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Catholic Social Teaching: The Family is the First School, Parents the First Teachers

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Parents are the first teachers of their children and the family is the first school

It is within the family where children are raised and formed as human beings. The parental role in this human formation is governed by love, a love which places itself "at the service of children to draw forth from them ("e-ducere") the best that is in them" and which "finds its fullest expression precisely in the task of educating." (Compendium, No. 239)  The family is the "first school."

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The family is humanity's  first school, and it is within the family where men and women are formed "in the fullness of his personal dignity according to all his dimensions, including the social dimension." 

This includes cultural, ethical, social, spiritual, and religious values.  One of the things the family has as its mission is to educate.  By fulfilling its mission to educate, the family plays an irreplaceable role and advances the common good of a society. (See, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, Paragraph No. 238)

It is within the family where children are raised and formed as human beings.  The parental role in this human formation is governed by love, a love which places itself "at the service of children to draw forth from them ("e-ducere") the best that is in them" and which "finds its fullest expression precisely in the task of educating." (Compendium, No. 239)  That is why the family may be called the "first school."

Christian parents have a double duty, and the family is therefore both a first school and a first seminary.  They must not limit the education of their children in natural virtues, in an authentic humanism.  For the Christian, the family is also a "garden" or a "first seminary" "in which the seeds of vocation, which God sows generously, are able to blossom and grow to full maturity," as John Paul II stated in his Message in the XXXI World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

The parental duty to educate children comes tied to a right.  Parents are the "original and primary" educators of their children, and their duties as well as their rights are "irreplaceable and inalienable." (Compendium, No. 239)  The duty is non-delegable. 

The parent is ultimately responsible for his or her child.  Though the parent may obtain the help of other persons or institutions, these always remain in loco parentis, in the parents' place.  Importantly, this is a task shared by both parents, and so "the role of the father and that of the mother are equally necessary." (Compendium,No. 242)

The State must recognize the preeminent role of the parents, particularly in the matter of religious and moral education of their young.  Modernly, the State and its educational bureaucracy is invasive.  It tends to be distrustful of parents, and often sets itself in opposition to the values of the parents. 

Particularly vicious is the relativistic and secular nature of modern education, a nature that is inspired by false educational philosophies and erroneous notions of separation of Church and State and interpretations of the Constitution's establishment clause.

Obviously, the parental charge to educate their children requires the help of civil and ecclesial authorities and scholastic institutions.  But these are "agents of education," which means that they remain answerable to the parents as principals. 

"Parents have the right to choose the formative tools that respond to their convictions and to seek those means that will help them best to fulfill their duty as educators, in the spiritual and religious sphere also." (Compendium, No. 240)

In practice, parents are often stymied in their educational decisions.  The system that is currently in place is heavily weighted in favor of the public school, and parents are for financial reasons frequently unable to exercise real choice.  The power to tax and the power to allocate tax revenue is entirely devoted to sustaining a public school system to the disadvantage of private, faith-based schools.  This state of affairs is unacceptable:

"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 its financial assistance." (Compendium, No. 241)

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church insists that the family's educational rights include the notion of "integral education."  This includes the mandate that all education be directed to the proper formation of the human person "in view of his final end."  It requires recognition of the virtues "of justice and charity." (Compendium, No. 242) 

This means that a God-less education is unacceptable.  Man's final end is God, and inculcation of the virtue of justice and charity demand a theistic philosophy of education.  Secular theories of education--such as the influential progressivist, pragmatist, empiricist theories of education advanced by John Dewey (1859-1952)--are unacceptable.

In the area of sex education, the parental role is particularly to be well-guarded. Sex education is to be presented "in an orderly and progressive manner," one that takes into account the age and maturity of the child. 

Additionally, sex education is to include "the human and moral values connected" to human sexuality.  This means that disordered, immoral expressions of human sexuality--homosexuality, contraception, premarital sex, transgenderism and so forth--will not be taught as authentically human and moral life choices, but as aberrations. 

The objective moral law as it relates to human sexuality ought not to be neglected.  "Parents have the obligation to inquire about the methods used for sexual education in educational institutions in order to verify that such an important and delicate topic is dealt with properly." (Compendium, No. 243)

Children, of course, have the full dignity that is theirs as human persons.  That dignity is to be respected and any rights that flow from that dignity protected.  For this reason, "the rights of children must be legally protected within juridical systems."

One of the most fundamental rights of a child, his "first right," is to "be born in a real family." (Compendium, No. 244)  With the development of genetic technology and with the recognition of homosexual civil unions and same-sex marriage, this right must be enforced.  Children have a right to be conceived, born, and raised in families that are normal, not families that are based upon disordered and inauthentic human values.

Because of their relative weakness and inability to defend themselves, children are too often the victims of great injustice.  Their rights are not infringed merely by inadequate access to food, medical care, and education.  Their rights are all-too-often violated by such scourges as child labor, child trafficking, pedophilia, child pornography, and child marriage.  These wrongs call forth from the Church a most strident demand:

"It is essential to engage in a battle, at the national and international levels, against the violations of the dignity of boys and girls caused by sexual exploitation, by those caught up in pedophilia, and by every kind of violence directed against these most defenseless of human creatures.  These are criminal acts that must be effectively fought with adequate preventive and penal measures by the determined action of the different authorities involved."  (Compendium, No. 245)


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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