Rights of Initiation: Home Schoolers and Sacramental Preparation


The home schooling phenomenon is many faceted and evolving, and this article cannot possibly address the range of issues that have arisen in recent years. However, I believe that an overview of the respective rights and duties of parents with respect to sacramental preparation may be helpful in providing principles that can be applied in assessing and constructively resolving the particular conflicts that inevitably will arise.

To the dismay — if not downright amazement — of the elitist "experts," home schooling has become a force to be reckoned with on the American educational landscape. Currently there are an estimated 1.5 million school-age children who are home schooled. This represents approximately 3% of all school-age children.

But that's not all. The number of home schooling children is growing on average from 7-15% each year. Further, this educational option is being chosen by a broad cross section of Americans, from "new age" back-to-nature types to staunchly conservative fundamentalists, and everything in between. Regardless of one's own views of home schooling, it can no longer simply be dismissed as a passing fad or fringe movement.

In light of this dramatic growth, it's not surprising that many Catholic families now home school their children. Perhaps a decade ago Catholic home schooling was rare enough in most places that issues such as sacramental preparation could be worked out on a case-by-case basis on the parish level without the diocese or universal Church taking any notice. Now that home schooling has arrived — or at least is arriving — as a discernable movement within the Church, many dioceses are now taking notice and promulgating guidelines for recognizing and incorporating home schooling within the life of the local Church.

Obviously, pastoral concern for the home schooling families should impel Church leaders to seek ways of ensuring that their spiritual needs are met. There are, of course, other pragmatic reasons why the Church should take the issue seriously. Many of these home schooling children would be prime candidates for the Catholic school system, which in many places is suffering from dwindling enrollment. Reputable studies indicate that home schooling children achieve well beyond the national average academically. In addition, Catholic home schoolers not only teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to their children, but also the Catholic faith — every day, within the home. These families generally consider faith development at least as important as academic achievement. From these families will likely come a significant percentage not only of Harvard and Yale graduates, but also tomorrow's priests, religious, and lay leaders.

The home schooling phenomenon is many faceted and evolving, and this article cannot possibly address the range of issues that have arisen in recent years. However, I believe that an overview of the respective rights and duties of parents with respect to sacramental preparation may be helpful in providing principles that can be applied in assessing and constructively resolving the particular conflicts that inevitably will arise.

For their part, parents have what Vatican II calls the "gravest obligation" to educate their children. Because of this sacred duty, rooted in natural law, the Council's Declaration on Christian Education emphasizes that parents must "be recognized as being primarily and principally responsible for their children" (no. 3).

Whenever someone has a duty to do something, that person must also have a corresponding right to do it. Pope John Paul II well expresses this principle in the context of the education of children:

The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others (Familiaris Consortio, no. 36).

The Church has reiterated this fundamental teaching many times since Vatican II, including in the Charter of the Rights of the Family and the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The parents' rights in this context can be summarized as follows:

(1) Parents have the primary and inalienable right to educate their children in the faith.

(2) Parents have the primary right to prepare their children for the reception of the sacraments.

(3) Parents have the right to seek the assistance of the Church in fulfilling their duty as their children's primary educators without thereby forfeiting their rights.

It must be understood, however, that the parents have the primary duty, but not the sole duty, with respect to their children's formation in the faith. The Church not only has the right, but the divine mandate to "make disciples of all nations," teaching them to observe all that the Lord has commanded His apostles (Mt. 28:19 — 20). As successors of the apostles, bishops are heirs of this mandate to teach, and legitimately delegate this responsibility to pastors of local parishes (cf. Catechism, no. 888). Accordingly, the Code of Canon Law refers to the "serious duty" of pastors to provide for "the catechesis of the Christian people" (canon 773). In addition to this fundamental responsibility for the spiritual formation and well being of the flock entrusted to him, the bishop is also responsible for the liturgical life of his diocese, which includes ensuring the worthy celebration of sacraments — a responsibility ordinarily delegated to pastors of parishes (cf. canon 777).

It should be noted that the Code of Canon Law recognizes the responsibility of both the parents and the pastor in sacramental preparation:

It is the responsibility, in the first place, of parents and those who take the place of parents as well as of the pastor to see that children who have reached the use of reason are correctly prepared and are nourished by the divine food as early as possible, preceded by sacramental confession; it is also for the pastor to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not yet reached the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed (canon 914).

The obligations or duties of pastors in the area of sacramental preparation can be summarized as follows:

(1) Pastors have the obligation to ensure that suitable catechesis is given prior to the celebration of sacraments. (2) Pastors have the obligation to determine whether a particular child is adequately prepared and disposed to receive a first sacrament. (3) Pastors have the obligation to provide suitable catechists to assist in sacramental preparation when parents fail in their task or seek such assistance.

The roles of parents and pastors are complementary, not conflicting, and in many cases today these roles are being exercised harmoniously, to the benefit of all concerned — especially the children. However, conflicts not infrequently arise over catechetical "turf," and this situation merits closer attention.

In considering how best to harmonize the respective roles of home schooling parents and pastors, two important considerations must be taken to heart. First, we need to look at the matter prospectively, assuming the good faith of both the parents and pastors, both of whom are ready and able to hold up their end of the bargain. If one or the other side is unable to fulfill their responsibilities, all bets are off.

