Permit me, brothers and sisters, to mention briefly something that is of special concern to the Church. I refer to the rights and duties of parents in the education of their children. The Second Vatican Council clearly enunciated the Church’s position: “Since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children” (Gravissimum Educationis, 3). In comparison with the educational role of all others their role is primary; it is also irreplaceable and inalienable. It would be wrong for anyone to attempt to usurp that unique responsibility (Cfr. Ioannis Pauli PP. II Familiaris Consortio, 36). Nor should parents in any way be penalized for choosing for their children an education according to their beliefs.
Parents need to ensure that their own homes are places where spiritual and moral values are lived. They are right to insist that their children’s faith be respected and fostered. As educators you correctly see your role as cooperating with parents in their primary responsibility. Your efforts to involve them in the whole educational process are commendable. This is an area in which pastors and other priests can be especially supportive. To these I wish to say: try to make every effort to ensure that religious education programs and, where possible, parish schools are an important part of your ministry; support and encourage teachers, administrators and parents in their work. Few efforts are more important for the present and future well-being of the Church and of the nation than efforts expended in the work of education.
Catholic schools in the United States have always enjoyed a reputation for academic excellence and community service. Very often they serve large numbers of poor children and young people, and are attentive to the needs of minority groups. I heartily encourage you to continue to provide quality Catholic education for the poor of all races and national backgrounds, even at the cost of great sacrifice. We cannot doubt that such is part of God’s call to the Church in the United States. It is a responsibility that is deeply inscribed in the history of Catholic education in this country.
On another occasion, speaking to the bishops of the United States, I mentioned that the Catholic school “has contributed immensely to the spreading of God’s word and has enabled the faithful ‘to relate human affairs and activities with religious values in a single living synthesis’ (Ioannis Pauli PP. II Sapientia Christiana, 1). In the community formed by the Catholic school, the power of the Gospel has been brought to bear on thought patterns, standards of judgment and norms of behavior. As institution the Catholic school has to be judged extremely favorably if we apply the sound criterion: ‘You will know them by their deeds’ (Matth. 7, 16), and again, ‘You can tell a tree by its fruit’ (Ibid. 7, 20)” (Ioannis Pauli PP. II Allocutio ad quosdam episcopos e Civitatibus Foederatis Americae Septemtrionalis occasione oblata “ad limina” visitationis coram admissos, 6, die 28 oct. 1983: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, VI, 2 (1983) 890).
At this point I cannot fail to praise the financial sacrifices of American Catholics as well as the substantial contributions of individual benefactors, foundations, organizations and business to Catholic education in the United States. The heroic sacrifices of generations of Catholic parents in building up and supporting parochial and diocesan schools must never be forgotten. Rising costs may call for new approaches, new forms of partnership and sharing, new uses of financial resources, but I am sure that all concerned will face the challenge of Catholic schools with courage and dedication, and not doubt the value of the sacrifices to be made. — from Meeting with the Representatives of [American] Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools and Leaders in Religious Education (1987)