Dan Guernsey, a 30-year veteran of faithful Catholic education, shares The 5 Principles of Catholic Identity—those benchmarks the Church expects to find in every Catholic school. Whether you’re a parent or educator, you can use these principles as a guide and inspiration for evaluating all educational efforts.
The world today is facing a crisis in the family, but one graduate of a faithful Catholic college is working to change that. Mary Rose Verret, together with her husband Ryan, founded the ministry Witness to Love, which partners with more than 500 parishes in four countries and provides marriage preparation through virtue-based mentorship.
While a student at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., which is recommended in The Newman Guide, Verret experienced community like she “never had before.” Much of the Witness to Love program was inspired by “trying to figure out how to invite newly engaged couples have that similar experience and community life.” In 2024, Ryan and Mary Rose were honored to be named as consultants to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life for their work building up strong Catholic marriages.
In Witness to Love, couples are mentored by a married couple of their choosing from within their parish community. These mentors undergo training and then walk with the engaged couple throughout their engagement and beyond the altar, providing a model of marriage renewal and a connection to the parish. By providing couples with a strong witness to a living Catholic relationship and a strong tie to parish life, couples are encouraged to integrate themselves into parish life, form deep friendships and live out a virtuous marriage.
The results are staggering: “over the past five years, the divorce rate in parishes who have implemented Witness to Love has decreased by double digits and participation in parish life by newlyweds has increased from 10 percent to as high as 70-90 percent,” states Witness to Love’s Case for Support.
Verret explains that the ministry is so successful, because it invites the engaged couple into their Church community, similarly to how she was invited into the Catholic community at Christendom College.
Her first experience of Christendom was in high school via a local priest, Fr. Thomas Vander Woude, who is a Christendom alumnus. She describes him as “the first priest I’d ever met who was cheerful and reverent and sincere and was definitely a witness of Christ.” At his encouragement, she attended a week-long Christendom Summer camp.
“It was the first experience in my life of being around a lot of amazing Catholics,” explains Verret. “Because where I lived, the Catholics I knew weren’t really different from the rest of the culture. At Christendom I was in a really intense, concentrated, really impactful witness of the students and teachers. I got to experience being in a community where everyone is focused on the same goal of getting to heaven and understanding the faith and learning together.”
After the summer program, Verret was determined to go to school there, even if it meant working multiple jobs. “I was all in,” she explains, “and it all started with Fr. Vander Woude and his witness… It was that personal connection with somebody who loved Christ and had also been impacted by that college.”
While at school, she formed deep bonds with the professors and their families. She explained, “That experience of being with the families, being with the professors, was more impactful than any other part of going to Christendom College, the witness of the professors and their wives and the family and being a part of that.”
She describes how the professors at Christendom invited students over for dinner and would share meals with them on campus. It was impactful for her to see her professors praying in the chapel and bringing their families to daily Mass.
Being around these professors, “you really get to experience a family life.” Verret explains how important this was for her, especially since her parents were divorced. “For someone who really wants something very different for themselves and their marriage, you should consider going to a small college like Christendom where you do have the ability to be part of the families of the faculty.”
God worked in her heart through those years and planted the seed for her ministry during a World Youth Day trip. She explains, “Even though I went to college, I still wasn’t really even at a point where I even believed in the Eucharist. I was going there because, I guess it was grace. It was Fr. Vander Woude’s suggestion, it was grace. I fell in love with the college, but I was still in need of evangelization, and definitely received it there. But World Youth Day was a turning point.”
While working on campus during the summer after her sophomore year at Christendom, a group of religious sisters who were staying on campus asked Verret to help them chaperone a trip to World Youth Day in Toronto, Canada. They left that day, and one night that week under the stars she heard Pope John Paul II say, “you are not the sum of your fears and failures, but you’re the sum of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Father’s love for you.” She describes that moment as a turning point in her life. She says found out later that her future husband Ryan was also at that World Youth Day, soaking in the same lessons about what it means to live a life as the sum of the Father’s love.