In recent decades, there has been a tragic failure to pass on the faith. Many parents have taken little care to educate their children in the faith, even though Vatican II warns that the parents' role is so important that "it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute" (Declaration on Christian Education, no. 3). Those parents who have been diligent have watched in horror as their efforts have been undermined by institutionalized dissent and moral laxity in some Catholic schools and catechetical programs. Many people have heroically labored to bandage the wounds and welcome home a lost generation of Catholics, and this work is far from over. But, looking at the next generation of Catholics, and in particular in this article those from home schooled families, what does the blueprint provided by the Church look like? Granted the mistakes of the past, how does the Church see faithful, conscientious parents and priests collaborating in the future?

Second, we are missing an important piece of the puzzle if we overlook the mutual suspicion or guardedness between home schooling parents and chancery offices in many dioceses. As noted, Catholic home schoolers are not a homogenous group, yet they are frequently stereotyped as being "reactionary," "pre-Vatican II," and "not team players." Church officials tend to perceive in their educational choice a negative judgment of the quality of the parish school, which is often (but not uniformly) the case.

Home schooling parents, on the other hand, are very concerned about the sex education, poor doctrinal formation, and lax moral discipline that has gone on in some Catholic schools, as well as any other particular concerns that reflect poorly on the local Church. Given these generalized yet grave concerns, some home schooling parents are leery of letting the local Church exercise any role in the formation of their children beyond the mere dispensation of sacraments, regardless of whether the concern is justified in a particular case.

Given this ecclesial terrain, how should bishops approach the issue of sacramental preparation of home schooling children? In this regard, it seems reasonable that bishops would issue guidelines regarding home schooling within their see, and indeed an increasing number are doing so. Ideally such guidelines would be minimalistic and reflect the principle of subsidiarity — thus providing clear standards without encroaching upon the legitimate rights and freedoms of home schooling parents. In fact, guidelines should actually protect home schoolers from arbitrary or unfair treatment on the parish level.

In practice, however, diocesan guidelines have not always been helpful. For example, the bishops of one state adopted guidelines just last March that seem to reflect the suspicion noted above and go so far as to arguably violate the rights of home schooling parents. In rightly affirming the "ecclesial" nature of sacramental preparation, the bishops mandate that to receive first sacraments, home schooled children must participate fully in parish-based sacramental preparation programs. In addition, home schooling parents are required to use the catechetical materials established by the parish program. This system seems to make the parish DRE, not the parents, the "primary" educator. It also seems to place more importance on the process than on the child. Even assuming that the parish-based program is superior to the daily formation the child is receiving at home (by no means a foregone conclusion), if the child is nonetheless ready for the sacraments in question, then submitting to the parish-based program can easily be perceived as placing unnecessary obstacles to the reception of first sacraments.

A recent case from the United States lends considerable support to home schoolers on this issue. In this matter, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship ordered the diocesan bishop to confirm an 11-year-old girl "as soon as is conveniently possible." This girl was admittedly well instructed in the faith, but the diocese had withheld the Sacrament of Confirmation because diocesan policy was that Confirmation should be deferred until the sophomore year of high school.

Pastors cannot impose greater requirements for the reception of first sacraments than what the universal Church already requires. Accordingly, the Vatican decreed that the "pastoral judgment" to be made in such a case must be based on the criteria provided by the Church, namely, that the person be baptized, have the use of reason, be suitably instructed, and be properly disposed and able to renew the baptismal promises. Since this girl had admittedly satisfied these requisites, the diocesan rule had to give way to the fundamental right of the faithful — enshrined in canon law (cf. canon 843 §1) — to receive the sacraments.

An example of guidelines that are more favorable to home schoolers are those issued by the Diocese of Pittsburgh. These guidelines begin with a helpful overview of relevant Church teaching and a look at the diversity within the home schooling movement in Pittsburgh. There is clearly a good faith attempt throughout the document to affirm home schooling as a legitimate response of parents to their role as primary educators, while also affirming that home schoolers should be part of the local Church. In the area of sacramental preparation, the Pittsburgh guidelines offer assistance, encouragement, and direction to home schooling parents, but leaves the decisions to the parents. For example, parents are free to decide whether the child is to receive the sacrament individually, with the family, or within a group. Parents are free to choose the materials they want, while the pastor or his delegate determines the readiness of the child for the sacrament. The guidelines explicitly provide that a child must not be denied a sacrament merely for failure to participate in the parish program.

Home schooling has surely emerged on the Catholic scene and shows no signs of slowing down. The blessing — or curse, depending on one's perspective — is that the Church, at least on the diocesan level, is going to take increasing notice of this phenomenon and try to understand how this movement can be best incorporated into the life of the local Church. The institutional Church can surely benefit from the dynamism of this movement, while home schooling families need and, even more, have the right to expect ecclesial support. In the coming years, parents, pastors, and bishops will need to respect one another's rights and obligations as the Church navigates these relatively uncharted waters.


Leon J. Suprenant, Jr., "Rights of Initiation: Home Schoolers and Sacramental Preparation." New Oxford Review (May 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706). To subscribe to the New Oxford Review, call (510) 526-3492.


Leon J. Suprenant, Jr., is the president of Catholics United for the Faith and the editor of Lay Witness, a magazine for lay Catholics. For a free sample issue, call toll-free 1-800-MY-FAITH or email leon@cuf.org.

Copyright © 2001 New Oxford Review

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.