Parents as Primary Educators

Hardly a month goes by now without an email arriving in my inbox asking me to sign an online petition against some proposal in the EU or UK concerning sex education in schools. Perhaps, it is a matter of protesting a resolution calling for LGBT awareness classes, or introducing into primary and middle schools something equivalent to the Kama Sutra. Those asking me to oppose this invariably appeal to the principle of the parents as the primary educators, something they allege is being denied by the latest innovation.

It is well-known that the Catholic Church teaches that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. For a long while now, the focus of the defense of this teaching has been skewed towards the procreative end of the doctrine, with a necessarily detailed critique of contraception. Just remember, Pope John Paul II effectively dedicated the first five years of his Wednesday audience catecheses to this question, in what is now known as the Theology of the Body (1979-1984). In contrast, while he did address the educative element in Familiaris Consortio (1981), in the Charter of the Rights of the Family (1983), and in his Letter to Families (1995), we are talking of just a handful of paragraphs altogether. One needs to go back 86 years, to Pope Pius XI’s Divini Illius Magistri, to find anything approaching a systematic explanation of the doctrine.

And yet, in the meantime, the modern state ever more claims that it is the primary educator of youth, and, in not a few countries, parents are excluded from the process by force of law. It is not just a matter of the imposition of (often compulsory) questionable sex education in schools, but also the restriction placed in many countries on home education, and the prosecution of parents who insist on educating their children in this way—Germany being a notable example of this type of restriction.1 Twenty out of 44 European countries have made home education illegal.2 Even in countries that are more liberal, like Ireland (whose constitution protects it) and the United Kingdom, the attitude often seems to be that parent-based educational initiatives are a quirky sideshow, though still, perhaps, worth tolerating for the sake of upholding freedom of expression.

Given that this aspect of the Church’s teaching—which touches directly on the mission of the Christian couple in the modern world—is increasingly coming into conflict with modern attitudes, it seems timely to take a look at what the Church actually means when she calls the parents “the primary educators.” I intend to make this exploration under three headings: the source of the principle of the parent as primary educator, the extent or scope of the principle, and, finally, the significance of the principle.

I. The Source of the Parental Right
The basis of the parental right as primary educator is very simple. The parents began the process of giving life, and so, they, by means of education, are to bring it to fruition.3 One would never say this to a woman who has just given birth after 20 hours of labor, but the work of giving life is only just beginning! A parent’s job does not end at the birth of the child any more than a priest’s does at baptism, or a doctor’s when he has resuscitated a patient.

It is also the case that since the parents are the progenitors of the child, the child belongs to them (under God) and not to the neighbors, to the local scout group, or to the society in general. The term “belong” can sound horribly despotic. It conjures up the relationship between a slave and his master. This disquietude is assuaged when we see that the word “belongs” operates quite differently here. The belonging is not that of an object but more like that of spouses: “I am my beloved’s and she is mine” (Sg 6:3). When applied to a spouse, or to a child, the word “belong” communicates, not the sentiment “I can do what I want with it,” but rather the sentiment: “I have serious obligations towards it.”

This last point about obligation is very important. What should now be clear is that the right to educate is wholly founded on the prior duty to educate. This is always the case: a duty founds a right. Indeed, so much so, that a right without a correlative duty is a fake right. Pius XI makes this point about obligation when he says that the family “holds directly from the Creator the mission, and hence, the right, to educate the offspring, a right inalienable because inseparably joined to the strict obligation.”4 The point here is that the right of the parents as the primary educators is, not expressed by the sentiment “if you really want to, you are allowed,” but rather, “you must take control of the education of your children, and you are fully empowered to do it.”

Finally, we can also approach the notion of the right of the parents from the side of their unique aptitude for the job. The natural affection that exists between parents and offspring means that (almost always) the parents have greater solicitude (than anyone else) for the well-being of their offspring. Furthermore, the parents have a natural authority and trust relationship with their children. On the basis of affection, solicitude, and trust, the parents are the most suitable agents to guide the formation process from start to finish. In education, a soul speaks to a soul, a heart to a heart, and this connection is natural to the relationship of parent and child.5

This connection between aptitude and right is compounded when we note that Christian couples are made supernaturally apt to educate their children by the graces conferred by the sacrament of marriage. Again, no such supernatural assistance is afforded to the neighbors or to the state, and this is, in part, why they do not have the same right.

