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Rights and Responsibilities of Parents in Religious Education

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As we address ourselves to the "Rights and Responsibilities of Parents in Religious Education," you will immediately notice that our focus of attention is on parents. This means that, while recognizing the rights of others, notably the Church, and within the Church, of bishops, priests and religious, we concentrate on the rights of father and mother, hence parents (plural), in the religious rearing of their offspring.

Also you notice I speak of rights and responsibilities. A word of explanation here seems to be in order.

A right is the moral claim that a person has to possess something or to do something which others have the duty to respect. Rights therefore are correlative with duties. For example, I have a right to my reputation; other people have the duty to respect it and not do it injury. That would be an injustice.

A responsibility, on the other hand, is different. It is the moral obligation which follows from some position or office which I receive or assume. A responsibility always pertains, for our purpose, to some other person or persons who, then, depend upon me. They, in turn, have a right to expect me to fulfill my responsibility.

My intention in this article is to cover both aspects of our subject, but separately. First to speak of the rights, and then of the responsibilities.

Concerning parental rights in religious education we shall see

  • what these rights are, concretely and specifically;

  • from whom these right do not derive;

  • from whom these do derive.

Then concerning parental religious responsibilities toward their children, we shall ask

  • how parents are expected to satisfy their moral obligations, personally;

  • how parents are expected to meet their responsibilities through other persons or agencies.

Finally, I wish to briefly but pointedly say something about the dilemma in which parents find themselves – in the present critical state of religious education and how, with God’s grace they might fulfill their responsibilities to the children which He gave them. Indeed, how they can contribute to the welfare of sound Catholic education into the foreseeable future.

Parental Rights

I. What They Are

As we approach the subject of parents' rights in the religious upbringing of their children, the first thing we want to do is spell out what these rights are.

Stated concisely: Parents have the right to give their offspring a share in their own life of the spirit, corresponding to the share they have given them in their life of the body. Or, in more concrete terms, parents have the right to communicate their own religious beliefs and practices to the sons and daughters to whom they have already communicated their physical existence as human beings.

As you see, I have closely identified the rights of father and mother to rear their family spiritually with their natural rights to bring the family physically into being.

This is not a coincidental correlation. The one follows on the other. No less than a married couple have a natural right to beget children who are like the parents as human persons; so a married couple have the corresponding right to procreate children who are like their parents as religious persons.

Without dwelling on the subject, let me just state in passing that this is one of the main reasons why mixed marriages create difficulties in bringing up the children according to the religious beliefs of the parents. If the parents are divided in religious conviction, this places a heavy burden on the children to favor one parent’s persuasion over the other, since they should love both father and mother equally and should want to follow the example of both on the basic issues of religious profession.

II. From Whom They Do Not Derive

We come to our second point on parental rights in religious education, to ask from whom they do not derive?

Why bother asking this question? Why bother?

  • Because a growing state monopoly in education is implying the contrary;

  • because vested interests, and not all secular, are practically claiming the opposite;

  • because some philosophers of education are urging positions different from the one commonly held by historic Catholicism.

From whom, then, do parents' rights in education, and especially religious education, not derive?

They do not derive from the state or from civil society. Not only does the Church teach this, but, to its credit, the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Oregon case (1925) ruled that an Oregon state law requiring all children to attend public schools was unconstitutional. The court stated:

"As often heretofore pointed out, rights guaranteed by the Constitution may not be abridged by legislation which has no reasonable relation to some purposes within the competency of the state.

"The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only."

“The child is not the mere creature of the state. Those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

It is the denial of this position, in countries behind the Iron Curtain, which is one of the least publicized but most agonizing features of Marxist tyranny, where the state claims prior rights over the parents to educate the child (from infancy) in its own materialistic ideology.

Besides not deriving from the state, parents' rights to give their children the religious education of their choice does not come from any vested interests, whether secular (which we should expect) nor purportedly ecclesiastical. Even the Church, while urging and encouraging parents to give their children a Catholic education, is not precisely the source of the parents' rights to conferring this education.

Moreover, the parents are not their own source of these rights to give their children a religious upbringing

  • as though they have an option to give them such training or not;

  • or as though they may be indifferent about the kind of religious rearing the children receive.

III. From Whom They Do Derive

By now we are ready to affirm that the rights of fathers and mothers to give their offspring adequate and as far as possible, accurate religious education come from God.

Why so?

Because it was He who created the human spirit and infused it into the body prepared for infusion by the mother and father.

As so many childless couples sadly know, it is finally up to God whether they will have children or not.

Why so? Because God makes each immortal soul out of nothing and unites it with a body to produce a human person. This person is to serve God on earth, for which he needs training from childhood. Then, if he serves God faithfully in this life, he will possess the vision and happiness of God in the life to come.

Parental Responsibilities

The converse of parental rights are their responsibilities. If God has given them the privilege of bringing children into the world both physically and spiritually, He also places on them the obligation to nurture the lives which they freely procreated.

And the duty of religious nurture is no less, in fact, more grave than the duty of physical nurture.

Why grave? Because none of us can either bring himself into existence – which is obvious – nor can any of us keep ourselves or develop in existence (which may be less obvious) by ourselves. We need help, constant, lifelong, abiding, perduring assistance from others.

In order to cut through a forest of possible ways of spelling out parents' responsibility to rear their children religiously (and not only physically) let me divide the subject into two parts:

Part one will address itself to how this responsibility should be satisfied by the parents themselves.

Part two will concern itself with how to fulfill this duty through others.

Personal Responsibility

Although it may sound like a platitude, it is not. Parents should cooperate with one another, father and mother, and not mother alone; and less still mother in one direction and father in another direction.