It was at that World Youth Day that Pope John Paul II declared that the world needs witnesses to God’s love. This inspired Verret: “The name ‘Witness to Love’ really came from that, that we need to be witnesses of God’s love in the world, and the mentor couples really are that witness. Because people today who have been away from church don’t just show up like, ‘I love Jesus, I love God, God loves me.’ Somebody leads them to Jesus, somebody loves them, somebody witnesses to them, somebody brings them to the church, just as the professors at Christendom were witnesses to me of God’s love.”
It wasn’t until she graduated and was working in the Marriage and Family Life Office in the Diocese of Lafayette—after doing the same work for three years in the Diocese of Arlington—that her calling became clear. In 2011 Verret left working for the Diocese of Lafayette, La., and began working at a parish. Working so closely with families and engaged couples, she saw the disconnect between couples who go through normal marriage preparations, yet they don’t stay married or continue going to Church.
“This whole marriage prep system is just broken, because most couples either come from divorced parents, parents who don’t go to Church, or parents who aren’t happily married. So they don’t really have a witness of what marriage looks like,” she explains. “Just like I didn’t. And not everybody is able to go to a college like Christendom, so they don’t all have that witness.”
The Verrets began the ministry in 2012, and word of this ministry spread, from pastor to pastor, bishop to bishop, couple to couple. She explained that many “marriage champions” stepped forward, wanting to assist in the mission.
Now the program has spread to 500+ parishes in the United States, Canada, France and Mexico. Their materials have been translated into Spanish and French. Witness to Love also offers a program version for civilly married couples who are seeking to have a sacramental marriage, and the ministry has created an interdenominational version for non-Catholics. The ministry offers its complete marriage formation, including its Be More Retreat, in-person at partnering parishes or online!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2019 and was updated in 2024.
In this episode, we continue discussing the letter written by Pope Benedict XVI on “the urgent task of educating young people.” Listen as we dive line by line into this letter and his call for an educational emergency.
In the midst of a crisis, it’s natural to look for signs of hope—moments when the news isn’t so bad as it was before. But it’s perilous to ignore larger trends.
Coinciding with Catholic Schools Week, which starts January 29, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) will release its annual report on Catholic school enrollment. Although the report makes no attempt to count Catholic homeschoolers and probably misses the growing number of independent schools providing faithful education, it is a vitally important benchmark for the Church.
Will we see an increase in enrollment?
Last year, the NCEA reported a 0.3 percent increase in Catholic school enrollment since the prior year, when it proclaimed a larger 3.7 percent increase. The numbers both years were expertly spun. The first annual increases in Catholic school enrollment in two decades! The largest increase in 50 years!
Yet it was presumptuous and even deceptive for pundits to suggest that these recent increases are evidence of a new trend in Catholic school enrollment.
We can certainly be hopeful about growing opportunities for school choice in many states. And regardless of parochial school numbers, we can be excited about faithful Catholic homeschooling and independent schools. And yet the media and many in the Church seem to willfully disregard other ominous trends in our culture and in our Church, including drastic declines in marriage and baptism. We need to be frank about these concerns with Catholic families.
The truth is, we are still in the post-pandemic period. In 2020-21, the number of students in Catholic schools dropped precipitously (6.4 percent) from the prior year, and 209 schools closed or merged nationwide. Until we see several more years of enrollment growth, we can’t be certain we are experiencing anything other than a recovery from losses during the pandemic. And if there are other drivers of the current growth, we have no idea if they will be long-term.
Consider the NCEA’s chart of long-term trends, with data points every decade instead of showing minor shifts each year. In general, the impact of the pandemic and post-pandemic increases are barely noticeable—from a broader perspective, the half-century decline of Catholic parochial schools is still a fact to be reckoned with.
Moreover, despite the rosy news articles, the recent news for Catholic schools is not all good. The 0.3 percent enrollment blip was touted in headlines, but in fact the growth was entirely in pre-K enrollment, now 15 percent of all Catholic school children. If we disregard pre-K students, the enrollment in Catholic elementary schools actually declined in 2022-23.