II. The Scope of the Principle

The Meaning of “Educator”
Having established that there is such a reality called “parents as the primary educator of their children,” we need, now, to investigate what this means. I intend to do this by considering, first, the notion of “educator” and then the notion of “primary.”

The educator is the one who guides a process called education, so we need to consider what this process is. Fortunately, Pius XI gives us a very pithy definition of the ultimate purpose of education when he says:

Education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be, and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created.6

This means that education takes into account the twofold end of man: the natural end, and the supernatural end, as well as the hierarchy that exists between these two ends.

When we consider education as a process of perfecting a human being at a natural level, this is essentially about the acquisition of virtue. We would include here the moral virtues (fundamentally the cardinal virtues, which are the essence of good character) as well as intellectual virtues such as mathematics, artistic skill and appreciation, languages, and so on.

From what Pius XI says, it would be wrong to reduce education (even at a natural level) to a process of training the child so as to able to get a job. It is much more about gaining the requisite maturity necessary to fulfill a vocation. Since, for the vast majority, this vocation is to marriage and parenthood, the intellectual formation, as well as the moral formation, must be subordinated to this end. Getting a job is ultimately for the sake of founding a family. Likewise, moral formation (including discipline) by the parents aims at making disciples of the children: it is aimed at making them into good parents.

Pius XI’s definition of education indicates that it must encompass the true final purpose of human existence which is a supernatural goal, namely heaven. Without this perspective on education, we do not correctly understand what it is. Education is only a means to attain our purpose as human beings. And our purpose is heaven. To exclude religious formation from education is like training an apprentice chef to mix dough but not how to bake. It would be worse than a half-baked notion of education!

In fact, for the education to be complete, not only must it be religious, it must be Christian. Pius XI goes as far as to say that since,

it is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man’s last end, and that, in the present order of Providence, since God has revealed himself to us in the Person of his Only Begotten Son, who alone is “the way, the truth and the life,” there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Christian education.7

Pius XI really is saying that all education that is not Christian education is imperfect by definition. This simply must be the case since, without Christian revelation, we cannot know the real purpose of human life, nor the means to attain that goal. This does not mean that all non-Christian education is without value, only that it is radically incomplete.8

From all this, let us draw an initial conclusion. Everything that falls under this definition of education—physical, moral, intellectual, spiritual—falls into the lap of the parents to some extent.9 This is because the parents gave birth, not to a body, or to a will, or to an intellect, but to a person, and so, the whole child is assigned to their care.10

Moreover, truth is one and seamless: not surprising, when we remember that all truth flows from the First Truth, who is utterly simple. Therefore, it hardly makes sense to say the parents are responsible for only part of the truth. For example, we can hardly hope to protect religious and moral truth from the contagion of falsehood if we are not judicious about what is taught to a child concerning the human person in biology, or about history, or the kind of literature the child is exposed to, or what he studies in his philosophy classes. For parents to restrict their interest simply to the moral or religious aspects of education is to lose control, even of these.

The Meaning of Primacy
According to the Philosopher, “primacy” or “prior” can be said in four ways.11

First in Time
The first way to understand the terms “primacy” or “prior” is that they mean “temporal” (“of this world” or “of this time”) and almost no one is going to deny this type of primacy to the parents in the realm of education. Even if we (confusingly) call grades one through four “primary education,” parents are still undoubtedly chronologically the first formative influence.

First in Being
The second way to understand the term “prior” is by referring to it as “prior in being” (though not necessarily in time). The import of the word “primary” here is that the parents are at the level of being more than the educators of their children or anyone else: it is more their identity. One might say that to be a father or mother is to be an educator. Being an educator is not some role taken on over and above fatherhood and motherhood. As a parent, “teacher” is not something that I take on and off. Rather “teacher” is part of the nature of fatherhood and motherhood. “Teacher” and “father” are synonyms: as are “teacher” and “mother.” In contrast, a school teacher is doing a job, taking on a role, wearing a hat when he or she teaches. We will return to this identity of “parent” to “educator” later when we consider the role of the Church and of the State.

