Parental Rights Denied in a Once-Catholic Country

The question of who decides what is best for children in matters of education is not a new one for the Church and society. The condemnation of the principles of thought found in the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century bears testimony to this in a dramatic manner. Pope Pius XI’s powerful statements on education in his various encyclicals dealing with atheistic movements make it clear that the Church’s teaching on the centrality of natural God-given rights and duties of parents to educate their children is not something to be taken lightly. Recently, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations strongly reaffirmed this teaching.

For four families in Austria—named the “Gaming 4” after the city where they reside—it is also becoming more and more crucial in their legal fight to homeschool their children. Indeed, this teaching touches more than simply homeschooling; it opens up a vast array of questions ranging from the relationships between family and society, Church and State, to name but two. One question that echoes in this particular author’s ear as he tries to follow Christ in the ensuing struggle is the following: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

The Gaming 4 are a group of Catholic families—composed of Americans, Slovaks, English, and Scots—who are either closely associated with Franciscan University of Steubenville’s study abroad program in Gaming, or with the International Theological Institute in Trumau. Being a conglomeration of academic and educational institute employees, they are no strangers to matters of learning. Having relatively large families—by Austrian norms their family sizes are extraordinary—they also have considerable experience in the raising of children, some of whom have attended state run schools, some of whom have been successfully educated at home. Having been part of a homeschooling milieu for several years, they are now being refused permission to educate their children as they see fit while also being heavily fined for not enrolling their children in local state run schools.

Until recent years the local authorities had said they were nicht verboten (“not forbidden”) to carry on schooling at home according to an American curriculum they were using.  A yearly test (according to the law) was taken by each of the children at the American School in Vienna.  Mysteriously, however, the situation was reversed over four years ago.  The authorities began to insist that the homeschooled children should be tested in the local school according to the state curriculum and in German.  This is despite the fact that there are several English language schools in Austria who teach and test hundreds of children in English according to American curricula.

 

When the children fail these state school tests, home schooling is forbidden.  If the parents persist in homeschooling as the Gaming families have, they are heavily fined.  Recently the families decided to invest their limited resources into challenging the Austrian educational-legal system on this matter. If they lose the case they will either have to pay heavy fines and enroll the children in secular environments—or leave the country. The latter being a loss to the institutes that they happily work for and the cause of “homelessness” for some of the families. Either way, the families face mounting legal costs.

Why there was a change in the interpretation of the law has remained a mystery to the Gaming 4. Several factors seem to be feeding into it. Firstly, with the drop of births in Austria echoing the trend world-wide, local schools are unable to sustain their level of income from the State since this depends on the number of children registered as attending. Local teachers fear the loss of jobs and seem to see the homeschooled children as a potential solution to their mini “financial crisis.” The connection between demographics and the economy is all too apparent in this case, while the utilitarian approach to the children is indicative of a widespread attitude. Secondly, perhaps, there is the anti-homeschooling mentality coming from the secular political powers that fear it as a “breeding ground,” as they would call it, for non-conformist mentalities. The fact that most Catholics in Austria pose no threat to the secular mentality begs the question as to whether or not they are really being formed as followers of Christ.

The homeschoolers, with their joyful and prayerful families, are a threat to the establishment but not because of any political creed. They are a threat to the culture of death simply because they are happy and love life as a gift! Finally, there is the fear that granting everyone the permission to homeschool according to the parents’ discretion and not according to the perceived wisdom of the State would open the door for immigrants from others countries (perhaps especially from east of Austria) to educate their children at home.  This is seen to be negative because of its implications for integration—a major political principle of decision-making in Austria. The fact that the Gaming 4 parents are not immigrants but only temporary residents is ignored.

There is no doubt, of course, that the homeschoolers do have an alternative life-style, and para-educational system, but that is because most educationalists have succumbed to a post-Enlightenment mentality that says control should rest in the hands of the state because only the state is allowed to shape public opinion.  The families’ educational approach is nothing other than that recognized by the Church. They see clearly their duty to give what is best to their children. In other words, they see that they must give them all that the Church has received from Christ. They do not aspire to be conformists who do what they are told by their betters in the Education Ministry. Instead, they want to announce the truth that only Christ sets man free.

At the end of the day, there are some very basic questions at the heart of the Gaming 4’s dilemma. Questions like: What is education? Why do people seek the “best education” for their children? And what is meant by “the best education?” The understanding of education that comes from faith and reason is clear. It is a human endeavor to pass on to another human person, in imitation of God’s divine pedagogy, the truth that sets man’s freedom free. It involves the natural family—formed from the indissoluble bond of marriage between a man and a woman. It involves the society that the family gives rise to; and it involves—since the coming of Christ—the indispensable role of His Bride, the Church, as the best of all teachers who supplies grace and wisdom to her supernatural children as they assist one another in the formation of Christian families and a society in which Christ is loved as true God and true man. The Church invites any one who thinks differently about education to look more closely at why she teaches this eminent doctrine. In the present age it is strongly rejected by those who impose secular-atheism through the courts, while many Catholics remain ignorant of the raison d’etre of the Church’s divine commission.

The Gaming 4 see the beauty of true education rooted in Christ—it is their bread and butter too—yet they see also the weaknesses of a plethora of ideas carried out in the name of mass-education. They see that education is, in a sense, a right of every human being but they see that each child needs the love and care of their own parents first, before they are computer literate or kitted-out with the latest high-tech sports facilities. The failure of mass education is apparent to them: it has become in many places a mechanism of crowd-control, consumer-producer, and big business: often creating unreasonable expectations and a sense of hopelessness in teachers, parents, and children. For a generation or more, professors and teachers have in many places openly forced their atheistic beliefs onto their students. There are too few who are prepared to move with Christ away from the mass-education mentality to an education for the Mass.  In this latter understanding, where profit is measured according to the saving of souls through the uniting of daily sacrifices to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—rather than the gaining of the whole world (cf. Mt 16:26)—the Gaming 4 are investing the few dollars they have in order to store up for themselves, by the merits of Christ, results in Heaven. Their fight may be a costly one in human terms but in obedience to the divine Teacher they are responding to His words: “Let the children come to me…” (Mt 19:14).

If you would like to support the Gaming 4 parents in the struggle to be the primary educators of their families, visit www.primaryeducators.net

Robert F. Cassidy

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A Scotsman by birth, Robert Cassidy earned an STB from St. Patrick's College, Maynooth (Dublin); a Master’s degree in Studies on Marriage and the Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome; and an STL in Studies on Marriage and the Family from the International Theological Institute (Gaming), Austria. While completing his doctoral dissertation, he teaches theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville campus in Gaming. There he lives with his wife and seven children.

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