By Patrick B. Craine

September 18, 2009 ( – The Congregation for Catholic Education has released a new document in which they call on public authorities to respect the religious and educational freedoms of parents in school curriculums, emphasizing that schools ought to provide for the proper moral and religious formation of students according to the student’s faith.

“In a pluralistic society, the right to religious freedom requires both the assurance of the presence of religious education in schools,” the document states, “and the guarantee that such education be in accordance with parents’ convictions.”

The letter, dated May 5th, was addressed to the presidents of the Catholic bishops’ conferences and signed by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation, and Secretary Jean-Louis BruguÞs, O.P.

Such a letter was needed, they indicate, because of growing debate about “the nature and role of religious education.” In particular, they write, they must address the fact that in certain instances states are beginning to replace religious education programs with courses in comparative religion or in “religious ethics and culture.”

“If religious education is limited to a presentation of the different religions, in a comparative and ‘neutral’ way,” they write, “it creates confusion or generates religious relativism or indifferentism.”

“The right of parents are violated, if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs,” they write, quoting Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, “or if a single system of education, from which all religious formation is excluded, is imposed upon all.”

This letter from the Congregation was of particular importance to Catholic parents in Quebec, Canada, where the province has imposed a mandatory course, spanning grades 1 to 11, in ‘ethics and religious culture’ that purports to survey the world’s religions in a completely neutral fashion.

In an August 31st decision, a Quebec judge denied Catholic parents the right to exempt their children from the course, basing his judgment on one theologian’s interpretation of Catholic teaching. This theologian argued that the course was acceptable because the Church values instruction in other religions, and expects parents to ensure their children’s formation in their own faith.

The judge was presented with the Congregation’s letter, but dismissed it in favor of his preferred theologian’s interpretation.

In the letter, the Congregation does affirm the Church’s teaching that “parents, having given life to their children, are their primary and principal educators,” without, however, limiting this parental right merely to instruction in their own faith. They also recognize the important role of the state in education, but stress that its role is to assist parents. “In this primary task, parents need the subsidiary help of civil society and other institutions,” they write.

The Congregation reiterates the parents’ canonical requirement to send their children to a school where they will obtain a Catholic education, or, if this is not possible, to ensure such an education by other means (Code of Canon Law 798).

The Congregation, further, reminds bishops especially of their canonical duty to provide means for their faithful to obtain a Catholic education. “The whole Christian community, and particularly the diocesan Ordinary,” they write, “bear the responsibility ‘of arranging everything so that all the faithful have a Catholic education’ (c. 794 º2) and, more precisely, of having ‘schools which offer an education imbued with a Christian spirit’ (c. 802).”

The freedom of Catholics to develop their own schools, the Congregation asserts, is a matter of subsidiarity, and the Church must be afforded authority over Catholic instruction. “This principle [of subsidiarity] excludes any ‘kind of school monopoly’,” they say, quoting Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education.

Again quoting the Declaration, they write, “The public power … must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.”

To view the letter click here.

See related coverage:

Quebec Decision against Exemption from Mandatory Religious Relativism Course under Heavy Fire

Vatican Cardinal Criticises US for Not Funding Catholic Schools