Home and School in American Catholic Life

This essay argues that understanding the historical reasons why Catholic schools and homeschooling arose can help one to see how both may contribute to the revitalization of a Catholic subculture and American society in complementary ways.


The education of children within the home is booming nationwide. In Bismarck, North Dakota, where I live, over one hundred families participate in the local homeschool group (there are more, besides) even as private schools, both Protestant and Catholic, thrive. Often homeschool and Catholic school families attend the same parishes, and know each other, but sometimes there is little interaction, and even less mutual understanding, between them. Catholic schools are condemned as not Catholic enough, and homeschooling is attacked because everyone knows of a family in which the “schooling” left much to be desired. This essay argues that understanding the historical reasons why Catholic schools and homeschooling arose can help one to see how both may contribute to the revitalization of a Catholic subculture and American society in complementary ways.

Those historical reasons clustered around an antagonistic relationship between home and school that developed in the past. In the 19th century, Catholics resisted Protestant control of public education, giving rise to their own system. In the 20th century, home and school could be increasingly at odds because of changes in American civil religion that inhibited the transmission of Christian faith. In addition, some families came to see education in consolidated schools far removed from the home as damaging to domestic life. I will argue that this dual history of shifting relationships, between home and school, points to important principles for religious and social renewal in 21st century America: Catholic schools can provide a base for flourishing Catholic subcultures and evangelization, while homeschooling can enrich domestic culture, and function as a “check and balance” on schools to remain true to their mission of educating the whole person. In turn, flourishing homes and schools encourage that subsidiarity of rightly-ordered power structures helping to check the spread of politics into social life.

The Rise of Antagonism

While laws in the colonial era requiring parental home education of children eventually disappeared, the lives of pre-industrial Americans continued by necessity to revolve around their homes for generations. For example, during the 1790s, Roger Hanly lived with his wife and six children in an Irish immigrant community in the inland market town of Bristol, Maine. The local economy of the town, focused on the maritime trades, meant that Roger’s work likely did not often take him far away from home. This was typical in American society before industrialization, where the cooperative home life of largely self-sufficient families united husbands, wives, and children in domestic communities of work, making tools, gardening, or weaving. In addition, the Hanly family preserved their faith exclusively within their home, because they inhabited a world without priests, parishes, or Catholic schools. A visiting priest would say Mass in the living room. He encouraged them to maintain their faith by worshipping together in their homes, and catechizing their own children. He would leave books with them, and keep in contact by letter.

In this pre-industrial age, the home was the school, the place of tutorials, apprenticeships, and self-education, as in the case of young Abraham Lincoln in rural Indiana, or else the home was within walking distance of the school, as pictured in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, set in rural New York during the 1860s. These one-room school houses were supported by local churches and communities with a minimum of state control. The school calendar followed the agricultural calendar, allowing children time to contribute to the economic life of their families. Parents trusted these local schools because they reinforced the culture of the home.

By the 1840s, two major forces had begun to transform this world, beginning in urban areas. First, industrialization increasingly separated family life from the world of labor, as family members might all work at separate factories. Factory production would increasingly replace home production. The separation of labor from the home became one of the defining features of American domestic life, and by the late 20th century, it would contribute to the rise of homeschooling and self-sufficiency movements as families sought ways to bring home lost domestic functions.

Second, millions of immigrants streamed into America during and after the 1840s, many of them Catholic. These people crammed into tenement housing in the growing cities. School for these Catholic children might well have been a welcome relief from the poverty and misery at home. They hoped for opportunities through the schools that they could not find within the home.

Because a Protestant ethos dominated many of the common or public schools, conflict sometimes erupted. Archbishop John Hughes attacked the New York Public Schools Society, organized by several Protestant churches, because it received tax money for its public schools, and then taught only Protestant religious views. Catholics had to support a system with their tax money that they could not send their children to. “No denomination, whether numerous or not, can impose its religious views on a minority at the common expense of that minority and itself,” Hughes declared to thunderous applause before a hall packed with Catholic parents in 1841. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually adopted Hughes’ logic in Engel v. Vitale (1962) which marked the end of Protestant control of public education by banning school-sponsored prayer, but leaving in place freedom of religious expression for individual students. Hughes called for resistance to the public school system as a violation of religious rights.

