A CANON LAWYER LOOKSAT HOME SCHOOLING
by Edward Peters
The Code of Canon Law has taken great care to protect parental primacy in seeing to the education of children, whether that parental right and duty is legitimately entrusted to others, or whether it is directly exercised by those who will most immediately answer to God for the raising of their children.
What most impresses me as a Catholic parent and lawyer, however, is the level of ecclesiastical protection which the parental choice to home school enjoys under the laws of the Catholic Church.
Canon lawyers know that the 14 principal provisions of the 1983 Code concerning education (see Canons 793-806) were, for the most part, settled upon by the middle 1970s, that is, at a time when home schooling was hardly being discussed in Catholic circles. The Holy Spirit was already seeing to it that the 1983 Code would be, as Pope John Paul II put it, "a great effort to translate conciliar teaching into canonical language." The rich affirmations the Second Vatican Council gave to the primacy of parents in matters of their children's education (located chiefly in the Council's Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum educationis, did make it into both the letter and the spirit of the revised Code of Canon Law.
Lest anyone be tempted to write off [simingly]semantic changes as mere Roman word games, one has simply to read the whole of Canon 793, especially the phrase which declares the right of Catholic parents "to select those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children ..." Such unambiguous language is, I suggest, the Holy Spirit's way of answering a question which had not even been posed yet: How far will the Church go in recognizing the right of Catholic parents to choose the options which they feel will best serve their children's education? Apparently, quite far.
For, having enunciated the natural and ecclesiastical right of parents over the choice of means and institutes for their children's education, the Code immediately grounds that right in the vocational duties of parents and spouses. "Because they have given life to their children, parents have a most serious obligation and enjoy the right to educate them; therefore Christian parents are especially to care for the Christian education of the children according to the teaching handed on by the Church." (Canon 226 2). In directly discussing the effects of marriage, Canon 1136 states, "Parents have the most serious duty and the primary right to do all in their power to see to the physical, social, cultural, moral and religious upbringing of the children."
A decade ago, not one person in a hundred had heard of the information superhighway. Today, not only is the Internet an active presence in millions of American homes, but we have witnessed a simultaneous explosion in the number and quality of self-guided computer learning systems, all sorts of multi-media educational broadcast avenues, creative learning board games, and so on. The end of all of this is nowhere in sight, and yet each step taken down the path makes only more feasible the basic goals of home-based education. All the more prophetically, it seems, does Canon 793 speak of parental freedom of choice over educational means as well as institutions.
Within the current situation of most parents utilizing, to some extent, a traditional school, canon law also encourages Catholic parents to make use of Catholic schools. Even here, however, the Code immediately stresses that what is of prior importance is the parental pursuit of a Catholic education for their children, by whatever means available (Canon 798).
When he promulgated the Code of Canon Law in 1983, Pope John Paul II wrote that "the Code is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace, and charisms ... in the life of the Church. On the contrary, the purpose of the Code is to create such an order in the Church which ... renders their entire development easier, both for the ecclesial society and for the individual persons who belong to it." (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Legis). Catholic parents are specifically graced by Christ to exercise the charism of teaching their children in accord with the magisterium of the Church.
One could hardly have expected, therefore, the Code of Canon Law to place juridical obstacles in the way of parents exercising their vocational charisms. To the contrary, the Code of Canon Law has taken great care to protect parental primacy in seeing to the education of children, whether that parental right and duty is legitimately entrusted to others, or whether it is directly exercised by those who will most immediately answer to God for the raising of their children.
Edward Peters has doctoral degrees in canon and civil law. He serves as a canonical consultant to many ecclesiastical institutions and persons, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of Catholic publications.
Article’s editor’s notes:
Put clearly in the language of the street, Canon Law states with precision that the inalienable rights of married parents to specifically choose both the means and institutions of religious education for their children trumps any pastor’s or chancery bureaucrats’ perceived obligations to implement general programs and policies grossly violating or even subtly impinging on those God given rights.