This cooperativeness presumes mutual affection between the spouses. You do not cooperate with someone you do not love.

This cooperativeness also presumes mutual understanding of their respective roles in the religious and moral rearing of the child. Behind such mutual understanding is mutual reflection and discussion between husband and wife on how they can best contribute, each according to his and her ability to the well-being of the offspring given to them by God.

As we get more specific about the parents' cooperative responsibility, I should like to identify the three ways that the parents, personally, nurture their children in things of the spirit. They do so:

  1. by what they are;

  2. by what they do;

  3. and by what they say.

First of all, by what they are:

What am I saying? I am saying that the most elemental means at the parents’ disposal for training their children in the ways of God is by themselves living the ways of God.

The proverbs of all nations are filled with eloquence on the persuasive power of good example. Among dozens I could quote, I like the French proverb which says that “children have more need of models than of critics.”

Yet there is more than example implied in the statement that parents best teach religion by what they are. We are here dealing in the realm of grace. In the ordinary course of Providence, God uses as His instruments those who are personally most united to Him by their virtue, who are most humble and patient and pure and prayerful.

Secondly, by what they do:

This may seem to be unnecessary after having said that father and mother give religious upbringing by what they are.

On the contrary. In things of the spirit, it is not enough to be (for our purposes) a Christian and a Catholic. A person must act like one.

Why is this important to stress? Because there is in all of us a tendency to divide our lives into two compartments. There is the temptation to claim (honestly and sincerely) to be one thing and yet to behave like something else.

The Jekyll and Hyde separation in us is neither rare nor surprising. Remember St. Paul’s confession about himself, “The good things that I will, I do not; but the evil things that I will not, that I do.”

Thirdly, by what they say:

Again we enter a region of mystery; the mystery of how our words are a channel of ourselves.

Yet we know that among all the means of self-communication, none is more universal or more effective than the spoken word.

We shall examine presently how parents exercise their religious responsiblities through other persons and agencies.

What needs strong emphasis, however, is that these other persons or agencies are auxiliary; they are not fundamental. They are secondary, not primary.

The fundamental and primary communicative agent of religious belief and practice is the parent. This is the common verdict of Christian history, as it is also the common teaching of the Catholic Church.

If we further ask, how do the parents exercise this role, there are many possible answers, but I would like to concentrate on just one; one that I consider central to religious pedagogy. It responds to that instructive sign of human intelligence which a child begins to reveal at a very early age, earlier than most people suspect.

Child psychologists agree that children begin to ask intelligent "whys" long before they are able to conceptualize and much less, rationalize, the meaning of their questions. I quote one specialist, who says that "the whys which appear between the age of three and seven are extremely numerous." Yet he calls this already "the second age of whys in the child," implying that children can begin to ask "why" before they are three years old.

Evidently it makes all the difference in the world how a child's whys are answered.

  • The fact that he asks the questions is a law of life.

  • The answers he receives will shape that life, as we believe, not only for time but for eternity.

Vicarious Responsibility

This brings us face to face with the role of the school and other institutions of religious education as means by which parents can fulfill their responsibility vicariously – to give their children the religious training which God expects of them.

The key to a balanced understanding of what I wish to say is a development of what we just saw, namely, that children were naturally hungry for knowledge, insatiable knowledge. Their hunger begins sooner than the traditional age of discretion. And it continues all through life. In this sense, we are always children because we always need and want to know.

But, then arises a problem. Who will teach the growing mind? Who will satisfy the desire of the budding intellect to receive the light of human knowledge and, with emphasis, the knowledge of God and the things of God?

Parents in some cases might be able to do so alone. But generally they need assistance. That is how schools came into existence: to supplement what father and mother can best initiate and best sustain, and always permeate. Yet life is too complex and the store of knowledge too immense for parents to cope with the maturing minds of their children without help from schools and other teaching enterprises.

  • That is the purpose of organized education in the literate world.

  • It is also the purpose of Catholic schools, CCD programs and allied agencies for giving the young child, the growing pre-adolescent, the adolescent and maturing adult answers to questions about the meaning of joy and sorrow, of work and prayer, of freedom and grace, of life and death, of time and eternity.

    Implicit in all these vicarious instruments of religious pedagogy is the admission that no parent, certainly no ordinary parent, could (even if he or she wanted to) satisfy the native desire for feeding the human mind in the countless whys it keeps asking others – because it is asking itself – the cause and purpose, the motive and justification of reality. It wants to know the reason for everything; not only of things that can be seen and touched, but of the greater realities which cannot be experienced by the senses

  • like the soul and the angels

  • like God and the saints

  • like grace and the joys of heaven.

That is why we have Catholic schools, and religious instruction on a parochial or regional basis to help parents answer the incessant (and insatiable whys of their offspring, from pre-kindergarten days through the university.

But that is also why these institutions cannot be ambiguous about their identity.

These institutions and agencies must – this is a divine imperative – must respond to the Catholic faith of the parents who avail themselves of their services.

There is no alternative. Either the school or program responds to what Catholic parents have a right to expect of it, or it is not serving the purpose of its existence and should be treated accordingly.

It is up to the parents, more than to anyone else in our country, to coordinate their efforts, and to join these efforts with prayer – to preserve the historic function of Catholic education in the United States.

Before God, parents have received a sacred trust. No one has a higher trust than they. No one has a higher responsibility.

But, I want to add, no one can take either the trust or the responsibility away.

It belongs to the parents because it is given to them by God. The children they call theirs are first of all His. They came from Him and they are destined for Him.

That is why God became a child: to teach us how simple it is to reach heaven, if only we are humble enough to listen to His words, and for parents, courageous enough to lay down our lives, if need be, for the souls entrusted to our loving care.

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica

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