Q: My husband and I are going to homeschool our children. Since the catechism program at our parish is really bad, we want to homeschool them in their faith as well. We’re wondering if we can’t just prepare them for their first confession, and then bring them to the church on a Saturday and tell Father what we’ve done, and then they can go ahead and make their confession. We would do the same thing for First Holy Communion.
Our parish bulletin says that all children must enroll in the parish CCD program if they don’t attend Catholic school, but we intend to give them a much more thorough Catholic education ourselves. Since the Church teaches that parents are the primary educators of their children, don’t we have the right as Catholic parents to do this? –Martha
A: The phrase “parents are the primary educators of their children” is found in
the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in a couple of different places in the
Code of Canon Law, as we’ll see below. It has also become a popular catchphrase in the secular sphere, where it has been used by the likes of the United Nations and the former President of France. But what does this oft-repeated slogan actually mean? In order better to answer Martha’s question, let’s take a look at the context in which the Church makes this assertion, and at the consequences that logically flow from it.
The catechism includes this statement in its section on marriage and conjugal love (CCC 1653). It notes that husband and wife should be open to children, who are the supreme gift of marriage. Parents are to pass on their gift of faith to the children entrusted to them. The purpose of the catechism asserting that parents are their children’s primary educators is to urge them not to eschew this serious obligation.
As we have seen so many times before with other topics, canon law on this subject is in complete accord with Catholic theology. The code echoes the catechism in its assertion that parents have the primary responsibility to ensure the Christian education of their children in accordance with the teaching of the Church (c. 226.2), and that parents have the most serious obligation and the primary right to do all in their power to ensure their children’s religious upbringing (c. 1136). The first of these canons is found in the section of the code addressing the duties and rights of the laity, and notes that the education of one’s children is a grave obligation. The second is found in the section on the sacrament of marriage, in which are found the duties and rights that result from the marriage bond.
In other words, this phrase is intended to be an exhortation to parents not to evade their duty as parents. Nowhere in either the catechism or the code is it suggested that because parents are the primary educators of their children, this means that they must have absolute authority over every facet of their children’s catechesis, to the exclusion of anyone else. Keep in mind that saying that parents are the primary educators implies indirectly that they are not the only educators!
And indeed the pastor of one’s parish plays a critical role in the catechesis of children as well. He has a concomitant duty to see to it that the children of his parish are properly prepared for reception of the sacraments. Canon 776 notes particularly that by virtue of his office, the pastor is bound to ensure the proper catechetical formation of children in his parish. This would include preparation for their first confession and Holy Communion.
The roles of parents and of pastors should be viewed as complementary, not adversarial. After all, both should share the same concern for the spiritual formation of those children who are preparing for their first reception of these sacraments.
This cooperation that should exist between parents and pastor is addressed quite clearly in canon 914: It is primarily the duty of parents, as it is the duty of the pastor, to ensure that children are properly prepared for their first Holy Communion; and it is the pastor’s duty to see to it that children whom he judges to be insufficiently prepared, do not receive Holy Communion [my italics]. We see here that both are to strive to make the children ready for reception of the sacraments—and while parents may feel that their child has received adequate preparation, it is the pastor who has the final say.
Thus it is the pastor’s prerogative to establish catechism classes for all those children who intend to receive these sacraments, and to require them to attend. Note that pastors of parishes are to have special care for the Catholic education of children and young people (c. 528.2). Parishes here in the U.S. frequently have a Director of Religious Education who is in charge of the entire parish catechetical program, but no matter how much authority this person may seem to have, the DRE is always answerable to the pastor.
We can see, therefore, that the notion that parents might prepare their children for their first confession and Holy Communion completely by themselves, without any input whatsoever from their parish, is contrary to the intent of the law—because it is not in accord with the Church’s understanding of parish membership and the role of the pastor. Martha’s suggestion, that she present her children to the pastor one day and ask that he administer the sacraments to them on the spot, is not an option. Both pastor and parents are expected to work together!
Unfortunately, the collaborative parent-pastor effort that is prescribed by the code does not always work so smoothly in actual practice. Too many parents are indifferent to the importance of their children’s spiritual formation; many view the reception of First Holy Communion more as a mere cultural tradition than as the intimate spiritual union of their child with Jesus Christ for the very first time. In such situations the pastor and those in the parish to whom he entrusts the preparation of first communicants are obliged to go it alone, or in extreme situations even to refuse to permit a child to receive the sacrament because of the absence of parental input and support.
At the same time, however, the opposite problem is sometimes encountered too: parents who reside in parishes with religious education programs that are woefully inadequate or of questionable Catholic orthodoxy are all too often caught in a quandary like Martha’s. If their children are to make their first confession and receive their first Holy Communion, these parents are told that they have no choice but to send them to these CCD programs, which are of dubious value. Martha does not specify why the catechism classes at her parish are “really bad”; if she means that they are watered-down and inadequate, then probably the best approach is to send her children to the classes, and at the same time to supplement these classes with additional instruction at home. At the end of the course, when the time comes for first confession and Holy Communion, presumably the pastor of the parish will see that Martha’s children have been attending regularly and will conclude that they are appropriately prepared. In this way, Martha and her husband will have had a direct influence on the spiritual preparation of their children, and the pastor will be satisfied as well.
If, on the other hand, the catechism program at Martha’s parish is truly engaged in teaching heterodoxy, Martha and her husband would do better to find an alternate approach. Respectfully taking their concerns to the pastor would be the first step, since he is the one who is ultimately responsible for the parish’s religious education program. Another option might be for either Martha or her husband (or both) to volunteer to work as catechism teachers within the parish’s religious education program. Becoming directly involved may be a great way to exert a quiet, constructive influence on the parish’s curriculum—and of course, to have a significant effect on the spiritual formation of their children too.
We can see here the true context in which the Church teaches that parents are the primary educators of their children. Rather than viewing this statement as an occasion for combativeness, our goal should be to work together as best as we can for our children’s spiritual good.