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Catholic homeschooling:
Parents teach their kids for a variety of reasons

NCR Staff

The Pittsburgh diocese this month published a set of guidelines for Catholic homeschoolers, a move believed to be a first and one that could signal a willingness on the part of the wider church to take a closer look at the growing homeschooling movement.

The document, "Faith Education in the Home," calls homeschooling a sign of diversity and a "powerful witness" to the long-affirmed role of parents as "primary educators" of their own children. At the same time, the document reminds parents of the legitimate role of the bishop as chief catechist and his "responsibility to ensure that all materials used in Catholic education are in full conformity with the teachings of the church."

The Pittsburgh guidelines are one indication of the growth of homeschooling and the challenge the phenomenon could pose to structures traditionally entrusted with handing on the faith to new generations of Catholics. They reflect the hope of many dioceses that homeschooling is a sign of life and not a farewell from some of the church's most ardent parents.

The precise character of the young movement, however, is yet to be determined. In Pittsburgh and elsewhere, an attempt is being made to embrace the movement. At the same time, it is clear that many of those engaged in homeschooling are motivated more by a conservative dissatisfaction with what is seen as liberal structures than a desire to find new ways to cooperate with the local bishop.

Fr. Kris Stubna, secretary for education for the Pittsburgh diocese, said the policy there was developed over the past year by a task force made up of pastors, principals, homeschool parents and diocesan authorities. Stubna said the document recognizes the positive aspects of home education, that "some parents are experiencing a kind of vocation to give this kind of time and energy to their children as family educators."

A call for cooperation

The guidelines urge close cooperation between parents and the local church in curriculum development, the selection of approved materials and for sacramental preparation.

Stubna said that despite the media attention given to homeschoolers who are angry with the church, in his experience "the vast majority of Catholics who are homeschooling are positive about the church and just want some help."

The Pittsburgh guidelines try to balance the interests of parents with the role of the bishop in order to promote cooperation and avoid the kind of conflict that sometimes characterizes more traditionalist homeschoolers who withdraw not only from the parochial school but from the parish itself.

The bishop's role in approving homeschool materials and the insistence that homeschoolers work with their parish in sacramental preparation has become the testing ground for that balance and cooperation.

It is hard to identify Catholic homeschooling as a movement. There are no national governing organizations, and the exact numbers, even from fervent advocates, are relatively small -- possibly as high as 70,000 students nationwide, less than 3 percent of the total K-12 Catholic school enrollment of 2.6 million.

Still, this many parents pulling their children out of the local parish school -- both a loss of revenue and a rebuke to Catholic education -- prompted the National Catholic Conference of Bishops to send questionnaires to diocesan school offices to assess the extent and causes of such disaffection.

The result was a 1996 study confirming a small and widely dispersed number of parents opting for home education and catechesis. Many were prompted to begin homeschooling because they were unhappy with the sex education and religious instruction offered at parish schools.

The Pittsburgh guidelines, which flowed from that initial inquiry, take the view that Catholics caught up in the larger cultural wars over education need not feel they must take their concerns and their children outside the church.

Catholic homeschooling is a recent phenomenon closely linked with the well-established homeschool movement among Protestant evangelicals, who claim over two million loyalists, or approximately 4 percent of America's school-age population. Catholics share some of the demographic characteristics of the larger group, described as predominantly white Christians, middle to upper class in both income and education, with religious or moral issues at the heart of the decision to homeschool in about 85 percent of cases, according to the 1996 Information Please Almanac.

Dr. Brian Ray, director of the National Homeschool Research Institute in Salem, Ore., just completed a national survey and offers a "soft" estimate of 1.3 million homeschoolers, with Catholics at about 5.3 percent, or 67,000 participants. Ray said he has noted a growing presence of Catholics attending national meetings of leaders from state homeschooling organizations. He estimates the movement is growing by about 15 percent a year.

Homeschooling rests heavily on the principle that parents are the primary educators of their children. This right takes precedence over state control and is the basis for the legality of homeschooling in all 50 states. To start schooling at home, some states require only that parents inform the local school district of their intention to keep their children out of the system. A few states require that parents register as "private" schools. Curricula may be submitted but need not be approved, though records must be kept and standard testing usually guides home curricula toward common proficiencies.