So, Catholics started their own schools. As early as 1782, St. Mary’s School had been founded in Philadelphia as the first parish school in the United States. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded a Catholic school in 1810, and made the promotion of Catholic schools the work of her life. By the late 19th century, the parochial school movement in America—Catholic in inspiration and staffed by religious sisters—gained pace. Simultaneously, public education expanded by the 1850s and came increasingly under the control of the state, through idealistic education reformers like Horace Mann (1796-1859). Mann’s wife, ironically, schooled their own children at home. The influence of Protestantism declined as America’s public school system secularized. In the Plenary Councils of Baltimore of 1852, 1866, and 1884, the American bishops asked for a Catholic school in every parish. Instructions even came from Rome in 1875 warning of the dangers to the faith of Catholic children if they were sent to American public schools. By 1920, there were thousands of Catholic schools in the United States educating millions of students.

After the Civil War, Protestantism declined as America’s public religion, while an American civil religion of sacralized national and democratic values gained a new ascendancy through Progressivism. Universal, compulsory public education spread across the land, as both a vehicle and an article of this faith. The home was under threat, many progressives feared, by industrialization and degenerate immigrants, many of whom were Catholic, so they turned to an expanded public school system to save America’s homes by inculcating traditional values through scientific experts, school consolidations, and factory methods of management. Progressive leaders, such as John Dewey, hoped that public schools could be places for engineering the social order. Such social engineering would be rejected later in the century in the name of child liberation, by both hippie and conservative supporters of homeschooling but, at the time, parents believed the advantages of schools for their children outweighed any possible disadvantages. Compulsory education became, in effect, an established church of the United States. Thus, the separate world of burgeoning Catholic education could be seen as a threat to the American way of life.

In 1922, the voters of Oregon passed an initiative sponsored by the Masons and the Ku Klux Klan called the  Compulsory Education Act. By attempting to mandate public school attendance, this citizens’ initiative was primarily aimed at eliminating Catholic schools. The Act led to outraged Catholics organizing nationally for the right to send their children to Catholic schools. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Oregon law unconstitutional. The court said:

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.

This legal precedent that took shape as a result of the fight to protect Catholic schools would contribute to the legal foundations of Protestant private schools and homeschooling later in the century.

By the 1950s, the Church was becoming a powerful cultural force, and American bishops played an important role in the Second Vatican Council. The event promised to help Catholics in the Unites States avoid any triumphalism and legalism of earlier generations through deeper humility and openness in relation to the modern world. Nevertheless, after the event, the Council was often misinterpreted and twisted to justify ideological agendas, resulting in years of confusion, loss of vocations, and the destruction of the Catholic subculture that had mediated between Catholics and mainstream America for decades. In the name of eliminating Catholic “separatism” and encouraging assimilation into American culture, Catholic leaders and intellectuals thought they did not need their own separate culture any more. In his penetrating book, American Church, journalist Russell Shaw argues that the effect of this was to secularize the Church from within, leading to loss of identity. This secularization in the name of “Americanization” powerfully infected Catholic schools and universities, evidenced in the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement that declared institutional autonomy from Church authority. The numbers of students in Catholic elementary and secondary schools and the religious women serving them went into steep decline across the country.

Simultaneously, changes in American culture during the 1960s and 1970s transformed public education. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s vastly increased government action. Hope in government, consumerism, the Civil Rights movement, and secular ideals signaled a shift in America’s civil religion. The U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1962, eliminating state-sponsored school prayer, angered many Protestant Americans, including my own grandparents, my mother remembers, who were dairy farmers in rural Michigan. My mother attended one of the last one-room, public school houses in the state, and remembers Protestant Bible classes in the early 1960s during which the Catholic children would play outside. Beverly School closed around 1966, marking a shift to a new age of bright ideals. Centralization and egalitarian social reconstruction have shaped American belief in public schools, and the ubiquitous standardized tests, as being central to eliminating inequalities ever since. This includes President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

In this context, the homeschooling movement took shape amidst criticism of public education from both radicals and conservatives. An adversarial relationship between home and school gained widespread, grassroots appeal for the first time. The Seventh-Day Adventist education reformers, Raymond S. Moore and his wife Dorothy, wrote about the importance of education in the home in the early 1970s, when California was considering compulsory education for children, as young as two-years-old. He and his wife argued, in Better Late than Early (1975), with ample evidence, that formal schooling of children before ages 8-12 harmed them academically, mentally, socially, and psychologically because the bonds and emotional development of children that are formed at home had such important, long-term significance.