Also, another 44 Catholic schools closed or merged last year, following 71 closures and mergers in 2021-22 and 209 in 2020-21. That’s disastrous! Yet pundits still suggested a great comeback of Catholic schools.
The problem is that data can be presented in multiple ways, and Catholics must avoid being distracted from the whole truth. Although the NCEA has every reason to present its data in the best light, Catholic parents and Church leaders have every reason to consider the whole picture—and from a broader perspective, the trends in Catholic schools are an enormous tragedy that the Church needs to resolve with eyes wide open.
The Cardinal Newman Society urges a renewal of faithful parochial schools, a full embrace of Catholic homeschooling and parent-led schools, and a Catholic exodus from public schools. But if Catholic leaders and educators instead ignore the true crisis, they abandon Catholic families to an increasingly hostile culture.
Here’s a perfect example of how data needs a proper perspective. Last year, the NCEA touted enrollment increases of more than 1 percent in nearly one-third of the nation’s Catholic dioceses. That sounds great, and it certainly bodes well for those dioceses. But if we look closely, most of those dioceses are in regions with the least numbers of Catholic schools, while the dioceses with many more Catholic schools did not fare so well.
The only region that saw a significant 1.7 percent increase last year was the Southeast — a region where Catholics have long been a minority. Now look at the Mideast and Great Lakes regions, where more than half of all U.S. Catholic schools were located 20 years ago. In those two decades, Catholic school enrollment has plummeted 34 percent in the Great Lakes and 51 percent in the Mideast!
That’s a crisis. But search last year’s news headlines from newspapers in these regions, and you’ll find that many (especially Catholic publications) reported good news for Catholic schools.
As for the Church, there’s an additional concern that deserves frank treatment: the rapidly declining numbers of Catholics in Catholic schools. The Church has always welcomed non-Catholic students—it’s a great blessing to many schools. But the portion of Catholics in Catholic schools is now 78 percent, a drop from 87 percent two decades ago and 97 percent in 1970.
In other words, while total enrollment at Catholic schools declined 55 percent in the 50 years before 2022-23, the decline among Catholic students is much worse: nearly two-thirds in the same time period. Recognizing that Catholic education is the Church’s most effective means of evangelization and Catholic formation, we call that an emergency.
And while many Catholics seem to be “partying like it’s 1999,” The Cardinal Newman Society is serving a growing movement of parents, educators, and Church leaders to build a new core of faithful Catholic education—at all stages of life, and in whatever form serves the needs of Catholic families.
16 years ago today, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter on the urgent task of educating young people. Listen to this special podcast on the anniversary of this letter.
Welcome back to our continued episode with Kelly Salomon, vice president of Newman Guide Programs, as we continue our dialogue about the wonders of The Newman Guide and its impact in the Catholic educational system.
The bourgeoning success of Catholic educational renewal in America, so much the work of faithful teachers and school leaders, is no less made possible by the devoted men and women who sacrifice for a better future for their children and grandchildren. Change had to begin at the fundamental level, that is, within society’s smallest institution––the family. “The highest good does not seek outside helps,” Seneca said, “it is found within the home.”
And while parents have been necessary to the renewal of Catholic schools and colleges, their heroic deeds are especially fruitful in the growing realm of home education. It is becoming noticed by the mainstream, with some studies claiming more than four million students are being homeschooled in the U.S (circa 5.4 percent of all school-age children). To put this into perspective, in the spring of 1999––the year I was crowned valedictorian of my homeschool class of one––there were an estimated eight-hundred thousand homeschoolers. Since then we have more than quadrupled, and even before the Covid year of 2020, the trend had only been vertical.
The question now is, how can Catholic dioceses, parishes, and educators help support this growing demographic of homeschooling families? It might seem that homeschooling is competition to the already declining parochial schools. But the same conviction that compels the Church to support Catholic schools and colleges should motivate support for families providing faithful Catholic formation in their homes.