What makes homeschooling among Catholics particularly noteworthy is that it is a separatist impulse within a separatist movement. Catholic education has its historical roots in the decision by American bishops at the end the 19th century to push parochial over public schools because of the perceived threat to Catholic children from Protestant and secularist influences in the public system.

The abandonment of public education by Protestants was spurred by racial integration in the 1960s, during which "Christian academies" proliferated across the South, and, more recently, by the issue of prayer in the schools. Homeschooling was a further step apart for Protestants in the 1970s, paralleling the rise of evangelical political power and its call for a "Christian revival" in America.

Why some Catholic parents feel they must devote the time, energy and expense to turning their own homes into private schools is a complex question. The answer to that question may determine if homeschooling can be mainstreamed, as the Pittsburgh policy hopes, or if, as others claim, it is yet another sign that social and religious conservatives are finding new ways to separate themselves from the post-Vatican II church.

Traditionalist protest

Gene McCaffrey proudly describes himself as a committed traditionalist Catholic and homeschooler. McCaffrey and his wife have seven children, the oldest now 15, and have been homeschooling since they moved from New York to Colorado in 1992.

"My wife does all the nuts and bolts of instruction," McCaffrey said. "I'm the principal of the school. I correct all the papers and I read to the kids every night.

"Our main reason for homeschooling is that we want our children to be educated in their Catholic faith. This was not happening in the local Catholic school. They were not taught the 10 Commandments, the seven sacraments, and not introduced to the 2,000-year old richness of Catholic history and culture.

"The people who were running the Catholic school said they had a better idea, wanted to give the kids a more holistic education, but what they were doing was imitating the public schools. As a friend of mine says, why send your kids to the Catholic school when they can lose their faith for free at the public school?" McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey and his wife maintain a catalog of educational resources they send to 3,000 other homeschoolers. His sense of how fast the Catholic homeschooling movement is growing is based on his experience attending national conferences. "The conference in Manassas, Va., this past summer had over 3,000 people at it. Another one in Long Beach, Calif., the same, plus lots of smaller conferences around the country attracting from 200 to 2,000 participants," McCaffrey said.

The McCaffreys drive 65 miles one way to Denver each Sunday to attend a Tridentine Mass conducted by a priest of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a traditionalist society that left the breakaway Lefebvre movement to stay in communion with Rome and now operates with permission in some dioceses. (The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, an archconservative who opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988.)

McCaffrey said about 200 families now attend the Denver services to avoid what he describes as the "modernism and dilution of doctrine" they find in their local parishes.

The prospect of cooperating with such parishes for sacramental preparation was something McCaffrey avoided by sending his oldest son to a boarding school in Pennsylvania, where he was confirmed last May in a special "old rite" ceremony conducted by Scranton Bishop James Timlin. "People came from all over," McCaffrey said.

The Scranton diocese is also home to the headquarters and seminary for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

No easy label

Laurie Bowen, who lives in Boise, Idaho, represents a different, perhaps rarer, kind of Catholic homeschooler. The author of a soon-to-be-published manual of resources for religious family formation, Bowen said there is no easy label for those who choose to homeschool.

"There are those who are angry or unhappy for reasons of orthodoxy -- the isolationists -- or those whose revolt is tied to a kind of nostalgia, what I call a fear of living in the present and the belief that everything in the past was somehow golden," she said.

Some Catholics homeschool for more pragmatic reasons, Bowen said. "In Idaho, especially in rural areas, there just aren't many Catholic schools." And in major cities, Catholics may decide to keep their children out of both Catholic and public schools for fear of violence or because their children would be distinctive religious or ethnic minorities in an urban system, Bowen said.

"I have a friend in a mixed-race marriage whose children are brown-skinned, and the adjustment of these Catholic children into an all-white, mostly Mormon school in Idaho led to the decision to homeschool."

Bowen described another friend who moved to southern California and found that both urban public and Catholic schools were too dangerous and that most private education, including Catholic, was just too expensive.

The majority of Bowen's Catholic homeschoolers are just parents who consider all the choices and decide that home is the best place to provide the complete education they want for their children.