First in a Hierarchy
The third way to understand “prior” is to consider that it implies some kind of hierarchical order. The point here is that a “primary” educator does not mean a “sole” educator. Here, then, we must make some precise definitions concerning the relationship of the parents to two other interested parties (or stakeholders) in the education of youth, namely the Church and the State.

The Church is a stakeholder on account of two things. First, she was given a divine commission to educate since Jesus said to her, “go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Mt 28:19). Second, as we have seen, the ultimate purpose of education is the final flourishing of a human being, namely, to arrive at the beatific vision. But this is not possible without first knowing this is the purpose of human life, and then availing oneself of the means of arriving there. Yet, one cannot securely know either the goal, or the way, without knowing the Church. All this places the Church firmly at the center of the educational process. In fact, just like the parents, it makes the Church an educator by nature. After all, she is a mother, which is to say, she is an educator.

This confers upon the Church certain rights in the realm of education. For example, she has an undeniable right to found schools whenever and wherever her mission demands it. It also confers upon her the right, when push-comes-to-shove, to direct her members who are parents as to the appropriate way to educate their children. This comes from the fact that a divine commission trumps a commission of nature, and that the natural end of man is subordinated to the supernatural. This makes sense of the fact that the 1917 Code of Canon Law forbade parents to send their children to non-Catholic (so called “neutral”) schools.12 This might seem to us an extreme measure, but I mention it because it is perfectly commensurate with the rights of the Church in the matter of education.

Now, if this is the case as to the power of the Church in matters of education, in what sense can we preserve the notion of parents as primary educators? In the following sense we can preserve parents as primary educators: the parents have primacy in the order of nature. This means that they are the ones tasked immediately with the goal of the natural perfection of their children, which includes the physical, moral, and intellectual formation. Yet, since in the order of providence, God has destined man for a supernatural end, the task of the parents cannot be fulfilled adequately without the parents opening themselves up to divine revelation and assistance, something that comes to them through the Catholic Church. The principle of primacy was never meant to be self-subsisting, but rather to exist in a dynamic relationship with the mission of the Church.13

However, parents can inherit a primacy even in the spiritual formation of their children. This can happen since Christian parents are, by their baptism, inserted into the Church and, by their marriage, constituted a domestic Church—one might say, an embassy of the universal Church. In such cases, parents are an organ of the Church and, being mandated by the Church to carry out a supernatural mission, they inherit a certain ecclesial authority: they are, then, primary educators in both the natural and supernatural order.

The State as Educator
The Catholic view on the role of the state in education is a balanced one. It holds the middle position between a statist point of view in which the state has sole, or at least primary, right to the education of youth, and an individualist view which claims the state has no reason (and so no right) to be interested in matters of education whatsoever.

The first and most significant thing to say about the state is that it is not an educator by nature. Unlike the Church and unlike the parents, it has not received a divine commission to educate, and it is not the source of the life of the child. The state may get involved in education at certain moments as one of its many tasks (among others), but education is not its raison d’etre as it is for the Church and for the parents.

The purpose of the state is to ensure the common good. Therefore, its involvement in education is founded on, but also limited by, this fact. It gets involved only to the degree that the common good demands it. In this sense, its involvement in the education of youth is just like its involvement in agriculture and industry. Sometimes, for the sake of the common good, the state must get involved in agriculture (e.g., state farms or state agricultural subsidies) and in industry (nationalization of companies), but this is not its primary task, and it does so as an extraordinary, and not an ordinary, measure. The state is not a farmer or businessman by nature, nor is it an educator.14

To clarify this point, we should note that the state has a twofold stance towards the common good: it must protect it, and it must promote it. In fulfilling its protective function, the state can demand a certain minimum formation of its citizens. What this is depends on the time and culture, but, in the modern world, if the child is going to be able to take his place in society, this would include basic numeracy and literacy.

