exercised. To put it another way, public subsidies for education must be allocated so that parents are truly free to exercise their right to choose the educational setting for their children without incurring unjust burdens. A just public education system provides education for all children, no matter where they are educated. The government, therefore, should financially support home education and nonpublic schools. In addition, the government should not interfere with, or place burdens on, the ability of parents to choose among public schools.

This Catholic view of education has implications beyond public policy. It also affects how we act within our parishes and Catholic schools. Parish policies, including those concerning religious education, should not favor one form of education over another, but should support all parents with their role as primary educators. Catholic schools, as part of a church whose mission reaches beyond its own walls, should be open to, and find ways to support parents that have, for what ever reason, opted to home educate or send their children to public schools. In turn, those parents should support their local Catholic school, even if their children do not attend it.

Catholic doctrine on education is basically a call to solidarity. All of the community works together, in their respective roles, to assist the parents as the primary, but not sole, educators of their children. In this way, the task of education does not exclude or usurp anyone. Instead, all our called to help ensure that the dignity of every child is respected so that every child can develop to his or her full potential, just as God intended.