Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you are aware of the meteoric rise in homeschooling during that time. What was formally the reserve of a few fundamentalists and hippies has now gone mainstream. Just this week it was reported that over 2 million children are homeschooled, which constitutes approximately one in every 25 children currently in school today.
Catholics have not missed this bandwagon, as many Catholic families (including my own) have decided that homeschooling is the best way to educate their children. But what does the Church have to say in her magisterial documents about homeschooling? Is it allowed or prohibited? If no definitive word has been pronounced, is it encouraged or discouraged?
The first place to look to answer this question is Gravissimum Educationis (GE), Vatican II’s “Declaration on Christian Education.” In this document the Council Fathers address the importance of education and the need for every child to be educated. At first glance, it appears that homeschooling is clearly approved:
Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools (GE 6).
If parents have the “primary and inalienable right and duty to education their children” and they must “enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools,” then surely they should be able to educate their own children in the home, correct? However, another passage should be examined as well:
The Council also 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 (GE 8 emphasis added).
In the context of GE and other contemporary Church documents related to education, it is clear the Council is thinking of traditional Catholic schools here; in other words, it is not thinking of a Catholic family homeschooling as a “Catholic school.” So what does this mean? Are homeschoolers violating Vatican II by not “entrusting their children to Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible” and not “supporting these schools to the best of their ability and of cooperating with them for the education of their children”? Should all Catholics send their children to Catholic schools if they are available to them?
To answer this question we must first consider what the Church considers proper education. According to GE,
a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share (GE 1).
But this is not the only objective of education. All the baptized also have the right to a Christian education, which
does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person as just now described, but has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) (GE 2)
So parents, who have a “primary and inalienable right and duty to education their children,” must take into consideration both of these aspects when determining their choice of schools – they must both consider a child’s formation as a human person as well as his formation as a Christian. But this also means that Catholic schools need to fulfill these two aspects of a Christian education – if they do not, then they are not truly “Catholic schools,” thus making it impossible for parents in their area to send their child to an outside Catholic school, as GE hopes every parent will do.
But I think we can go a step further than just saying that homeschooling is an option when the local Catholic schools are failing in their mission to offer a Christian education. To do this, we must consider the context in which Vatican II occurred. At that time, there was, for all intents and purposes, no such thing as Catholic homeschoolers as we would define them today. Homeschooling as a movement didn’t really start until the 1970′s and it didn’t become “mainstream” until this century. So the Council Fathers had no way to consider homeschooling as even an option. It should be remembered that ecumenical councils are protected by the Holy Spirit from error, but they are not given the gift of precognition. Faced between the choice of public, government schools and Catholic schools, it is no surprise that they urged that Catholic parents send their children to Catholic schools “wherever and whenever it is possible.” That was the only possible way for a child to receive a true Christian education as the Council Fathers envisioned it.
However, since the time of Vatican II, it has become clear that Catholic homeschooling has become a viable type of “Catholic school”, offering a fully Christian education as defined by the Council Fathers. Thus, I would argue that homeschooling can be a legitimate response to Vatican II’s call that Catholics entrust their children to “Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible” – even if there are good Catholic schools in the area. In today’s world, this fulfills the Council’s wishes that children receive a Christian education and that parents enjoy “true liberty” when choosing a school for their children.
It should be clear that I am not saying that all Catholics should homeschool their children. Each family is different and every child unique – what works for one situation might not work for others. But I do believe that Catholics who choose to homeschool their children – even if there is a good Catholic school available – are not violating the intention of the Council Fathers behind their desire that parents entrust their children “to Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible.”
Update: Esteemed Catholic canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters alerts us to an informative article he wrote about 10 years ago addressing this issue from a canon law perspective.