The state is not competent in religious matters—having no direct access to divine revelation—but since, by the natural light of reason, one can know there is a God, and that he ought to be honored, it should support religious sentiment as such (and guard against hostility to religion). The a-religious state and a-religious school (let alone irreligious) are natural aberrations.15

In matters of morality, the state has partial competency since human reason has access to natural law, but, here again, we see the radical insufficiency of the state in matters of education. Since the Fall, without the corrective influence of faith, reason cannot unerringly come to sound judgments on matters of morality.16 Hence, the state alone does not have indefectible judgment in these matters. This is all too evident today when the state sometimes, not only fails to protect the moral formation of youth, but rather demands that they be deformed through teaching what is contrary to the natural law.

Yet, in matters of education, the state is not just meant to protect children from negligent parents, it must also protect the parents from unwarranted outside influence. Here I am thinking of other agents of formation that have no rights at all, but that are always trying to muscle in, namely, the media. The media are key competitors of the parents for the formation of their children. The state ought to exercise its protective function here by controlling negative media influence, removing from them whatever is harmful to sound moral formation. It ought to censor!

The promotive function of the state vis-à-vis education turns on the principle of subsidiarity. This implies, first of all, that the state ought not to do what can be done by private initiative. But, there is more. The word subsidiarity derives from the word subsidium (to help) from which we get our word “subsidies.” This would cash-out (excuse the pun) as the state having some obligation to financially subsidize the education executed by private groups, or individual families, via tax funds, just as it does in the state sector itself.17 In the country where I live, when a parent applies for the right to home educate (bizarre in itself), if permission is given, the parent receives a letter saying that home education “is not forbidden.” In the light of the principle of subsidiarity, this seems to be the wrong form of expression. Rather, it should say, “good-for-you, well-done, and here are some tax breaks to help you out.”

What should be clear by now is that any form of monopoly in matters of education by the state would be wrong. This includes any legislation prohibiting private schools, or home education, or making the regulations for the establishment of private schools excessively restrictive. Moreover, the state ought to guard against more subtle (and, perhaps, unintended) ways of “coercing” parents in their choice. For example, when the state becomes the major provider of education, this often entails higher levels of taxation. This, in turn, makes private education unaffordable for many parents. A parent who sends a child to a private school effectively pays twice over for the education of their child. When the vast majority of parents in a modern, wealthy state cannot even consider private education for their children on financial grounds, then I doubt the principle of subsidiarity is being respected. It should be noted that an appeal to the principle of equality, or to the elitist character of private education, misses the mark since it is only elitist when the state fails to subsidize it.

The Use of Other Agents
Of course, parents will rightly conclude that they do not have within the family all the resources necessary to fulfill every aspect of their educational duty. In this sense, Pius XI points out that the family, while a natural society, is not a perfect society, that is, it is not able to attain its purpose without help.18 All parents have to utilize other agents of education. This is true all the way from the homeschooling parent, who buys exercise books rather than write them himself, to the parent who sends his children to state sponsored schools.

When parents use other agents in the education of their children, the issue is, not the extent of this use, but the relationship between the parent and the agent. It should always be a relationship of instrumentality: the parent uses the external agent as an instrument, like a sculptor uses a chisel to form his own masterpiece. To put this another way: since the state is not a natural educator, it can never educate in its own name, but only in the name of the parent. This is also true of private schools. Perhaps we could even extend this artistic analogy and say that parents, like the master sculptor, might sometimes engage an apprentice to do some of the sculpting, but this is always done strictly under the supervision of the superior authority. In this way, all parents are called to homeschool—even if all are not called to homeschool—in the sense that the home moves the school as the primary agent moves an instrument.

Finally, with regard to the state, it is naïve to think that the right of the parents as primary educator will not require some active defense. There is a battle being waged today for the soul of every man, woman, and child, and this battle is also taking place in, and through, schools.19

First in Importance
The fourth and final way to take the word “prior” is primacy of importance. This clearly implies that the formative mark left by the parents (for good or ill) is the deepest mark. John Paul II says that the parents’ role “as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it.”20

Yet, I think there is another way in which we can understand “prior” as “primacy of importance.” When something is important, we say that it is a “priority” for us. Understood in this way, primary—as in primary educators—is a challenge laid before the parents to make the holistic education of their children the priority of their lives. This means that it determines everything about the way they live their married lives, from the choice of career (or not), the way they spend their money, the holidays they take, and even what time they get up in the morning. After all, the procreation and education of children is the unique mission that comes with this state of life. If this is not the priority, what is?

