Empowering parents’ right to choose: Transparency in education policies

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Catholic schools
A student is pictured looking over a book in a file photo of a seventh-grade theology class at St. Agnes School in St. Paul, Minn. (OSV News photo/courtesy St. Agnes School)

Parents who pay tuition to send a student to school want to know about the “product” they are getting. While I work at a Catholic school (my article is in no-way the position of the school nor the diocese as a whole, but my own thoughts), parents will ask me all the time not just about this school but others in the diocese. Do I know that its teachers are faithful and practicing Catholics? Some parents are even willing to sacrifice better sports facilities or buildings for a faith-based education because they want their kids to be taught what they believe.

Even non-Catholics will often tell me they are choosing a Catholic school for its discipline, values, openness to religion, or to “resist the craziness of public schools.” The final one of those often refers to issues regarding human sexuality, US history, or criminal justice reform.

Protesting Catholic schools’ policy

Recently, our diocese made national headlines with a “new” policy on students who identify as transgender in our Catholic schools. The policy was not original to our diocese, nor was it new for our diocesan high school where I work. What took place was that the policy was extended to the other schools of the diocese to make standard how they handle the topic.

Opinion articles were written criticizing the policy, the bishop, the Catholic school system and the Church’s position on the issue. Even “news” articles were critical of the diocese, veering out of the realm of reporting the news into commentary. It is not my intent in this article to defend the Church’s teachings on biological sex and how that teaching relates to the topic of transgender issues. For that question, you might begin with this article.

About a week after the public announcement that the diocese’s policy was being extended to all schools, roughly one hundred people protested downtown, marching from our chancery to city hall. As I read about this on the news, I kept thinking back to the parents who have asked me about our Catholic schools. They chose a Catholic school because they wanted to know what their kids would be taught on these topics. Parents who want their kids taught something different can choose to send their kids elsewhere, and no one is obligated to send their child to a Catholic school where they or their child is unhappy.

In fact, the Catholic Church has over the past century and a half argued quite strongly in a number of documents that parents have a God-given duty and right to be the primary educators of their children. This teaching runs deep into the history of the Church but came to the forefront with the writings of the social encyclicals and other documents that reflect upon the modern world.

parents rights

Parents are the primary teachers of their children

The Code of Canon Law notes that schools exist to assist parents in the teaching of children, saying that “schools are the principal assistance to parents in fulfilling the function of education” (796). Likewise, the Second Vatican Council teaches, “Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children” (Gravissimum Educationis, 6).

A similar sentiment was repeated in 1988 in a document from the Congregation for Catholic Education saying, “Close cooperation with the family is especially important when treating sensitive issues such as religious, moral, or sexual education, orientation toward a profession, or a choice of one’s vocation in life. It is not a question of convenience, but a partnership based on faith. Catholic tradition teaches that God has bestowed on the family its own specific and unique educational mission.” That is to say, it is precisely on these sorts of topics that the schools should cooperate with families in their message and that it is upon the family that God has given the duty to form their children.

Parents or the state?

For many people, this would be shocking. Because throughout the United States there is compulsory education until at least age 16, many people believe that it is principally the duty of the State to educate its citizens. This sentiment is so strong that in recent years the very notion of homeschooling has been called into question by scholars, for example, Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Bartholet. In the Catholic tradition, however, it is the family who is the primary educator of the child who may enlist schools to assist in this regard

The principle of subsidiarity

One of the principles present in Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity. Sometimes this doctrine is explained as if it merely consists of the State allowing (or permitting) smaller entities to take care of problems that arise in society for pragmatic reasons, if they are able. On the contrary, subsidiarity is not a permission from the State. In fact, Pope Pius XI says that to violate subsidiarity is a great injustice because subsidiarity is the right ordering of nature.

Pius Pius XI teaches, “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (79). Subsidiarity is not devolution, the taking from a higher authority and giving to the lower, but the principle that a higher authority cannot take what rightly belongs to the lower.

In the realm of education, it can be understood this way: children are born into a family. Families come together to form neighborhoods, towns, counties, and states. States come together to form a country. Even in the United States of America, the states pre-exist the country. There was not a nation that then went about creating the states. From a historical standpoint, it was the states who met to write a Constitution for a newly formed nation which each state then had to ratify. (This is why a state like Massachusetts can have a constitution older than that of the United States.)

Parents have the right to educate their children

Families do not need to be granted a right to educate their children, as the right already belongs to the family. Pope Leo XIII states in Rerum Novarum, “Hence we have the family, the ‘society’ of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but nonetheless a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State” (12). This is not to deny that the State cannot require students to show they are learning and reach a basic level of competency, but ironically, many students in state-run schools do not pass basic competency in math or English.

Pope Leo XIII continues: “Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature…The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error” (13-14).

Schools transgender

Human sexuality, education and parents’ rights

Over the past decade, there has been explosive growth in the number of cases of young people questioning their gender identity. The way to educate and speak to young people about this topic has led to contentious disagreement. The medical standards in the United States do not match those in Europe, which has backed away from transitioning children. In some states, young children are introduced to the concept that they might be of a gender different from their biological sex, and children who report at school that they think they might be are assured that parents will not be notified. In such instances, the State is unjustly usurping the God-given rights of parents to be the primary educators and care-takers of their children.

When Catholic schools across a diocese tell parents what will and will not be taught to their children on this matter, parents know what they are getting and what they are paying for. Some will choose to send their kids elsewhere, while other parents might seek out such a school for their children. Whether a family agrees or disagrees with the policy, it is a great service to families to make such a clear one, allowing parents to choose what schools they want to partner with to assist them in their role as primary educators of their children.

Father Donato Infante is Director of Vocations at the Diocese of Worcester.

Father Donato Infante

Father Donato Infante is Director of Vocations at the Diocese of Worcester.