State Aid for Catholic Schools: Help or Hindrance?

Acton Institute Hosts Debate in Rome

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, FEB. 19, 2009 ( Last March, a few angry parliamentarians in Britain summoned Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster to appear in front of the government’s Children, Schools and Families Select Committee.

Some members of the committee were cross about a document he wrote that directed his diocesan schools to instruct their students in Catholic teaching and morality. Nothing wrong with such an instruction, you might think, yet the chairman of the committee, Barry Sheerman, called the bishop’s views «fundamentalist.»

«A lot of taxpayers’ money is going into Church schools and I think we should tease out what is happening here,» said Sheerman. «It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude, questions have to be asked.»

For Professor Sam Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, the incident was «deeply revealing» about how secularists see education. Moreover, it was symptomatic of the current tense relationship existing between some governments and Catholic schools, particularly when those schools are largely funded by a secular-oriented state.

Gregg was speaking at a daylong conference devoted to the subject of «State Financing of Catholic Schools,» held Feb. 16 at the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome and hosted by the Acton Institute.

He stressed that the «basic minimum» is that any state assistance must not interfere with the right of Catholic parents to educate their children as they see fit. But already some countries do not respect this, such as Germany where home schooling is forbidden.  

Gregg added that although there are «good prudential reasons» for receiving state funding, Catholic schools must be «extremely wary» of receiving such aid in view of today’s secularist Western society. Not only can the state cause impermissible interference in Catholic schools, but he said direct public funding can «subtly and slowly» water down their ethos and identity, not necessarily by force, but because the schools will tend to have their paymaster’s interests at heart, leading them to become «agents of the government.»

Sometimes, Gregg said, that is due to “insufficient vigilance” by staff and bishops in maintaining Catholic identity. It’s well known that in the past half century, not a few Catholic schools and educational institutions have become citadels of active dissent.

Beyond respect

Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, underlined the importance of the rights and duties of parents to educate their children as they choose by referring to a number of papal documents, such as Pius XI’s 1929 encyclical «Divini Illius Magistri» and John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation «Familiaris Contortio.»

«Because we’re talking about this inalienable right, the state must not only respect it, but support it and make possible its actual implementation,» the cardinal affirmed, adding that this teaching was also adopted in several U.N. conventions and declarations.

He also stressed the importance of a «subsidiarity of duties.» Because parents are not perfect in the help they can offer, they must therefore rely partly on the state to provide sustenance to schools that they themselves cannot provide.

But Cardinal Grocholewski warned against a relativistic ideology that imposes itself on schools much in the same as Communism once did in his home country of Poland. On a positive note, he pointed out that after the fall of Communism, many Catholic schools in Eastern Europe are now rediscovering the benefits of state funding which was denied them during the Communist era.

The American perspective was given by Professor Thomas C. Berg, who lectures in law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He said that although the United States has a healthy history and tradition of church-state separation that carries an in-built wariness of state funding, the United States is beginning to increasingly resemble Europe, and conflicts are emerging because of a distrust of religious schools by a secular-oriented state.

Two options

So what needs to be done to secure permissible state financing for Catholic schools while helping such institutions remain faithful to the magisterium? Gregg believes the whole issue needs to be rethought in ways consistent with magisterial teaching. He then presented two possible options. One would be for Catholic schools to opt out of public funding altogether. He believes that would show how much some schools are reliant on such funding rather than faithful support of other groups. It would also reduce bureaucracy and re-engage the laity on how to best educate their children.

A second option would be to shift from direct subsidies to a policy of tax breaks, whereby Catholic parents could nominate a particular school they would like their taxes to go to. That, argued Gregg, would create «major incentives» to educators to pay more attention to parental wishes rather than «the whims of state officials and politicians pushing politically correct agendas.»

For his part, Berg argued that two things are needed if pluralism is to coexist with the state financing of Catholic schools: first, a developed jurisprudence to determine which regulations are legitimate or illegitimate for Catholic schools financed by the state. Second, even if state financing continues to be available, Catholic schools will still need to call on the voluntary commitment of the faithful.

«The tradition of voluntary support will have to be there as a backstop,» said Berg, «because state funding brings too many dangers.»

Father David Jaeger, professor of canon law at the Pontifical Antonianum University, stressed that parents have a right to state funding for education under canon law. But this whole area of whether such financing should be sought and accepted in light of encroaching secularist ideology is «something new.»

Like Berg, he believes the key question for the future will be where to draw the line between helpful state intervention and impermissible interference.
But for Gregg, if that line cannot be satisfactorily drawn, then the Church should take radical action. «Anything that impedes the ability of Catholic schools from maintaining and promoting that which is at the very heart of its inspiration — which is the Catholic faith — ought to be dispensed with,» he said. «In our age, if this includes state funding, then it, too, ought to be one of those things that the Church casts off, not as an act of defiant confrontation, but rather as an inspiration of love for its beginning and ultimate end, the Lord Jesus Christ.»

That may inadvertently please the likes of Barry Sheerman, but at the same time he’d be less able to prevent Catholic schools from being, as he would put it, “too serious” about the faith.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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