III. Why This Is Important

In the Instrumentum Laboris for the 2015 Synod on the family, a brief mention is made of the parents as primary educators (cf. §143-144). Yet, this issue is rather drowned out by many other, admittedly important, issues. I think, however, it would be good to give more attention of this aspect of the Church’s teaching at this time, because, on reflection, the principle of parental primacy has many important implications for the future of our Church and society. I would like to finish this paper by considering some of these. What follows is a “list” of good things that I believe would happen were the principle of primacy to be taken more seriously.

What I am going to say here relates in part to personal experience of home educating and the very helpful reflections of colleagues of mine on such methods of schooling.21 However, I think, in every case, what I say is also true of couples who, while not choosing to home educate, have chosen to take charge of the whole educational process of their offspring in some other form.

It Would Engage the Father in the Family
Going back for a moment to Pius XI, we can see that the Catholic tradition founds the parental educational duties and rights in the share that the parents, and in particular, the father, have in the fatherhood of God.22 Just as God (as Father) is responsible for the life of his creatures (bringing them into existence from nothing), so likewise, the human father is the one responsible for the life of his children. Furthermore, the Christian vision of God is not a deist notion of a God who kick-starts the universe and then sits back benignly watching it unfold. Our God is a providential God who, at every moment, upholds and guides what he has created, leading it unswervingly to its final goal. Likewise, the human father is to be intimately involved, not just in the conception of his children, but with the whole process of their maturation.

The principle of primacy, therefore, not only dignifies the human father (in comparing him to God), but very importantly calls him to the center of the family. Modern fathers are too often only the material benefactors, or board members, of the family. They are frequently too little involved in the day-to-day life of their children. Nothing forces this issue more than when a father takes seriously his task to be a primary educator. This principle, when practiced, results in a greater interpenetration of the lives of the father and his children.

In my own experience, being involved in the daily schooling of my children, and particularly the teenagers, has provided an invaluable point of friendship between me and them, a friendship built upon a common search for the truth. I have found this to be an important aid in the transition that needs to take place in adolescents when the parent-child relationship moves from master to friend.

It Would Dignify Motherhood
What we have said about the dignifying effect of the principle of primacy on fatherhood can similarly be said of motherhood.

When the extent of the principle of primacy is taken into consideration, it turns a mother from the proprietor of a B&B to something like a University Dean of Studies. In fact, since the Dean only has to take into consideration a subset of human life—intellectual life—it would, perhaps, be more true to say she is Program Director, Dean of Studies, Director of Student Life, Dorm Director, and Head of Campus Ministry.

Seen in this way, asserting the principle of primary educator should be a way to greater personal satisfaction and joy in motherhood, as well as a way to greater esteem for motherhood in society.

In a related manner, the principle of primacy also makes sense of the investment we rightly put into the education of our girls, even though many of them will only take an intermittent place in the workforce, often dedicating many years to child-rearing. I am sometimes asked by my female students whether it is worth investing in a university education (with the financial implications entailed) when their chief hope for the future is marriage and children. The answer is given by the principle of primacy: when you are Dean of Studies (and all the rest) of your own little institute, you’ll see the benefit. Taken in this way, it is a principle that protects the dignity of womanhood, as well as motherhood.

It Would Reconfigure Our Understanding of Sexual Intercourse
A major problem we now face in regard to the understanding of human sexuality is a trivialization of sex. It has become little more than recreation. Certainly, a corrective gravitas is conferred upon sexual intercourse by remembering that the goal of the action is procreation; but even more gravitas is conferred when we remember that the goal of procreation is education. If a couple were to remember a moment or two before engaging in intercourse that they were launching out on a 20-year collaborative mission to completely form another human being, then the importance and personal character of that action would be inescapable.

It might also lead to a greater caution in the choice of partners. The question of marriage would not only be “Do I find this person attractive?” or “Will this person be able to provide financially for me and our children?” but would include “Is this person likely to be a good partner in the lifelong project of forming other human beings?”

