School Choices

14 Feb

Catholic schoolsWhen I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Catholic education didn’t seem that complicated to me. Like most of the other kids from St. Elizabeth parish, I attended the parochial elementary school for eight years and then went to one of the Catholic high schools in the area.

Now, as the father of six children, I understand that there’s much more to providing an education for my children than meets the eye. There are now more educational options than ever, and Catholic schools can be very expensive for medium-to-large middle-class families.

My wife Maureen and I annually survey the horizon to help us prayerfully discover what’s best for each particular child, keeping in mind his or her needs, gifts, and interests, but above all our duty to provide for our children’s formation in the Catholic faith. We’re well aware that many of our own school contemporaries stopped practicing the faith upon graduation, and so we see clearly the need to discern the matter with great care. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that parents not only should select a suitable school, but even more “they have the mission of educating their children in the Christian faith.” It seems to me that this “mission” from God should not be taken lightly.

There are many ways that Catholic parents can fulfill their mission to educate their children in the Christian faith. This brings us to the next document in our survey of the documents of Vatican II: the 1965 Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis, or “GE”).

Among the various choices, pride of place still belongs to Catholic schools, where the faith is taught in the context of a thoroughly Catholic curriculum and environment. In fact, GE “reminds Catholic parents of the duty of entrusting their children to Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible and of supporting these schools to the best of their ability and of cooperating with them for the education of their children” (no. 8).

In addition, there is now a growing number of “independent” Catholic schools. Many of these schools have arisen in response to perceived deficiencies in the existing Catholic and public schools. They tend to be smaller and more autonomous, giving parents greater control over curriculum and student life.

Other private schools, including Protestant-run Christian schools, often provide a high-quality education coupled with strong moral formation. The downside, of course, is that the Catholic faith is not taught and in fact the child will likely be challenged early and often regarding his or her distinctively Catholic beliefs. The child will require very strong grounding in the faith at home to flourish in that setting.

Public schools are always an affordable option, and in some cases they may be the best choice because of the range of special educational services and programs they provide. Given the pervasively secular nature of the public school system, however, parents need to be especially vigilant lest their children end up being formed by the popular culture rather than the Catholic faith.

Home schooling continues to be the fastest-growing option. In the United States, more than 2 million children are home schooled, and that number is increasing every year. My own family home schooled for many years. No doubt, it can be demanding–especially for larger families. Yet, by seeing our home as a “Catholic school,” we firmly believed that we were singularly embracing our mission as the primary educators of our children as described by Vatican II.

We must consider all of our options in light of the reality of today’s political and social climate. Societal attacks on marriage and family life filter their way down to individual families in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. If someone today speaks out against perverse lifestyles, he’s vilified and sent away for “sensitivity training.” However, large families are fair game, and derogatory comments about the Catholic faith or one’s family size are commonplace and socially acceptable.

Further, exercising our right to educate our children as we see fit comes at a significant cost. For example, as a home schooling father, even before buying books and school supplies for my home, I still had to support the public and Catholic school systems through my taxes and tithes. Now with kids in Catholic elementary and secondary schools as well as a Catholic college, I can understand the financial pressures Catholic parents face when it comes to education.

While assistance from the government in the form of vouchers would be most welcome, parents should also be able to expect assistance and support from the local Church when it comes to our educational choices. It seems to me that a culture of cooperation would be much more constructive than a culture of competition and suspicion. One encouraging example of this cooperation occurs when Catholic schools, taking their lead from the public schools, allow home schooling families to use some of their resources.

For many reasons, there is a natural tension among proponents of the educational alternatives available to us. The fact is that in choosing what’s best for their particular children, Catholic parents “should enjoy the fullest liberty in their choice of school” (GE 6). The Catechism further affirms the parents’ right to choose a school that corresponds to their own convictions (no. 2229).

In response to all this, I’d like to offer four principles that have guided my family’s decisions regarding the education of our children, which has led us to home schooling, Catholic schools, public schools, and independent schools at different times.

The faith is primary. When the Church teaches that an end of marriage is “the procreation and education of children,” she does not mean raising the next generation of Harvard, Yale, or even Notre Dame graduates. Rather, the Church has always understood “education” in the sense of educating children for the worship of God–in other words, helping them discover and fulfill their vocation as children of God.

