Parents’ Rights in Education

The following blog was contributed by Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., co-author with Reverend Nicholas L. Gregoris, S.T.D., of The Mission of Catholic Schools: A Century of Reflection and Direction. Father Stravinskas has highlighted the following excerpts from the book that specifically affirm the Church’s position on parental choice for schools. The book is a collection of ecclesiastical documents on Catholic schools, focused on elementary and secondary schools, beginning with the pontificate of Benedict XV and ending with that of Pope Francis.

Summary Conclusions

In all of the citations offered, one finds a consistent line of thought, namely, that parental freedom of choice in education is a fundamental human right.  No citation hems this right in by certain conditions, like financial need.  The only way that issue could be entered into the calculus would be by invoking the moral principle of “gradualism,” that is, here, a political assessment that school choice legislation could have difficulty passing if it were not limited (at least initially) to those in most financial need.  However, gradualism would also hold that this step must only be considered a first step, requiring further political action to encompass all parents, regardless of financial status.

Secular Sources

“The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public school teachers only.  The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty, to recognize, and prepare him for additional duties.”

– Supreme Court of the United States, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 535 (1925).1

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. . . .  Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations Charter (1948)

“A civil right penalized is a civil right suppressed.”

– Virgil C. Blum, Freedom in Education (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday, 1965), 56.

“An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exists at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.”

– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York:  Henry Holt & Company Publishers, 1898), 184.

Ecclesiastical Sources

“In the first place, it pertains to the State, in view of the common good, to promote in various ways the education and instruction of youth.  It should begin by encouraging and assisting, of its own accord, the initiative and activity of the Church and the family, whose successes in this field have been clearly demonstrated by history and experience.  It should moreover supplement their work whenever this falls short of what is necessary. . . .  For the State more than any other society is provided with the means put at its disposal for the needs of all, and it is only right that it use these means to the advantage of those who have contributed to them.

“. . . giving them [Church and families] such assistance as justice demands. . . can be done to the full satisfaction of families, and to the advantage of education and of public peace and tranquility, [which] is clear from the actual experience of some countries comprising different religious denominations.  There the school legislation respects the rights of the family, and Catholics are free to follow their own system of teaching in schools that are entirely Catholic.

“Accordingly, unjust and unlawful is any monopoly, educational or scholastic, which, physically or morally, forces families to make use of government schools, contrary to the dictate of their Christian conscience, or contrary even to their legitimate preferences.”

Pope Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri (1929).

“Parents. . . have a primary and inalienable duty and right in regard to the education of their children.”

– Vatican II, Gravissimum Educationis, n. 6.

The family “requires the help of society as a whole.”

– Vatican II, Gravissimum Educationis, n. 3.  

Parents “have the right to decide in accord with their own religious beliefs the form of religious upbringing which is to be given to their children.  The civil authority must therefore recognize the right of parents to choose with genuine freedom schools or other means of education.  Parents should not be subjected directly or indirectly to unjust burdens because of this freedom of choice.”

– Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanæ, n. 5.                      

“Because they have given life to their children, parents have a most serious obligation and enjoy the right to educate them.”

Code of Canon Law, canon 226.2.

 “It is necessary that parents enjoy true freedom in selecting schools; the Christian faithful must therefore be concerned that civil society acknowledge this freedom for parents and also safeguard it with its resources in accord with distributive justice.”

–  Code of Canon Law, canon 797.

“Parents have the right to choose freely schools or other means necessary to educate their children in keeping with their convictions.  Public authorities must ensure that public subsidies are so allocated that parents are truly free to exercise this right without incurring unjust burdens.  Parents should not have to sustain, directly or indirectly, extra charges which would deny or unjustly limit the exercise of this freedom.”

– Holy See, Charter of the Rights of the Family, Article 5 (22 October 1983).

In the lead-up to the signing of the Helsinki Accords, Pope John Paul II called for “freedom for families to choose the schools or other means which provides this sort of education [religious] for their children without having to sustain directly or indirectly extra charges which would in fact deny them this freedom.”

– “On the Value and Content of Freedom of Conscience and Religion” (14 November 1980).

“The right of parents to choose an education in conformity with their religious faith must be absolutely guaranteed.”

–Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n. 40 (1981).

“Public authorities must see to it that “public subsidies are so allocated that parents are truly free to exercise this right without incurring unjust burdens. Parents should not have to sustain, directly or indirectly, extra charges which would deny or unjustly limit the exercise of this freedom.” The refusal to provide public economic support to non-public schools that need assistance and that render a service to civil society is to be considered an injustice. “Whenever the State lays claim to an educational monopoly, it oversteps its rights and offends justice. . . .  The State cannot without injustice merely tolerate so-called private schools. Such schools render a public service and therefore have a right to financial assistance.”

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– Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 241 (2003).


“Where this fundamental liberty is thwarted or interfered with, Catholics will never feel, whatever may have been the sacrifices already made, that they have done enough, for the support and defense of their schools and for the securing of laws that will do them justice.”

This is “not mixing in party politics.”  On the contrary, it is involvement “in a religious enterprise demanded by conscience.”

– Pope Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri.

“It is of great importance, especially in a pluralistic society, to work out a proper vision of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and to distinguish clearly between the activities of Christians, acting individually or collectively, in their own name as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and their activity in communion with their pastors in the name of the Church.”

– Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, n. 76.

Some situations call for “concerted action.  Organizations created for group apostolate afford support to their members, train them for the apostolate, carefully assign and direct their apostolic activities; and as a result, a much richer harvest can be hoped for from them than if each were to act on his own.” 

– Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 18.

Such activity is “political intervention,” serving as “protagonists of what is known as ‘family politics.’”

– Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n. 44.

“Allow me to claim in this place for Catholic families the right which belongs to all families to educate their children in schools which correspond to their view of the world. . . .”

– Pope John Paul II to UNESCO officials in Paris (1980).

Father Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., is the founder and superior of the Priestly Society of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the president of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization serving as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools. Interested in more information on parents’ rights for school choice informed by the advocacy work of Sister Dale McDonald, PBVM, Ph.D., NCEA Vice President of Public Policy? Please see the blog post, Fair Parental Choice in Catholic School Education.

1So important was this statement that Pope Pius XI cited it in his landmark education encyclical, Divini Illius Magistri (the only U.S. Supreme Court decision ever cited in a papal document).