Conflicts over education have arisen across the United States, often manifesting in tense school board meetings at which parents voice their concerns and sometimes express their anger over perceptions on how schools are handling issues including race, human sexuality, and mask and vaccine policies. Sadly, according to reports, some of these situations have even become violent or included violent threats, a topic being debated all the way to the halls of the U.S. Congress.
These issues are undoubtedly important and at times complicated and difficult. Strong feelings about them are understandable, and parents certainly have a right to make their voices heard, in a reasoned and morally sound way. It’s equally certain that violence and violent threats are completely out of bounds.
However, one principle that has come into dispute in these matters has to be made crystal clear: “Parents are the principal and first educators of their children” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1653). This is a God-given right because it is first a God-given duty, rooted in the sacrament of matrimony. Parents have been entrusted by God with the duty to teach their children, handing on “the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life.”
They are, of course, supported in this important duty by schools, which are immensely important, and which we all want to be excellent. But that is the role of the school — assisting parents in the mission of educating their children, not supplanting them.
That is one of the main reasons the Catholic Church in the United States has been so supportive of school choice, making it more possible for parents to choose schools, including Catholic schools, that teach in accord with their values.
This truth of the natural law has been increasingly questioned in our society. It’s important that Catholics come to a clear understanding of it, not only so that it may be defended when it is undermined but so that it can be more fully lived by all parents as they seek to raise holy, flourishing children for this life and the next.