The Catholic Church has always taught that the parents are the primary educator of children. In the Declaration of Christian Education, a document from the Second Vatican Council, it says, “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” (1965).
When parents send their children to Catholic schools full-time or even to a religion class once a week, there is a very important agreement, sometimes unspoken, that the Church enters into a partnership with the parents in educating and spiritually forming the child. Decades ago, the local pastor or the parish formed a partnership with the parents only on the condition that the parents were practicing Catholics. If this condition was not met, the Church refused to process the child through the education system and the sacramental initiation program.
Today, however, even when parents are wholly derelict in their religious duties (i.e. by not attending Mass every Sunday), most Catholic dioceses and parishes have adopted the policy to go ahead and partner-up with them in educating and spiritually forming their children. But studies have shown (and pastors in previous centuries instinctively knew this to be true) that when the parents do not observe God’s law and hence become active followers of Christ, the child will, 90 percent of the time, eventually follow the same path as their parents and hence fall away from the Faith.
This creates an impossible situation because the Church ends up becoming a surrogate educator instead of a partner with the parents. In too many cases, when the child comes of age and goes away to college, the religious formation that was provided by the Church- while having no support at home -goes to the wayside. Is it not true that the apple rarely falls far from the tree?
In an earlier version of canon law, it reads: "Parents are under a grave obligation to see to the religious and moral education of their children…” Yet, the kind of pastoral compassion that is practiced today- one that requires so little from the parents –enables parents to omit their grave obligation to educate children; this, when the Church provides religious instruction to children without the parents doing their part. The child who lives in a home where a living, practical faith is absent and who then is sent to the local parish on how to live a life of faith, is child who is riddled with mixed signals. He or she may not know how to articulate it, but the child intuitively knows this process is a contradiction!
The immediate effect this has upon the child is one of confusion; then, over time, indifference towards the Catholic Faith sets in. Although the intention on the part of the pastor is one of compassion, the aggregate effect is counterproductive. In the long run, fewer souls are attracted to Christ. And even fewer sustain their relationship with Christ into their adulthood.
To repeat, this system in which the Church acts like a surrogate educator has bred a kind of indifference among youth, putting a drag on faith formation programs. And with indifference comes a lower level of participation by the student body.
At least in a good number of parishes, the general feeling one gets is that few students want to be in these faith formation programs. I have seen a lot kids sitting in chairs with their arms folded while having the look of utter boredom on their faces. Yet, when interest and participation wanes, a common response among parishes is to lower the educational and pastoral standards so that the child can go on to the next level; regardless of his or her productivity. Consequently, a kind of social promotion- simililar to that of a public school -is practiced in which the child is processed to the next phase of catechesis without being spiritually and morally formed.
The answer to this contradiction between the local parish and parents is for the former to insist that latter do their part. After all, when the Church and parents are not on the same page, the child loses!
To therefore require that parents be practicing Catholics as a condition upon which the Church educates and sanctifies their children, not only works but it has been done throughout most of the Church history.
Some say this standard, once a universal practice in the Church, lacks compassion. I say that allowing the parish to teach the children one thing while the parents are teaching them another, is far from being compassionate. I would even say it has proven to be harmful.