Given the current anti-homeschooling climate that is being perpetuated by those pastors who are either not aware of or are conveniently ignoring what the Church actually teaches about faith education, this article from Bendict Nguyen provides an apologetical approach to defending parents rights.
Home Schooling in Canon Law BENEDICT T. NGUYEN (Full Article)
Throughout 2003, the question of the legitimacy of home schooling by Catholic parents arose when three respected priests, Fathers Vincent Rogers, Peter M.J. Stravinskas, and Clarence Hettinger, attempted to defend the view that Catholic parents generally do not have the right to home school their children.
Not Catholic enough?
Many times, the decision by parents to see personally to the Catholic education of their children is misunderstood to be a determination that a parish or diocesan school is “not good enough” or “not Catholic enough.” In response to this perception, the objection is sometimes raised that Catholic parents do not have the right to decide whether a school is “Catholic” or not. This is only for the competent ecclesiastical authority to decide. However, this charge only confuses the issue. Whether or not a Catholic parent can formally determine the Catholicity of a school is not the issue. Only the competent authorities, referred to in Canon 803 §3, can determine this. I would submit, however, that this is not what is going on canonically. Home-schooling parents are not determining whether a school is Catholic (they do not have the canonical right to do so), but rather they are determining what is the best means by which they believe their children can attain a Catholic education. In other words, they are not making an official determination about the school per se, but rather they are discerning whether or not their children would best receive a Catholic education through the means of a particular school. The determination concerns what is best for the children, not for the school. Under Canon 793 §1, we see that it is not only the parents' right, but their duty to make that determination.
Just as parents do not have the power to designate what is a Catholic school and what is not, pastors do not have the canonical right to decide which particular means are the best means for a particular child to receive a Catholic education. The duty and the right to determine which schools are Catholic schools lie with the competent authority, usually the bishop. (cf. can. 802 §1 and 803 §1) The duty and the right to arrange everything so that the faithful can have a Catholic education belong to pastors of souls. (cf. can. 794 §2) But, the duty and the right to determine which means are the best means for a particular child to receive a Catholic education lie properly with the parents of that child. The idea that Catholic parents do not have the right to choose home schooling as a legitimate means for the Catholic education of their child seriously goes against the norms of Canons 793 §1 and 1136.
Of note also is the language of Canon 798. In the Latin (the only official language for the Code of Canon Law), it does not use the construction “parentes debent” — “parents must” — which would be the strongest obligatory language in canonical usage. Rather, it uses the subjunctive construction “parentes concredant” — “parents should entrust” — which carries a lighter shade of recommendation. Thus Canon 798 is an exhortation and not an absolute mandate.
It is important to note also that Canon 798, if it were interpreted as a mandate, would seriously limit the exercise of a parental right and thus must be subject to strict interpretation under the requirement of Canon 18. When one applies a strict interpretation to Canon 798, it is simply impossible to change an exhortation for parents to provide a Catholic education to their child into a mandate for parents to send their child to a Catholic school.
Any interpretation that sees Canon 798 as an absolute mandate would render Canon 793 §1, in particular, meaningless. Catholic parents — who are said in no uncertain terms to possess the duty and the right to determine the means of providing for the Catholic education of their child — would mysteriously lose this right. Why would the Church go to such great lengths continually to emphasize the right and duty of parents to determine the proper Christian education of their own children, only to legislate that the only way this can be done is through the neighborhood parish school? This would also put the Church in the hypocritical position of demanding from the state a true freedom for parents in the choice of means and schools, on the basis of natural-law argumentation, while absolutely denying this natural-law right when it comes to home schooling.
What Rome thinks
The Pontifical Commission for the Family (PCF) first reiterates the norm found in Familiaris Consortio: that the right and duty of parents to educate their children is essential, original and primary, irreplaceable and inalienable. Quoting Canon 226 §2, the letter underscores the principle that since parents have given life to their children, parents have the most serious obligation and enjoy the right to educate them. Then, giving the proper interpretation of these rights, the Council cites the canons on Catholic education, stating:
It is in the light of these canons [226 §1; 774 §2 and 793 §1] that the rights and duties of ecclesiastical persons are to be interpreted. These persons are to assist the parents in fulfilling their sacred obligation and in executing their sacred right, not to take them over. (emphasis in original)
Far from stopping at theoretical principles, The Pontifical Commission for the Family (PCF) goes on to apply the principles to the concrete question of home schooling. Nowhere does The Pontifical Commission for the Family (PCF) state that the Church requires parents to send their children to Catholic schools, whether in Canon 798 or Gravissimum Educationis 8 or anywhere else. On the contrary, it strongly and clearly states:
The role of the pastor, therefore, is to give a service of assistance by providing the parents with the means to form their child. The parents, however are not obliged to accept this assistance if they prefer to exercise exclusively their obligation and right to educate their own children. This is a natural right, and is not altered by the right of the Church. E.g., cc. 793, 914. (emphasis added)
There is no doubt that The Pontifical Commission for the Family (PCF) sees no canonical obligation for parents to make use of parish sacramental programs or even Catholic schools if, after a reasoned and prayerful consideration, parents decide to undertake the obligation of educating their children themselves. This right of parents is perfectly in line with canon law, and indeed is protected by canon law. Recall that Canon 796 §1 states that schools are the principal assistance to parents in fulfilling the function of education. As the Pontifical Council underscores, parents are under no obligation to accept this assistance.
The PCF leaves no ambiguity, directly addressing the relationship of this right and obligation of parents with regard to the Catholic school, and not just catechetical instruction:
In times past, parents were only too happy to be assisted by the Catholic school system in the formation of their children. Now, however, this is no longer the case in many a diocese where Catholic schools are permitted to use certain catechetical texts which, though bearing an imprimatur, are gravely deficient in following the magisterium.
Following the norm of Canon 226 §2, The Pontifical Commission for the Family (PCF) then reminds parents that should they elect to undertake their children’s education personally, it should be done following the teaching which is handed on by the Church.
In the end, the claim that canon law forbids the option of home schooling under normal circumstances does violence to canon law itself by misreading some canons, dismissing other canons or rendering them meaningless. Home-schooling 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 home schooling. 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. "Home Schooling in Canon Law." Catholic World Report (April, 2004): 52-57.
Benedict T. Nguyen is the chancellor of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, where he also serves as Defender of the Bond before the diocesan tribunal.