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Dr. Edward Peters 

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Home-Educated Children and the Reception of Sacraments


Edward Peters, "Home-educated children and the reception of sacraments", Seton Home Study News (Mar 1989) 2-3.

The accompanying letter of Cardinal Gagnon (see below) is an excellent summary of the general educational rights and duties of Catholic parents. In this commentary, though, I wish to offer a few suggestions on the Cardinal's specific point that "the pastor's judgment [on the fitness of a child to receive the Sacraments] is to be made together with the parents."

The parental right to educate one's children, including their education for the Sacraments, is firmly rooted in the tradition and laws of the Church. But coming after a period of relative disuse, the recent rapid expansion in organized home schooling might have caught some parish priests by surprise. While we are blessed to have many pastors who strongly support those Catholic parents who educate their children at home, on occasion, one might encounter some reluctance on the part of a local pastor. Frequently this appears in the refusal to admit a home-schooled child to the Sacraments.

Such a denial, of course, can be a source of terrible family turmoil. Catholic home-schooling parents are knowledgeable about and deeply committed to their Faith. They take very seriously their duty to instill the same in their children. Moreover, they actively foster respect for Church leaders and stress obedience to them. Is their only alternative, when faced with a pastor's refusal to admit their child to a Sacrament, to adopt simple "Father-knows-best" attitude? I suggest not.

It is important to keep in mind that each situation is unique and that a pastor can have many different reasons for denying a given child admission to a particular Sacrament. Some of those reasons might be good, others not so. In any case, the following steps might be helpful in reaching the mutual parent-pastor decision stressed by Cardinal Gagnon.

1. Remember that Church teaching, particularly the recently revised Code of Canon Law, guarantees Catholic certain rights. Among those rights (in addition to those outlined by the Cardinal) are:

A) the right to make known your needs and desires, especially spiritual ones, to your pastors (Canon 2122);

B) the right and at times even the duty to make known your opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church to your pastors (Canon 2123); and,

C) the right to receive assistance from your pastor out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the Word of God and the sacraments (Canon 213).

There are numerous other rights and duties which could be important in a given case, the applications of which are subject to the demands of prudence and charity. Nevertheless, even these few examples should be sufficient to show that Catholic home-schooling parents have reasonable grounds to question the decision of a pastor which denies their child access to the Sacraments.

2. Bearing in mind that most disagreements with pastors can be resolved by mutual discussion, you should be willing to demonstrate to your pastor that your child is sufficiently prepared to receive the Sacrament in question. Offer to make available, not just your child, but the materials you used to instruct him or her about the Sacrament. This clearly cooperates with the pastor as he fulfills his canonical duty to assess the readiness of your child. You might, by the way, consider making these first contacts with your pastor privately. Nobody likes being asked to make what appears to be an "exception" for one set of parents while others are standing around wondering why the "special" treatment.

3. Assuming, though, that you seem to be dealing with one of those rare pastors who simply refuses to interview your child, you should now probably begin to create a "paper trail." A brief letter to your pastor specifically requesting admission to the Sacrament in question and offering to present your child for evaluation should be mailed by regular post. Keep your letter focused. This is not the time to debate the quality of parish life or the Sunday sermon, nor should your letter set deadlines or promise to take your case all the way to the Pope. Assume that you will be treated fairly, and draft accordingly.

4. After this written petition, any number of things might happen. Your request might be granted outright, or reasonably closely thereto. Or the pastor might interview your child and show you that he or she is still deficient in understanding the Sacrament. On the other hand you might get a response to the effect that "parish rules" or "diocesan guidelines" prevent your request from being honored. If so, ask for a written copy of these rules or guidelines, and proceed accordingly. Finally, you might not get any response at all, though I would suggest waiting at least three weeks.

5. As long as you feel there is progress you may continue this type of discussion, but be sure to keep copies of your correspondence. If, on the other hand, this process breaks down, or if your letter(s) gets no response at all, it is time to send a new request to your pastor, enclosing a copy of your first letter, and stating frankly that if you are not shown the courtesy of a reply, you will take the matter to your local bishop. This letter should be sent by registered mail. It conveys the seriousness of your concerns and helps you to show that you tried to work things out at the parish level first.

6. The great majority of cases can, I think, be resolved by using these suggestions. But if you find yourself having to contact your bishop (or perhaps a diocesan official he will designate) remember that the process outlined above is basically the same as will be used at the diocesan level. And it is only after you have followed these steps (or those directed by your bishop) and you still feel that your child is not receiving fair treatment that you could consider asking for a formal canonical process to hear your case. The rules at this point, while designed to see that all sides receive a fair hearing, become rather complex. Qualified canoncial advice will be important.

As Cardinal Gagnon's letter shows, many Church leaders are becoming aware of the rare but distressing cases of the unjustified denial of Sacraments to the faithful. In my opinion, though, as the positive influence of organized Catholic home-schooling spreads, and as ecclesiastical leaders deepen their understanding of the new Code of Canon Law, such cases involving home-schooled children will become both less frequent and more easily resolved.

 


Text of Cardinal Gagnon's Letter

Familiaris Consortio, #36, states that the right and ''duty of parents to educate their children is essential, original and primary, irreplaceable and inalienable. This doctrine is found in the Charter of the Rights of the Family in Article 5. It is also found in Canon 225.2, of the Code of Canon Law when specifying the obligations and rights of the lay Christian faithful:

 

Because they have given life to their children, parents have a most serious obligation and enjoy the right to educate them; therefore, Christian parents are especially to care for the Christian education of their children according to the teaching of the Church.

 

It should be clear, therefore, that the Code's particular norms concerning catechetical instruction and Catholic education follow the general norm of Canon 226.2. Thus, specifically regarding catechetical instruction, the Code stipulates in Canon 774.2, that it is the primary obligation of parents "to form their children in the faith and practice of the Christian life by word (i.e. teaching), and example." This norm, with regard to Catholic education is paralleled by Canon 793.1. It is in the light of these canons that the rights and duties of ecclesiastical persons are to assist the parents in fulfilling their sacred obligation and in executing their sacred right, not to take them over. Thus, Canons 776, 777, when speaking about the pastor and catechetical instruction, direct him to provide for the catechetical formation of young people and children. In fact, Canon 776 commands the pastor "to promote and foster the role of the parents in the family catechesis."

 

The role of the pastor, therefore, is to give a service of assistance by providing the parents with the means to form their child. The parents, however, are not obliged to accept this assistance if they prefer to exercise exclusively their obligation and right to educate their own children. (This is a natural right, and is not altered by the right of the Church, e.g., Canons 793 and 794, 914.) In times past, parents were only too happy to be assisted by the Catholic school system in the formation of their children. Now, however, it is no longer the case in many a diocese where Catholic schools are permitted to use certain catechetical texts which, though bearing an imprimatur, are gravely deficient in following the Magisterium.

 

However, while parents may legitimately exercise their right exclusively to give catechetical formation to their children, they must follow the norms published by competent authority (cf. Canon 843.2). Parents should keep in mind that though they have a natural right to teach their children, they must follow the teaching which is handed on by the Church and the particular norms published by competent authority for a suitable catechetical formation. But, while the Code states that the pastor should judge about the fitness of a child's preparation for the reception of confirmation and Eucharist (Canons 890, 914), it also requires the pastor's judgment be made together with the parents. This judgment is to be based, not upon the arbitrary criteria of the pastor, but upon the truths of the faith and legitimately established norms.

Edouard Cardinal Gagnon, p.s.s.

President, Pontifical Council for the Family