Furthermore, I think that were more couples to collaborate intensely in the education of their children, the unique contribution of the father and of the mother—of the male influence and of the female influence—would become much more evident to them, to their children and, thereby, to society. This would help correct current misunderstandings in society about gender as something amorphous or contrived. The notion of male and female as social constructs becomes untenable once one has collaborated for any length of time as husband and wife in the formation of children.

It Would Solidify the Marital Bond
In his book, Covenanted Happiness, Cormac Burke (an Irish canon lawyer who worked for decades on marriage tribunals) argues that a primary cause of marital breakdown among Catholics is the lack of a common sense of mission, and this lack of a common sense of mission, he claims, is because children are often not placed at the center of marriage.23

When children are voluntarily excluded (or peripheral), the couple is left to gaze endlessly into each other’s eyes, rather than standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches of a common mission. Not infrequently, one of the spouses eventually blinks (or, worse, looks away into the eyes of a third party and winks). The principle of primacy reminds the couple that there is an exalted and very challenging mission set before them, one so demanding that it will absorb much of their common energies, one that will demand a great deal of cooperation and sacrifice, but it is a project exalted enough to found a common life together.

After all, a friendship is as deep as the common good upon which it is founded. The principle of primacy points the spouses to a very great common good and, thereby, founds a profound friendship, a true camaraderie.

It Would Bring Life to the Family
I think there is yet another curative property of the principal of primacy.

In his Letter to Families, John Paul II diagnoses a key problem with many modern families—there is too little life! He means, first of all, too few individuals in the family. The premise here is that there is a kind of critical mass for vibrancy.24 But I think we can add to this that, even in more numerous families, there can be too little going on in the home. All the real business of life seems to take place outside of it! There is a great danger when the life of the home is too quiet. As Mortimer Adler notes, “the walls of an empty house … will collapse under pressure from without because of the vacuum within.”25The principle of primacy is an antidote to this illness since (to some extent) it pulls back within the walls of the home the central activity of the children, namely, their education.

It Would Have Positive Societal Effects
Finally, it seems to me that, were a significant number of parents to take the principle of primacy more seriously, there would be important society wide effects. Of course, whatever is good for the family, in general, is good for society, since as Chesterton says, “the home is the factory where humanity is made.”26 Yet, I think we can also point to some very specific societal benefits.

The first thing to note is that the principle of primacy is very time-demanding on the parents. When it takes the form of home education, it almost certainly precludes both parents working. In turn, this requires a significant reorientation in the economic aspirations of the parents. Getting on in life in terms of career advancement and higher income are no longer decisive criteria in decision-making, though they are not without importance. Persons—the children—are placed ahead of things. In short, a different path is taken from the one so commonly chosen in the West. In this sense, it is emphatically countercultural, and were it to be widely adopted, culturally revolutionary.

The second societal effect of the principle of primacy is that it stands resolutely against a wedge that is being driven between parents and children. Until recent reforms, the government department in the UK assigned to care for matters of education was called the Department for Children, Schools, and Families. It does not seem good to me that “School” is placed between the parents and the children. But, perhaps, I am reading too much into the word order here: maybe it is based on ascending number of vowels?

Nevertheless, I would suggest that it is significant that there is nothing in the United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child conferring special rights or duties on the parents in regard to the education of their children. Nothing. But then again, there is nothing in the Charter that confers a right on a child to be born into the marital union of a husband and wife, which is surely the most fundamental right if the whole purpose of the charter is the well-being of children.

Affirming the principle of primacy binds the parent to the child, and vice versa, and affirms that the family, and not the individual, is the basic unit of society. But, if parents let their primary task slip from their hands, then they allow themselves to look useless, and then they will be marginalized. Of course, when the family is sidelined, nobody benefits: as history shows, without the family at the center, the society either slips into individualism or totalitarianism. And, individualism always leads back to totalitarianism—only the family can stand up to the might of the state.

One common criticism leveled at home education and, by association, other parent-based educational initiatives, such as cottage schools, is that they are insular. They cut the child off from the rest of society, and when they are religiously inspired, they create a virtual religious ghetto.