I have had good experiences with various like-minded institutions in my area while educating my own children at home. My kids play sports and participate in activities at a local private school, where I also coach one of the teams. Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, a Newman Guide-recognized college where I teach part-time, allows us to use their facilities, including their gym and outdoor ice-skating rink, whenever we want. The students at Magdalen, many of them graduates of homeschooling themselves, have embraced my children like siblings of their own. The fall and spring “Coffee House” nights at Magdalen are perhaps my kids’ favorite events of the year––when they can perform music in front of and with a supportive group of students from across the country.
I realize that not everyone has access to such like-minded, homeschooling-friendly institutions. More faithful Catholic educational institutions should reach out to homeschoolers in their areas and invite them to collaborate toward the ultimate goal, the salvation of souls.
Simone Weil said, “Every order which transcends another can only be introduced into it under the form of something infinitely small.” The first step might be a simple invitation to homeschoolers (individually or as a group) to showcase an event at your institution. A music recital, an art exhibit, or a play is a good place to start. Homeschoolers would appreciate a real destination to display their talents, aside from Facetiming the grandparents. In my experience, they take such opportunities seriously and with gratitude.
Another obvious means for supporting homeschoolers is to invite them to play sports at your school. Although regulations for this vary from state to state, it may be worth looking into. The Catholic Tim Tebow has yet to emerge, but all signs indicate that there will be an increasing number of quality athletes who are homeschooled. Additionally, there are quite a few homeschooling groups with enough students to form a team of their own; consider opening your facilities to let them practice and host games.
Newman Guide colleges can provide one crucial need––validation of home education. Already admissions departments in many Newman Guide colleges are generally welcoming to homeschool applicants. But it is unfortunate when students have to repeat in college what they already mastered in high school.
Each new academic year, there is at least one student in my college classes who does not really belong there. These are homeschooled students who have mastered certain subjects in high school, and yet they are required to repeat them in order to earn credits toward their college diploma. At least in the subject I teach, Latin, it should be pretty straightforward to validate proficiency and establish a means of granting college credit for work that was done in the home. And I am familiar with the requirements of certain homeschool programs that go beyond what is required at some colleges in other subjects as well.
To be sure, not all homeschoolers have mastered college-level subjects, but for those who have, why should there not be a way to receive credit for some subjects from the college he or she chooses to attend? Sure, it may take some extra flexibility on the part of colleges, but flexibility is fundamental to homeschooling and would be a gesture of tremendous support for homeschooling families.
To complete the renewal of Catholic education in America, it will take an even greater pooling of assets toward a joint mission of educational renewal. I invite all faithfully Catholic educators to collaborate with and support this generation of homeschoolers. Any growth in Catholic education is going to result in strong Catholic families and greater interest in both new and traditional methods of education. We are just beginning the era of widespread homeschooling, and the future is bright!
It is easy for Catholic educators to love our students. Hour after hour and day after day, we forge human and spiritual bonds with them by learning, laughing, praying, and playing.
The Congregation for Catholic Education calls upon Catholic educators to provide “a community school climate that reproduces, as far as possible, the warm and intimate atmosphere of family life” (The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School: Guidelines for Reflection and Renewal, 40). The Catholic school does not try to replace family; instead we benefit from its natural strength in human formation and support its educational aims. We understand that “an integration of school and home is an essential condition for the birth and development of all of the potential which these children manifest,” including their openness to religion with all that this implies.
There is great benefit, then, for Catholic educators to focus on the family’s unique role in education and evangelization and to explore how we can best assist them, so they might better fulfill that role in relation to their children, the Church, and society. In so doing, we are faithful to our own mission. “Catholic schools consider essential to their mission the service of permanent formation offered to families” (Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 48).
Responsibilities of the family
It is important that Catholic educators understand and make better understood the role of the family. Vatican II’s document on education, Gravissimum Educationis, is a good place to start:
Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man, in which the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. Hence the family is the first school of the social virtues that every society needs… It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and the office of the sacrament of Matrimony, that from the earliest years children should be taught, according to the faith received in Baptism, to have a knowledge of God, to worship Him and to love their neighbor.