Another pioneer was John Holt (1923-1985). In the 1960s, he began criticizing mass compulsory education as harmful to the learning process of children. By the late 1970s, he began to advocate homeschooling for purely secular reasons. His 1981 book, Teach Your Own, became a powerful influence on the early homeschooling movement as it began to form in the 1980s, especially among Protestants. In a 1980 interview, Holt said:

I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call ‘learning’ or ‘education.’ Home would be the best base, no matter how good the schools were. The proper relationship of the schools to home is the relationship of the library to home, or the skating rink to home. It is a supplementary resource.

Homeschooling promised to help parents meet the unique needs and talents of their children in new and flexible ways, and regain some of the functions of the home lost over the previous century to other institutions.

Education professor Milton Gaither, in Homeschool: An American History, argues that a new counter-cultural sensibility and anti-institutionalism, from hippies to conservatives, emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, which pitted commune and home against school and government. This contrarian spirit meshed well with traditional American Protestant values of individualism and self-reliance. In this environment, some parents sought to protect their children from a school culture increasingly at odds with Christianity and real education. Large, bureaucratic, and standardized schools left some parents, and their local needs, feeling alienated. Taking advantage of the freedom from drudgery that the Industrial Revolution afforded, parents sought to take back education from the experts, and teach their own children at home, attempting to undo some of the dissolvent effects of industrialization on home life.

Lawyers and politicians worked at the state level to legalize homeschooling in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To meet the growing demand of two million homeschooled students in recent years, organizations and companies have arisen to facilitate networking and curricular supplies for homeschool families. Gaither argues that homeschooling has now mainstreamed through positive media coverage, national spelling bees, homeschooled celebrities—such as singer Cheyenne Kimball—and acceptance by governments and institutions of higher learning. In fact, many parents school their children at home now, not out of protest against anything, but simply because this arrangement works best for their family.

The Restoration of Catholic Subculture

The same social and ideological forces of post-industrial America shaped the lives of Catholic families, too, but they responded more slowly to the homeschool movement. Nevertheless, despite an extensive Catholic school system—from the early 1990s onward—many began to see the benefits of homeschooling. They formed networks and associations like the St. Louis Catholic Homeschool Association, which now serves nearly two hundred families. Catholics had long distrusted public schools, but distrust of their own schools was something new in the post-Vatican II era, and a main impetus behind the rise of Catholic homeschooling. Catholic schools could be expensive, geographically distant, and deficient academically and spiritually.

Some Catholic parents came to see the uniting of home and school as contributing to strong family life in three major ways. First, by catechizing their own children, the faith of the parents is confirmed and deepened. The Jesuit theologian Fr. John Hardon took note of the possibilities of the new movement for the transmission of the faith. At a time when many Catholic leaders did not support homeschooling, he saw it activating the grace of the sacrament of marriage. He agreed with Protestant proponents that it brings parents and children together, and he thought it necessary for the survival of Christianity in a secular age.

Second, homeschooling can aid the growth of a genuine Catholic domestic culture. Culture is a common way of life that integrates faith into the ordinary moments of life. For this to happen, people have to be together, not separated in distant institutions of workplace and school. Homeschooling brings mothers and children home. It also helps husbands and fathers to live in such a way that the center of their lives is their home and family. The role of the main teacher is not merely to teach subjects, but to educate the children in life by living real life with them. The parents make the home the center of the family’s life, the place where work, play, prayer, and learning all meet, as they did for the Hanly family in pre-industrial Maine.