I beg to differ! To my mind, the zealous tutelage of parents over the whole education of their children is an irreplaceable component of the New Evangelization. If this long heralded, but yet-to-fully take-off, reality called the “New Evangelization” is ever to be realized, it is going to succeed only on the basis of a new generation of Catholics who have been formed in a vision of life that is, we have to admit, different in important respects to that breathed in by emersion in the modern culture.

I would argue that those parents who take control of the education of their children at every level act no differently from the bishop who trains his seminarians (his seedlings) in the protected environment of the seminary. Let’s be honest, both the bishop and the Catholic parent are, in their own way, in the business of training “special forces.” Special forces are highly trained, motivated, convinced of the mission, and dedicated. They are few in number, but make a disproportionate contribution in battle.

We are training up a force, a new generation, because the attack is coming. And this counterattack—this New Evangelization—which we all wish to see as soon as possible, will depend, in great part, on parents taking to heart the glorious (and happy) duty of being a primary educator.

  1. Cf. (accessed 25September 2015).
  2. Cf. (accessed 25 September 2015).
  3. Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, §30. Pontifical Council for the Family, Charter of Rights of the Family §6.
  4. Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, §32; John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, §36.
  5. Pius XII describes the good teacher as the one who “knows how to create a close relationship between his own soul and the soul of a child” (“Speech to the Italian Catholic Elementary School Teachers’ Association,” 4 November 1955, quoted by Petroc Willey, “Parents as Primary Educators” in Hear O Island, Theology & Catechesis for the New Millennium ed. John Redford (Dublin: Veritas, 2002), 264.
  6. Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, §7.
  7. Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, §7.
  8. Cf. Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, §6 notes that the etymology of the word “education”—meaning “to lead out”—can trick us into thinking that human reason alone, without revelation, is sufficient for a complete human formation.
  9. Later, I shall make some precisions concerning religious education.
  10. Pius XI insists that the parents have the first responsibility for the Christian education of their children and that “Christian education takes in the whole aggregate of human life, physical and spiritual, intellectual and moral, individual, domestic and social, not with a view of reducing it in any way” (Divini Illius Magistri, §95). He reminds us that “it must be borne in mind also that the obligation of the family to bring up children includes, not only religious and moral education, but physical and civic education as well” (Divini Illius Magistri, §36).
  11. I am indebted to Petroc Willey, “Parents as Primary Educators” for noting and developing this.
  12. Code of Canon Law (1917) §1374.
  13. From what we have said, it should be clear that parents who do not acknowledge the Catholic Church (or otherwise have access to the fullness of Christian revelation) necessarily fall short to some extent in their educative task. Yet, just like the ruler that does not acknowledge the Church, this does not mean that they, thereby, lose their rights in matters of education, any more than the ruler loses his right to rule. Moreover, the Church cannot impose upon “failing” parents without coercing them in matters of faith, which is itself a contradiction.
  14. Thomas DuBay, Philosophy of the State as Educator (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 1978), 70.
  15. Leo XIII, Libertas, §21.
  16. Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Representatives of British Society, September 17, 2010.
  17. Pontifical Council for the Family, Charter of the Rights of the Family, §6b.
  18. Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, §12.
  19. Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, §42.
  20. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, §36.
  21. In particular, I would like to thank my colleague Robert McNamara for his insights.
  22. Pius XI, quotes St. Thomas, saying: “as a human father partakes of the character of principle in a particular way, which character is found in God in a universal way, so … a father is the principle of generation, of education, of learning, and of whatever pertains to the perfection of human life” (Divini Illius Magistri, §31; Summa Tehologiae, II II 102.1).
  23. Cormac Burke, Covenanted Happiness: Love and CommitmentinMarriage (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1990).
  24. John Paul II, Letter to Families, §10.
  25. Mortimer Adler, Reforming Education: Opening of the American Mind (New York: Collier Books, 1990), 13.
  26. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Brave New Family, ed. Alvaro De Silva (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 141.
Dr. William Newton About Dr. William Newton

Dr. William Newton is an associate professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Chair of Faculty, Austrian Program.


  1. Avatar J. E. Sigler says:

    Outstanding article, Dr. Newton. Thank you!