St. John Paul II develops this understanding in his apostolic exhortation to the family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio. He draws attention to the truth declared by Vatican II that the family is “the first and vital cell of society.” It is, he writes, “a community of life and love” which “has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride.” He identifies four general tasks of the family:
1) forming a community of persons,
2) serving life,
3) participating in the development of society, and
4) sharing in the life and mission of the Church.
It is the duty of Catholic educators to support this mission, particularly through partnering in the formation of the young, but also in empowering the family toward these broader ends.
Challenges facing our families
Most of Catholic school parents are now Millennials (born 1981-1996). Millennials are more interested in being involved in their kids’ lives than the prior generation, so we can be bolder in engaging with them in their children’s education. However, we must also appreciate that more of them are single parents (33 percent), live in dual-income households (60 percent), and are stressed and tired most of the time (29 percent) (“Millennial Moms and Dads are Striving to Parent Differently Than Boomers,” Salon, Jan. 26, 2023).
According to a Pew Research Center poll in January 2023, mental health tops the list of parental concerns about their children’s well-being. Four out of ten parents are extremely worried about their children struggling with anxiety or mental depression, and 36 percent are somewhat worried. More than a third (35 percent) are extremely worried about their children being bullied, and 39 percent are somewhat worried.
Pew Research also finds that, among our Catholic Millennials, 84 percent say religion is important or somewhat important to them, and 65 percent pray daily or weekly. These are workable numbers. But only 26 percent go to Mass weekly; 80 percent do not believe there are clear standards of right and wrong, 75 percent favor same-sex “marriage,” and 52 percent think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. So we have our work cut out for us on these points.
Currently, 64 percent of Americans identify as Christian, and Christians are predicted to be a minority by 2070, which is when our current grade school students will be raising their own children. So there are even more challenging times ahead, but also opportunities for which our students and their future families must be prepared.
Reaching out to parents
In regard to our current parents, we need to draw upon their generally positive outlook on religion, encourage them to better understand their vocation as families, and get them back to Mass and a coherent moral program. In this way our students, their own children, will themselves be better equipped to survive and evangelize as religious minorities in a post-Christian, post-truth world.
Primarily this will occur for parents through deepening their encounter with the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth. While the Holy Spirit will be the protagonist and helper in this dynamic, Catholic educators should do all they can to help. And one of our greatest assets is drawing on children as points of parent evangelization.
A first step for Catholic schools is to fulfill their duty of faithful and dynamic evangelization of the children entrusted to them. When they become fully alive disciples, they will attract others, including likely their own parents.
Additionally, the Catholic school at some point must actually and specifically invite students who are not baptized or are not active Catholics into the fullness of life as faithful Catholics. It is very important for a staff member, or preferably a priest connected to the school, to actually inquire and make the ask at some point. Families may have identified as Catholic or Christian to get into the school, but it is possible some students from Catholic families may not have actually been baptized or non-Catholic students may now be convicted of the truths of the faith. For example, a new pastor at a faithful Catholic school recently asked to meet individually with each of the 310 students for discussion or confession. As a result, three students and eventually their parents sought baptism or full communion with the Church. The principal had been unaware that the children and families were hungry for the sacraments, but all the priest had to do was ask and follow up with RCIA.
Parent formation is another area for mission growth at a Catholic school. This can be challenging given the busyness of so many families. One strategy is to create mandatory formation nights for new parents, and then also offer ongoing formation nights for all parents every year (hopefully the new parents will continue).See Community and Culture Nights at https://donahueacademy.org/community/community-culture/ for an example of this.
This will take an investment of time and money, but volunteers and donors will likely step forward. For new families, make these formation nights not just mandatory but also delightful. Provide free childcare; start with a wine and cheese affair, tastefully appointed; give away school bling or door prizes; have name tags; have live music from students or community members; have three meetings in the first year to dynamically explain your mission; have parent, student, and teacher testimonials; show off your best teachers and students in brief presentations; keep the evening to 90 minutes maximum; take attendance; and tape the event and have those who did not make it watch the podcast. The idea is to make sure the new parents know the Catholic mission, start integrating into the school culture, and invest in it.