Third, homeschooling integrates home life because it tends to bring home not only people, but productivity as well. A key productive function lost to the family over a century ago—education—has been brought home through homeschooling. Historian Allan Carlson writes that the “results were at once remarkable and predictable. Most of these families began to find ways to bring other functions home as well—gardening, food preservation, or a family business—and they tasted the satisfactions of an independence unknown to several American generations.” As an integrated economic unit, the family can function as a semi-independent social organism that naturally resists infiltration of those government agencies attempting to pick up the pieces of broken families, strengthening social subsidiarity. Common work unites people, builds communities and families, and is an essential part of education provided in either homes or schools. It is the productive nature of homeschooling in particular, however, that gives it power to build family life. The home becomes more than simply a hotel where shared consumption happens. The family is doing something together. The father and mother deepen their functional roles in relation to their children, and each other, strengthening family bonds.

Homeschooling families must beware, however, of various pitfalls. The desire for independence can be healthy, or it can lead to a sectarian, anti-institutionalism that sits uneasily within Catholicism. This spirit can sink one’s ability to cooperate with the wider Church and society, turning the home into a kind of trap, inhibiting the development of parents and children toward temporal, and even spiritual, goods in communion with others. In these cases, schools might better help young people face problems, and build confidence in living in the world, without becoming like it, or running from it.

While recognizing the risks of educating in homes and schools, how can they play complementary roles in the ongoing renewal of Catholic life in modern America? Russell Shaw argues that renewal depends on the formation of healthy subcultures that rise organically out of the “lived experience of people sharing common values and aspirations.” At the heart of these subcultures is the family. But Shaw also points to the example of Catholic colleges and universities renewing their Catholic identity—similarly, religious communities and media ventures like EWTN, radio, websites, periodicals, and publishing houses; professional organizations like the Catholic Medical Association; and fraternal service organizations such as the Knights of Columbus. All of these examples show an attempt to give institutional embodiment to faith, to show how it is lived in practice. Such institutions are the necessary mediators between Catholic families and American culture because they provide a place where people can support each other in living out their faith while, at the same time, engaging the wider world.

Shaw does not call for Catholics to simply rebuild the past, but to learn from the pre-Vatican II Catholic subculture, so as not to repeat its mistakes. He does not want to see new Catholic ghettos, or bubble zones. Catholic subculture must beware of the lures of government money, of being co-opted by political parties—right or left—beware of the clericalism, and the secrecy that led to the scandal of clergy sex abuse in recent years, and beware of fortress mentalities. Rather, the new Catholic subculture must both preserve Catholic identity, while reaching out to evangelize the wider culture. Looking inward while reaching outward, are two necessary movements, both found in Catholic schools and homes in different but complementary ways.

St. Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck, North Dakota, is a good example of the fruitful role private schools can play in renewing Catholic subculture by both preserving identity and reaching out. This high school has been transformed through the courageous and creative leadership of young priests and lay people over the last ten years or so. It is now a main source of vocations to the priesthood for the diocese of Bismarck, which ordained six new priests in June 2013. While students in this school experience similar problems as students in any high school, many of them encounter faithful teachers, vibrant priests, opportunities for outreach, reverent Masses, daily Eucharistic adoration, and frequent opportunity for confession at the school. Sometimes, parents enter deeper into their faith as their children learn more and more. Catholic schools in Bismarck often bring whole families back to the Church, and open up adults to learning more about their faith.

It is no wonder that Archbishop J. Michael Miller, as secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, wrote in The Holy See’s “Teaching on Catholic Schools” that, “Like a good Mother, the Church offers help to families by establishing Catholic schools that ensure the integral formation of their children.” St. Elizabeth Ann Seton saw the need to reach out to the poor to bring them Catholic education. The material and spiritual poor still exist today, and though tuition can be prohibitive at some Catholic schools, others, such as Cathedral School in Bismarck, adopt a policy of not turning away any parish family unable to pay. Catholic schools express the mission of the Church to help all families who cannot, or choose not, to homeschool, or send their children to public schools. While recognizing that parents are the first educators of their children, the Archbishop says that the Holy See, in many documents, recognizes the “priceless treasure of Catholic schools as an indispensable instrument of evangelization.”

The Church in America needs both homeschooling and Catholic schools. Homeschooling provides a bold reminder to priests, bishops, and government leaders that parents are the first educators of their children. It witnesses to the importance of family life in passing on the faith, and protecting Catholic identity. It activates the principle of subsidiarity in regulating the relationship between home and school so that the sociological, economic, and spiritual functions of family life are guarded. It offers a challenge to Catholic schools of an ideal of education that promotes both rigor and holiness. If Catholic schools fail to meet this challenge, then homeschooling exists as a judgment upon them, and it will attract more and more Catholics. The existence of homeschooling checks the habitual, post-Progressive era, American confidence in institutional systems, experts, standardization, and planning in the education of human beings, whether in Catholic or public schools.