"We asked ourselves, what if there were no schools, no curricula, and we were starting with the question: What will our children need to know to be productive citizens and able to contribute to building the reign of God in the world? What kind of adults do we need to raise, with what values and skills?

"In the home school setting, when our children ask a question or get into an argument," Bowen said, "we can stop to respond in that 'teachable moment' and determine what communication skills, including grammar and writing, they need. The curriculum develops in response to their individual needs and readiness to learn."

It was this emphasis on total education in an optimum setting that lead the Bowens to withdraw their son from the Catholic school after third grade.

Even the principal was supportive, Bowen said, reassuring her that what was important was what they felt was the best environment for educating their son.

Bowen emphasized that many homeschoolers, though their children are not in the parish school, remain active in the parish itself and are committed to sharing their gifts with the community. The Bowens are involved in religious education and offer workshops on family-centered faith.

Web sites promoting Catholic homeschooling are clearly dominated by more conservative agendas. Homepages adorned with traditional holy card art promote Marian themes, pre-Vatican II, catechism-style theology and the rational rigors of scholastic philosophy.

Mother of Divine Grace, Most Holy Trinity Academy, St. Michael the Archangel Academy, Our Lady of the Rosary School and Our Lady of Victory School take the browser by hypertext link to descriptions such as:

  • "The educational program of OLVS is the typically Catholic School format that was used successfully across the nation up until about 1960. It is traditional in the sense that we do not experiment with your child's mind. The guidance we give is God-centered and not man-centered, materialistic or humanistic."
  • "Our Lady of the Rosary School is absolutely faithful to the teachings of the magisterium from the year 33 AD and through the ages. We are unswervingly loyal to Holy Mother Church."
Publishers offer vintage sets of textbooks used in Catholic schools in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, including "Catholic science texts from the 1950s."

Also on the Web is a homepage for Catholic Home School Network of America, a Chicago-based "watchdog" group that monitors conflicts between diocesan authority and Catholic homeschoolers. Network President Catherine Moran said the group is alarmed by examples of bishops and parish directors of religious education reportedly forcing homeschoolers to take part in sacramental preparation programs as a condition for receiving the sacraments. "This is contrary to canon law," Moran said. "The only role the priest has is to interview candidates in the presence of the parents to see if they are ready."

Moran said that in her experience 100 percent of Catholic homeschooling is over issues of orthodoxy. She said she has encountered Catholic high school kids who saw nothing wrong in reading books on Satan or who seemed poorly grounded in faith beyond "getting to heaven on a rainbow." She said she has confronted priests and sisters over the years who have publicly expressed views contrary to official church teaching.

The network's vigilance on behalf of the rights of homeschoolers contrasts with the stance taken by a number of diocesan authorities trying to head off needless confrontation.

Stay with us

Joanne Sanders, director of religious education for the Galveston-Houston, Texas, diocese, said the diocese recognizes home catechesis as a valid alternative, especially given the reality that most dioceses are now able to meet the needs of only about 40 percent of their potential audience with existing schools and parish-run programs.

"We want this kind of parental involvement," she said. "But parents also need help as catechists. What do children need to know? We offer guidelines for approved curriculum and materials, realizing that people believe in different ways and that there are different text series for different audiences and cultures.

"All books should have an imprimatur -- required by canon law -- and should present a current interpretation of the church," Sanders said. "Sacraments are parish celebrations and we require that all those being prepared, whether in school or [religious education classes outside school] or at home, be part of sessions connected with the parish."

Sr. Clarissa Goeckner, coordinator of children and family catechesis for the Boise, Idaho, diocese, echoes Sanders' idea that the decision to homeschool can be affirmed where Catholics are willing to work with the local church.

"We ask that Catholic school materials be on our approved lists -- the ones used in the schools and in religious education outside the school. If parents choose to homeschool, they should participate with us in preparing children to live in the church, the only church we have -- the post-Vatican II church.

"We ask them to regard the reception of the sacraments as community moments, being part of the church. The family is the domestic church, but the larger church is here, too, found in the larger community."

Goeckner said that it is important to affirm what is positive in homeschooling. "The emphasis on greater parental involvement is wonderful, but stay with us. If we stay together and get all the best forces at work here going in the same direction, it could be a kind of new leaven."

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997