For ongoing formation nights for all parents, keep the same kind of fancy “date-night” experience with good food, music, drink, and childcare, but broaden the topics to address ongoing areas of parent and family formation. These gatherings could be at school, a local nice venue, or even at parents’ houses. Topics might include: social media and your child, cultivating authentic friendship, freedom and your child, Theology of the Body and courtship, virtue, and helping your child take up their cross.
Some other concrete ideas
- Build a culture of family via the weekly school communication vehicle, by celebrating publicly that week’s anniversaries and recent births.
- Require as a condition of enrollment that parents agree to make every effort to take their children to church each weekend.
- Invite parents to all school Masses and processions.
- Say grace before meals and snacks at school, in the hope this simple practice will take purchase at home if not already present.
- Frequent Eucharistic adoration during the school year at school with the expectation that, if possible, students will spend 30 minutes in adoration at their parish church once each semester, and the parents will sign off on the form (and presumably take them and go themselves as well).
- Teachers should intentionally create homework assignments that also target and involve the parents. For example:
- Discuss with your child this passage from Scripture.
- Think-pair-share homework assignments that involve parent participation.
- To prepare for the quiz, have your parents use these flashcards.
- Have the parents sign off on each religion homework assignment that they have reviewed for completeness and accuracy.
- Have assignments or extra credit work which involve grandparents if possible.
- Assign them to watch a streamable movie at home with a religious theme, and have parent/child discussion questions for them to complete.
- Resources for parents to create voluntary pledge groups whereby they assure that when students gather at their house, there will be an active parent presence in the home, no R-rated movies, sexually explicit music, violent video games, or alcohol, etc. For example, see the pledge at rethinkthedrinks.com.
- Resources for parents to reduce screen time and social media in their homes, such as the “Postman Pledge” by Front Porch Republic.
- Ensure all families have access to resources like the Formed network.
- Establish a school-recommended list of films for families seeking something to watch together.
- Rich access through a kiosk in school or sending to each family resources from the Knights of Columbus “The Building the Domestic Church Series.”
This is not an exhaustive list, but simply a few ideas to remind us all to find creative ways to support and love both our students and their families.
School leaders have primary responsibility to oversee instruction in a Catholic school, while striving to serve and cooperate with parents. But schools should always defer to the family on teaching human sexuality.
Education, in the first place, is the duty of the family, which ‘is the school of richest humanity.’ It is, in fact, the best environment to accomplish the obligation of securing a gradual education in sexual life. The family has an affective dignity which is suited to making acceptable without trauma the most delicate realities and to integrating them harmoniously in a balanced and rich personality. (Educational Guidance in Human Love, 48)
According to Church documents, human sexuality includes all the delicate and sensitive topics involved in how a person lives out their sexuality in the world, and the best place for securing this education is within the family.
Many teachers and administrators are unaware of the Church’s teaching recognizing this preference and the parents’ right to refuse their child’s attendance in sex education classes. They assume that since parents have placed their children in the school, the parents have agreed to all the curriculum presented. But parents have the first right to teach human sexuality to their children or, if they delegate this education to the school, to know when and what is being taught.
Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them. In this regard, the Church affirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents. (Familiaris Consortio, 37)
Anything that discusses human reproductive physiology constitutes human sexuality, even when presented within Church teaching. Parents need to provide consent, and most of them do gratefully if they are unsure how to approach this topic with their children from a Catholic perspective.
Regardless of parents’ choices to opt in or out, teachers can take this opportunity to speak with parents about how the Church presents human sexuality within a Christian anthropological framework and moral grounding. Doing so is an act of charity and helps fortify the family against false teachings and errant ideologies abounding in society.
The Church sees her instruction in human love as part of the integral formation of the student and advises multiple ways for its presentation. Bishops and pastors of schools decide whether human sexuality programs are offered. Schools incorporating these programs sometimes offer parent classes in tandem with student coursework. Schools not incorporating a sexuality program might offer families curated materials to use with children at home. Schools that include classes on human sexuality maintain student modesty by separating boys and girls during discussions of reproductive physiology.
