Canon Law and Catholic Education
by Pete Vere
A friend of mine emailed me a disturbing article concerning her diocesan bishop. She lives in the Diocese of Calgary, Alberta, under the pastoral care of Bishop Fred Henry. His Excellency is well-known for his outspoken and uncompromising defense of Catholic teaching.
During Canadaís debate over same-sex marriage, Bishop Henry wrote a pastoral letter outlining the Churchís position on various sexual vices. Many homosexual activists were upset that Bishop Henry listed homosexuality alongside prostitution. One activist lodged a formal complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal-a quasi-judicial body with the power to impose severe fines.
My friend found the incident frightening. Bishop Henry was being persecuted, in Canada, for teaching Christís Gospel.
"Will the Church stand by my bishop?" my concerned friend asked.
"Yes," I replied.
"But doesnít canon 22 state that the Church must follow civil law?"
"No. Canon 22 only remits an issue to the civil law if the issue does not already come under the Divine Law or canon law. In this case, Bishop Henry is protected by both. Canon 747 recognizes that the bishop has both a right and an obligation before God to preach the Gospel."
The Churchís Teaching Office
Canon law is not something that affects only bishops and seminarians. Rather, to the surprise of many lay Catholics, canon law touches upon most day-to-day aspects of the practice of the faith. A large part of the Churchís daily life concerns Catholic education. For this reason, the Code of Canon Law devotes one of its seven books to the Churchís teaching office.
Canon 747, which I referenced to my friend, is the opening canon of Book III. This canon is theological in nature-it provides theological guidance to Catholics seeking to understand how canon law governs Catholic education. The canon states:
It is the obligation and inherent right of the Church, independent of any human authority, to preach the Gospel to all peoples, using for this purpose even its own means of social communication; for it is to the Church that Christ the Lord entrusted the deposit of faith, so that by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it might conscientiously guard revealed truth, more intimately penetrate it, and faithfully proclaim and expound it.
The Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgements about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls (nos. 1-2).
At first glimpse, this canon seems quite the mouthful. Fear not! Recognizing certain key ideas renders this canon accessible to every Catholic.
To begin, the canonís first paragraph asserts the Churchís right and obligation to preach Christís Gospel. This right and obligation are universal, in that the Church may and must preach the Gospel to all people. They are also inherent to the Church; they exist because of what the Church is, namely, the means instituted by Our Lord to bring salvation to world. Because this right and obligation come from Our Lord Jesus Christ, they exist independent of any human authority.
The second paragraph of canon 747 recognizes the Churchís right to proclaim moral principles, even when doing so bears social and political consequences. The Church may also publicize her judgments and concerns on other issues that affect the salvation of souls. Because marriage and the family affect the salvation of souls, the Church has both the right and the obligation to proclaim marriage as an exclusive union between one man and one woman.
The state may not always recognize the Churchís right to preach the Catholic faith and defend Christian morals. History points to persecution after persecution suffered by the Church at the hands of the state. Nevertheless, the Churchís right to educate Catholics comes from God and not from Caesar. In fact, the Second Vatican Council recognizes the Churchís teaching office as one of the Churchís three functions for which God created her.
Thus the Church can never subject herself to a stateís prohibition against teaching the Gospel. This is why Bishop Henry needed not fear losing support from the Holy See as he stared down Canadaís judiciary.
Catholic schools are the principal means of helping parents provide their children with a Catholic education (canon 796). Parents and teachers should closely cooperate in this endeavour (canon 796). Parents have freedom to choose when it comes to Catholic schools (canon 797), and they are to choose those schools that will best provide for their childrenís Catholic education (canon 798).
Canon law understands education in terms of forming the whole person (canon 795). Not only does a Catholic education develop an individualís academic talents, but it should also seek to develop a personís physical, moral, and social talents. Most importantly, a Catholic education should deepen a personís spiritual life and commitment to serving Our Lord.
The Church has the right to establish Catholic schools, and the Catholic faithful should help maintain and promote these schools (canon 800). Religious institutes may also establish schools with the consent of the diocesan bishop (canon 801). Where there are no Catholic schools, the diocesan bishop is responsible for their establishment (canon 802).
Canon 803 defines a Catholic school as one under the authority of the competent ecclesiastical authority or acknowledged by the same. The formation and curriculum in a Catholic school must find its basis in Catholic doctrine, and the teachers must be faithful to this doctrine both in word and in deed. Canon 803 also prohibits a school from calling itself Catholic unless permission is first obtained from the competent Church authority.
Canon law recognizes the right of the local ordinary to appoint and approve religion teachers and to remove them when necessary (canon 805). The local ordinary is to see that the standards of Catholic schools meet and exceed those of other schools within the same region (canon 806). The diocesan bishop has the right to watch over and inspect any Catholic school within his territory, including those established by institutes of consecrated life (canon 806).
Catechetical formation is another means of promoting Catholic education. According to canon 779, "Catechetical instruction is to be given by using all helps, teaching aids, and instruments of social communication which seem more effective so that the faithful, in a manner adapted to their character, capabilities and age, and conditions of life, are able to learn Catholic doctrine more fully and put it into practice more suitably." Thus catechesis should be adapted to the audience.
By virtue of oneís baptism and confirmation, every Catholic bears some responsibility for teaching the Catholic faith (canon 774). Yet canon law identifies five types of people who have a special duty in this regard: parents, godparents, the diocesan bishop, the parish pastor, and the local ordinary.
Parents bear primary responsibility for the Catholic education of their children. "Before all others," canon 774 states, "parents are bound to form their children, by word and example, in faith and in Christian living." Notice that parents are obliged to educate their children not only through words, but also through their example of Christian living. In other words, canon law recognizes that children often learn best through the example of those around them.
Catholic godparents also assume a responsibility for the catechesis of their godchildren. While their responsibility is secondary to that of the parents, godparents are equally obliged to catechize their godchildren through word, prayer, and good example.
The diocesan bishop is responsible for preparing standards for catechetical instruction within his diocese. He must also ensure that resources are available and, if necessary, prepare a catechism or some other suitable textbook concerning aspects of our faith (canon 775).
The pastor of a parish must "ensure the catechetical formation of adults, young people and children" (canon 776). He is to ensure, in keeping with canon 777, that Catholics in his parish have adequate catechesis for the celebration of the sacraments, that children are properly catechized to receive the sacraments, and that children continue in their catechesis after receiving their First Holy Communion. The pastor must also see to the catechetical formation of those with special needs, insofar as it is possible.
The local ordinary must ensure that catechists are properly trained and that they have access to adequate continuing formation (canon 780). Besides the diocesan bishop, the term "local ordinary" also includes the vicar general and any episcopal vicars.
The Second Vatican Council held Catholic education in high regard. Educating Christians and non-Christians about Christís truth is one of the Churchís three functions. Canon law provides practical guidance to Catholics on how to carry out the Churchís teaching office in an orderly manner.
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Pete Vere is a canon lawyer, an author, and most importantly, a husband and father. He is co-author of Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law (Servant Books, 2005) and More Catholic Than the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor, 2004). Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine. Copyright © Catholic United for the Faith, Inc.
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