Fr. John Hardon, S.J.
Stated in one sentence, parents have the right to give their offspring a share in their own life of the spirit, corresponding to the share they have given the children in their life of the body. Or, in more concrete terms, parents have the right to communicate their own religious beliefs and practices to the sons and daughters to have whom they have already communicated their physical existence as human beings.
These two rights go together. No less than a married couple have the natural right to beget children for this world, so a married couple have the right to beget children for the world to come.
From whom Do these Rights Come? This is no idle question. Why not?
Because in one country after another, and not only behind the Iron Curtain, the government is claiming more and more monopoly in the education of children. Because even in Catholic circles, powerful vested interests are telling parents they are incompetent to train their own children. Borrowing the philosophy of the secular state, a growing number of nominal Catholic educators with professional degrees are usurping the rights of parents as educators. We rephrase our question: From whom do parental rights in education and especially religious education not derive? They do not derive from the state or from civil society. They do not, surprisingly, derive even from the Church. Rather the Church keeps telling parents they, before everyone else on earth, have the primary right to provide for the religious upbringing of the children whom they have generated. By now we are ready to affirm that the rights of father and mother to give their offspring adequate and, as far as possible, accurate religious education come from God.
Because it was God who created the human soul and infused it into the body prepared by the mother and father. Because God makes each immortal soul out of nothing and unites it with a body to produce a human person. This person is to serve God on earth, for which training is required from the moment of birth. Some would say that moral training begins already in the womb! A good training from infancy prepares a child to serve God faithfully here on earth as the precondition for possessing and enjoying Him in a blessed eternity.
Parallel with the parents' right are their responsibilities. The same God who gave them the privilege of bringing children into the world, places on them the obligation to nurture the lives which they have freely brought into the world. And the duty of religious nurture is no less, in fact it is more grave, than the duty of providing bodily food and care.
Why is this such a grave responsibility? Because the supernatural life we receive at Baptism must be nurtured and nourished from infancy no less than the natural life of the body. And the parents are the ones who, before God, are:
• the first in time,
• the first in dignity,
• the first in priority to preserve and sustain and develop the new life of God
which their children received in the sacrament of regeneration.
Although it may sound strange, I think it is worth stressing that the parents should cooperate with one another, father with mother, and not mother alone, and less still mother in one direction and father in another direction.
This cooperation between father and mother in the spiritual care of their children presumes that the parents are mutually in love. You do not cooperate with someone you do not love.
This cooperation also presumes mutual understanding of their respective roles in the religious and moral rearing of the child. Behind such understanding is their mutual sharing of the same Catholic faith:
•A faith which is kept alive by daily prayer,
•A faith which is nourished by frequent Holy Communion,
•A faith which is kept strong by the frequent reception of the sacrament of
•A faith which is constantly deepened by learning through reading and
listening to sound Catholic teaching.
As we get more specific about cooperative responsibility, I would like to identify the three ways that the parents personally nurture their children in things of the spirit. They do so:
•by what they are,
•by what they do, and
•by what they say.
What am I saying?
1. I am saying that the most fundamental way the parents train their sons and daughters in the ways of God is by themselves living the ways of God. There is more here than merely giving a good example. We are here in the realm of divine grace. In God's ordinary Providence He uses those who are in His friendship as the channels of His grace to others. Thus;
• Believing parents are channels of divine faith to their children,
• Chaste parents are channels of Christian chastity to their children,
• Prayerful parents are channels of the spirit of prayer to their children.
2. Parents also nourish their sons and daughters spiritually by what the parents do. This may seem unnecessary after what we have just said, that father and mother give religious upbringing by what they are. On the contrary. In things of the spirit, it is not enough to be a professed Catholic. A person must act like one. Why is this important? Because there is in all of us a tendency to divide our lives into two compartments. There is the temptation to claim to be one thing and yet to behave like something else. This Jekyll and Hyde separation in us is neither rare nor surprising. St. Paul confessed that, "The good things that I will, I do not do; and the evil things that I will not, that I do"(Romans 7:19).
3. Parents finally nurture their children in the supernatural life by what they say We are here touching on the mystery of self-communication. And there is no communication that is more universal or more effective than the spoken word. The child begins to ask questions: why this, why that, why now, why here, why so. Depending on how the parents answer these incessant questions — which are not always asked out loud — the children will be trained accordingly:
• the fact that a child has questions and asks them is a law of life,
• the answers that the child receives will shape that life as we believe not
only for time but for eternity.
Parents' Responsibility for Influences Outside the Family
In reflecting on the parents' responsibility for influences outside the family we enter the most delicate side of our subject. The title of our talk is "How the Catholic family will survive for the third millennium." All we have said so far stands. And we are not speaking of the responsibility or duty of the parents to give their children the proper religious training. I would single out the four terms that I emphasized:
• duty or responsibility,
• parents, both father and mother,
• their children,
• proper religious training.
If Catholic parents are to fulfill this responsibility according to the will of God they absolutely must be:
• selective as to whom they choose to assist them in the religious and moral
nurture of their children,
• convinced that the schools or religious instruction programs for their
children are really Catholic,
• courageous in insisting that what their children are taught by others
corresponds to what they, as Catholic parents, believe is good for the
children whom God has placed under their care,
• generous in giving their children all the time they need, all the patience this
will take, and all the sacrifice this will call for.
Gone is the day when parents can simply turn over to others the spiritual training of their offspring.
Let me be as clear as I can. Parents must be alert and aware and I would say, aggressive in making sure that other people, no matter how powerful, are contradicting the religious formation which they, the parents, have the first and foremost duty before God to provide for their children.
Before God, parents have received a sacred trust. No one has a higher trust than they. No one has a higher responsibility. But, I must add, no one can take either the trust or the responsibility away. It belongs to the parents because it is given to them by God. The children they call theirs are first of all His. They came from Him and they are destined for Him.
That is why God became a child, to teach us how simple it is to reach heaven, if only we are humble enough to listen to His words, and for parents, courageous enough to lay down their lives, if need be, for the souls entrusted to their loving custody.
We conclude with a prayer:
"Lord Jesus, you have given parents the awesome duty of training their children for heaven. Give them the light they so desperately need in today's world, to know how they should live up to their superhuman responsibility. Give them the strength to be faithful to you in the care that you want their children and yours to receive. We are confident, dear Lord, that with your grace, the Catholic family will survive, and thrive, not only for the third millennium, but for the endless millennium of eternity. Amen."