Given this mind-set, our first question must be how well our educational choice will ensure that the faith is communicated to our children. In this regard, religious training isn’t simply an extra-curricular activity like sports, music lessons, or scouting, but rather must be the most basic element of their education, one which informs everything else our children do. That’s why our home school adopted the Ignatian motto “ad majorem Dei gloriam,” which means “for the greater glory of God.” We used this as a means of reminding ourselves and our children what our first priority truly is.

One size doesn’t necessarily fit all. While faith is the primary concern, academic achievement and human formation should not be discounted. As we know from our catechism, “grace builds on nature,” and the educational process is meant to cultivate “nature” as a means of preparing our children for their vocations in life. Each child has his or her special gifts and talents that should be developed.

Sometimes doing what’s best for our child might call us out of our comfort zone. Maybe we had always planned on home schooling our children or sending them all to the local Catholic school, but for whatever reason that choice doesn’t work for little Johnny or Sally. In that case, we need to be flexible and docile to the Holy Spirit in selecting an appropriate alternative.

It takes a parish. Even if we choose not to send our children to the parish school, we should still view the parish as the center of our educational endeavors. The Catechism calls the parish “the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; . . . a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents” (no. 2226). Blessed John Paul II wrote that “as far as possible, the lay faithful ought to collaborate in every apostolic and missionary undertaking sponsored by their own ecclesial family [i.e., parish].”

I realize that for some people there is a disconnect. Communion with the Holy Father is one thing, but communion with one’s bishop and diocese or even with one’s pastor and parish is an entirely different matter. Sometimes legitimate frustrations concerning what is, or isn’t, being taught in the parish school lead parents to opt out of the Catholic school system. Yet, one of the principal ways that parents educate their children in the Christian faith is by “participation in the life of the Church” (Compendium, no. 461). Difficulties with the local pastor or school should not create an antagonistic, “separatist” attitude toward one’s parish. In my experience here in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas over the past five or six years, I have been most edified by the level of cooperation I have found among Church leaders, educators, and parents.

We’re all home schoolers. About a quarter century ago, I taught a seventh-grade CCD class composed of public school kids. The class met one hour per week during the school year. After one or two classes, it became abundantly clear to me that there were a couple kids who were being trained well at home and this class merely supplemented and enriched what they already had learned. The rest were religiously illiterate and not getting much out of the class. Upon some inquiry, I found that most of them were not even taken to Mass on Sunday or in any meaningful way catechized at home.

This experience brought “home” to me the reality that “the role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute” (GE 3). Other individuals and institutions can help us immensely, but they can’t really be expected to compensate for our failure to educate our own children. After all, “family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith” (Catechism, no. 2226).

As we reflect upon Vatican II’s teaching on Christian education during this Year of Faith, let’s renew our resolve to help our children and grandchildren achieve not only honor rolls and achievement awards, but even more the “crown of life” (Jas. 1:12) or “imperishable wreath” (1 Cor. 9:25) that awaits God’s faithful children.

2 Responses to “School Choices”

  1. pcamarata February 14, 2013 at 3:54 am #

    ‘It takes a bishop’ . . . One other note. When we began raising our kids in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area we were surprised to see very few Catholic parish schools available in the metro area. There were a very few private, independent Catholic grade schools, but very few parish schools. In moving to the Kansas City area we immediately found nearly ‘a Catholic school on every corner.’ Nearly every parish on the Kansas side and many in Missouri had a grade school.

    Only after discussing this one evening with our pastor did we discover the reason – the directive for these schools came from the Archbishop, actually the last three shepherds we’ve had in ArchKCK. When a new parish is formed, at the direction of the bishop, it must first build the school. Usually Mass is held in the gym, and then when the money raised is sufficient, the church building goes up. After all, no parishioners in their right mind would vote to build a school de novo in a parish – it’s so costly. At times 60-70% of a parish’s budget goes to the school. We are so blessed to have had such wonderful shepherds here with so much emphasis on the Catholic education of our children.

    • Leon Suprenant February 14, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

      Yes, the priority given to Catholic education and especially to Catholic schools that we find here in KC isn’t necessarily found in most parts of the country. We’re very blessed indeed.

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