There is a profound relationship between the First Commandment of the Law of God and the divine vocation of parents to be the first and foremost educators of their children. Deuteronomy 6:4-7 says (emphasis added):
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
It is very significant that the sacred author placed this admonition to parents next to the First Commandment. It is also significant that he did not mention here the priests or any other of the leaders of the Israelites; not even Moses himself. This does not mean that such leaders were not important. Like all of the Chosen People, parents and priests were to be obedient students of the Law of God. After all, this is what this covenantal discourse of Moses was all about.
Today, just as then, the New Israel, the Catholic Church, must follow this divine order: Parents are primarily responsible for passing on the faith and morals to their children. This duty and right stems both from the natural order and from the supernatural order.
Regarding the natural order, the Church teaches that procreation is not simply the transmission of human life, but also the education of human life:
The fecundity of conjugal love cannot be reduced solely to the procreation of children, but must extend to their moral education and their spiritual formation. The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute. The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable. (CCC 2221)
Regarding the supernatural order, the Church teaches that:
Through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, parents receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children. Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith of which they are the ‘first heralds’ for their children. (CCC 2225)
It is true that priests are the teachers of the People of God by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. (cf CCC 1585) But their role is prior to the formation that is to happen in the home and other settings carefully chosen by the parents. Priests teach parents, and parents teach their children. If we do this, we will make great headway against the “culture” of death and great progress towards establishing a Culture of Life. Until then we will be punching in the air.
The role of catechists, religion teachers, and educational organizations are subsidiary, not primary. They are there to humbly and respectfully help these two groups of teachers that God Himself has directly placed in the midst of His people.
Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith. Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God. The parish is the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; it is a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents. (CCC 2226)
God has already equipped parents to be the primary teachers of their children. As is the case with all of God’s gifts, however, this teaching gift has to be received and nurtured. Just as faith is a gift from God and at the same time a virtue to be developed, in a similar way the teaching right and duty of parents has to be developed. Parents have the grave duty to study the teachings of the Church in order to pass them on to their children according to their age and individual development. They do not have to be theologians or so-called “experts,”, just good Catholic parents that know Scripture and the Catechism.
Parents are not alone. The Church is there to help them, as are faithful Catholic organizations like Human Life International.
It could be argued that we all have failed somewhat in our pastoral approach. We have worked hard to develop entire systems of catechesis and Catholic schools so that children, teens, and young adults are properly formed. Yet, the expected results are not there. Too many Catholic schools are not graduating lots of young Catholics who know well their faith or who are ardent pro-lifers. Many of them are drifting away from the Catholic Church toward secularism.
We need to change our focus somewhat. Without altering the educational systems we have put in place, we must concentrate more on helping parents teach their children. I know it will be difficult, but our mandate comes not from some educational authority but from the Word of God. We must move from a pastoral approach whose unintended consequence has been the substitution of parents to an approach whose primary focus is the empowerment of parents.