Teachers for these classes should be chosen for their affective maturity and their own peaceful integration of sexuality. These teachers must have a positive and constructive concept of life and “suitable and serious psycho-pedagogic training.” Teachers should work with parents, students, and other professionals if more severe issues needing psychological assistance is required. Parents, as primary educators of their children, are not to be left out of this communication at any time.
In keeping with the guidance from Church documents, here are four principles to assist educators teaching courses on human sexuality:
1. Teach courses in human sexuality within a clear and convincing Christian anthropology. It’s important to situate a discussion about sexuality within God’s design for humanity and the beauty of the human race. Leverage the fact that this type of discussion often begins in the home, where children witness the birth of a sibling and their parents give thanks to God for the gift of a new life.
Teachers can instruct students in how God gives each of us talents that make us unique and how humanity has a special relationship with God, far greater than that of the animals. They can teach that we are made for communion and possess dignity simply through our humanity. St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a good resource for teachers to learn more about the richness and complexity of the human person as a body/soul unity. The Standards for Christian Anthropology, co-authored by The Cardinal Newman Society and Ruah Woods Press, can also be incorporated beginning in kindergarten to properly situate any succeeding discussion of human reproduction within an already laid Christian foundation.
2. Teach courses in human sexuality from a Catholic worldview and moral perspective. Humanity, created in original unity with God, lost its way through sin and was redeemed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He guides us on the path to eternal life through His teaching and the Sacraments. Teachers should teach virtue and the avoidance of vice, the understanding of sacrifice, and supplication to God’s grace in tandem with any presentation of human sexuality.
3. Ensure that program and materials on human sexuality are at the child’s appropriate intellectual, moral, emotional, physical, and spiritual level. While an understanding of one’s sexuality begins when children are young, education in the mechanics of sexuality (or the misappropriation on one’s sexuality) should not be taught until after the “years of innocence” when the child reaches puberty. St. John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, calls these early years the “period of tranquility and serenity” (78).
This presentation is drastically different from what we see happening in public education, where young children are confronted — even ‘introduced to’ — drag queens and questioned as to whether they feel like a boy or a girl. In Catholic education, teachers are ever mindful of a child’s sensibilities, introducing discussion of the beauty of the human body in a manner of “sacramentality” – as an outward sign of an inner spirit, a body/soul unity. Avoid materials that could lead students to an unhealthy curiosity about sexual behavior.
4. Teach in collaboration with parents. Remember that parents are the first educators in this area. Assisting and working with them will have a positive and lasting influence on the sexual integrity and maturation of youth.
Key Church documents on this topic include The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (Pontifical Council for the Family, 1995), Educational Guidance in Human Love (Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, 1983), and Catechetical Formation in Chaste Living (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2008).
For Catholic school standards derived from Church teachings, see The Cardinal Newman Society’s Policy Standards on Sexuality Programs in Catholic Education and Policy Standards on Human Sexuality in Catholic Education at our website.
Parents are the first and foremost educators of their children.
Catholic educators can sometimes ignore this fact, especially when students appear to lack solid formation and even basic care in the home. Trained to be experts in pedagogy and curriculum, teachers and especially college professors may not think much about what parents want and may regard even simple communications from them as interference and undue distrust of professionals.
Parents, too, can forget or refuse their key role in the formation of their children, for whom they are accountable to God. Generations of parents have been told to take a hands-off approach to child-rearing. And many Catholic adults do not receive the sacraments and deny Catholic teachings, while failing to form their children in the faith.
Still, the Church is clear: “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators” (Gravissiumum Educationis, 3).
So how does this work? Within the rapidly growing field of homeschooling, there is no parent-school relationship—but parents still must collaborate with homeschool curriculum providers, publishers, tutors, priests, and collaborating parents. In schools and colleges, a “parent as primary educator” policy can be difficult to navigate. Yet respecting parents’ primary role is necessary, even essential, to Catholic education.
Sources of parents’ role
Some have misread Vatican documents to imply that a parent’s role as “first” educator refers only to early, pre-school learning, and the role of primary educator must later be given over to professional teachers. But the Vatican speaks many times of the parents’ role in formation throughout a child’s life, and despite objections arising from our culture’s insistence that an 18-year-old no longer needs parents, I think today the job continues through college.