Simultaneously, Catholic schools stand as a witness to the Church’s mission to all the baptized, and to the wider social order. They remind homeschoolers of the need to reach out in evangelization and service to others, and to beware of sectarianism. They stand as a testimony to the truth that the family is an imperfect society because it does not have all the means, in itself, for its own development. Catholic schools assist those families for whom it is not possible, or desirable, to homeschool. Catholic schools, if they cultivate authentic Catholic culture, can help students and their parents enter more deeply into their faith, precisely because they introduce them to influences from outside the family, and to the larger Church as a whole. In this way, they can become models of institutional renewal relevant to other sectors of Catholic culture.

Securing the right to educate in homes and private schools was one of the great victories of Christian activists in the 20th century. These homes and schools provide a sphere of freedom in the face of the ever-expanding state. Homeschooling and private schools are crucial, not only to America’s future, but to the transmission of the faith, and to continued renewal of a Catholic subculture in this country. Flourishing homes and schools will form leaders with authentic experience of Catholic culture. That experience is powerful. It is the experience of beauty, of integrated life, of love, of responsible independence, and of God. Those persons, so blessed with these indelible childhood experiences, will guard this inheritance while bringing it to others. In this way, homes and schools will continue to play powerful complementary roles in the future of American Catholic life.

Joseph T. Stuart About Joseph T. Stuart

Joseph Stuart is the husband of Barbara, and the father of Ann Marie Fae Stuart. After growing up as a homeschool student, along with his four siblings in rural Michigan, he worked in land surveying in that state, farmed organic onions in Texas, taught at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Canada, graduated from the universities of St. Andrews, and of Edinburgh, both in Scotland, and is now Assistant Professor of History and Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.


  1. Avatar Christopher Knuffke says:

    As per Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping and John Senior, rather than “subculture”, I think we need to focus on the restoration of Christian culture.

    • Avatar Timothy Presley says:

      I think it would be beneficial if you were to define your terms: “culture” and “subculture”, differentiate between them and then present a clearer argument. I guess I fail to see how one builds a broad culture without the fundamental building blocks of various subcultures. As Dr. Stuart points out there are two viable subcultures (probably many more) that will be useful in the restoration of Christian culture. In Gratissimam Sane, Saint John Paul II states: “…man is the way of the Church. With these words I wanted first of all to evoke the many paths along which man walks…” and then: “Among these many paths, the family is the first and the most important” Whether through Catholic schools or through Home schools, it is the family that needs to be restored first, as domestic church, and then the Church at large…yet still the family needs the Church to accomplish this.

      What think you?

  2. Avatar Gregory Brown says:

    This is an article of tremendous value. Thank you for working to bring these two sectors of the Mystical Body of Christ more “at peace.”

    It is worth noting that the US Bishops have repeatedly stressed that Catholic Schools are “essential”. Absent from this article but worth noting is the fact that prior to 1965 in America, if your parish in fact had a Catholic school, you were bound to have your children attend. To refuse to do so (without dispensation) would result in denial of Holy Communion!

    I believe Pope Benedict XVI had a very positive influence on Catholic schools and, as noted in the article, Catholic identity has, in the past decade, dramatically increased in at least American Catholic schools. There are still those schools which are problematic, of course, but parents ought to work within the local church or even diocese to restore true Catholic identity. Whether homeschooler or not, no faithful Catholic should stand by idly while Catholic schools are in need of “restoration”. In fact, Canon Law 802 §2 requires it: “Christ’s faithful are to promote catholic schools, doing everything possible to help in establishing and maintaining them. ”

    Lastly, I am convinced that faithful Catholics do a tremendous service for the Church by enrolling their children in Catholic Schools because their own children can witness to those students whose parents are weak in the faith (and of course those who are non-Catholic but enrolled for other reasons). The salvation of many souls is at stake and faithful Catholics must reach out to both those inside and outside the Church. Let us take seriously our obligation to love God and neighbor!