As for whether only professionals should direct education, there’s the obvious fact that, throughout much of Christian history until the last couple centuries, most parents partly or wholly handled the education of their younger children.
Parenthood, practiced rightly with due respect for the rights of the child, is a natural aspect of the vocation of marriage. It follows from the lifelong love and commitment of a man and a woman, producing offspring for whom the parents are primarily responsible in the graced bond of matrimony. If a child’s guardian is not a natural parent in a loving marriage, still the guardian assumes responsibility for providing an upbringing that attempts, as much as possible, to fulfill the nature and obligations of parenthood within marriage.
Education is a key obligation of parents. Vatican documents that reference parents’ primary role in education often cite the natural and divine status of the family.
Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man… It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and office of the sacrament of matrimony, that children should be taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according to the faith received in Baptism, to worship Him, and to love their neighbor. (Gravissimum Educationis, 3)
Here it is clear that the Church’s foremost concern for children is their integration into the life of the Church and their relationship with Christ. The family is vital to the moral and social formation of young people. However, does this suggest that intellectual formation belongs primarily to professionals and is not included in parents’ primary role? The Vatican documents repeatedly speak of parents’ primary role even when their children are enrolled in schools—even Catholic schools—and so parents must be responsible for intellectual as well as moral and social formation.
We can also find a foundation for parents’ educational role in the rite of Baptism. Parents affirm that they will raise their child in the Catholic faith. Many interpret this to mean catechesis only, but baptism begins the Christian’s journey to salvation, which implies more than knowledge of the tenets and practices of the faith—as important as these are. The human gift of intellect is key to human dignity and our ability to know, love, and serve God and others. Surely the full work of Catholic education—forming the intellect integrally with one’s physical and moral development, so that a young person is healthy, knowledgeable, wise, and virtuous—is entailed in Catholic formation. Therefore, it can be said that a Catholic child has a baptismal right to Catholic education from the parents.
A health analogy
St. Thomas Aquinas employs an analogy of bodily health when explaining how people learn. I think the analogy can also be applied to the question of a parent’s role in education.
Consider this: aside from education, parents are responsible for ensuring a child’s physical health. They do this by providing food and shelter, teaching healthy habits, and caring for illnesses and injuries. If a parent must seek the professional help of a doctor—and invariably this will be necessary in today’s world—the parent never considers simply handing over primary responsibility for the child’s health. The doctor provides much-needed expertise, and the parent yields to that expertise to the extent necessary, but ultimately the parent must decide what is best for the child, including the choice of whether to get help for the child and which doctor should provide it.
Why is education perceived to be any different? One reason may be that schools require more waking hours with a child than even the parents have at home—and that’s something I believe deserves some reflection. But regardless, ultimately it is the parent’s primary responsibility to ensure that a child is educated, and that includes the choice of educator. Yet so few parents today take up this responsibility, blindly accepting or even ignoring what happens in school.
Catholic educators may chafe at substantial parent involvement with a school or college’s day-to-day activities. And it’s right that Catholic schools limit such direct engagement, if it interferes with education. But parents must at least have the information needed to assess whether a school is serving the parent’s needs and objectives for their child, so the parent can enter into dialogue with the school or choose to withdraw. The parent can also choose to take on a child’s education entirely.
On the all-important matter of monitoring fidelity to Church teaching and fulfillment of the mission of Catholic education, “This responsibility applies chiefly to Christian parents who confide their children to the school. Having chosen it does not relieve them of a personal duty to give their children a Christian upbringing” (Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 73). By “utilizing the structures offered for parental involvement,” parents must “make certain that the school remains faithful to Christian principles of education.”
Ultimately it comes down to this: parents must take full responsibility for the education of their children and the choice whether to employ professionals in that task—and which ones. Catholic educators, in service to parents, should fully support this role and help parents know and choose the special value of faithful Catholic education. In all, the complete Catholic formation of the student must be paramount.