Just Say No to Homeschool Guidelines

By Mary Ann Kreitzer

Because they have given life to their children, parents have a most serious obligation and enjoy the right to educate them; therefore Christian parents are especially to care for the Christian education of their children according to the teaching handed on by the Church. Canon 226, para. 2

The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.
Familiaris Consortio, Part III, chap. 36

Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state…Graced with the dignity and office of fatherhood and motherhood, parents will energetically acquit themselves of a duty which devolves primarily on them, namely education.
Vatican II, Gaudiem et Spes Chap. 1.48

The pastor is obliged to see to it that the word of God in its entirety is announced to those living in the parish…he is to see to it that the lay Christian faithful are instructed in the truths of the faith, especially through the [Sunday] homily… and through the catechetical formation. Canon 528, para. 1

On February 11th at All Saints Church in Manassas at 7:00 p.m. Dr. Timothy McNiff, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, will present a report on draft homeschool guidelines for the diocese. In late December I called Dr. McNiff's office to request a copy. "Janet" put me on hold and returned a few minutes later saying Dr. McNiff was not giving out the guidelines since they were "only a draft." This information was apparently incorrect. I later discovered the guidelines had been made available and I received them from another source. It was too close to our deadline to study them and comment.

The Code of Canon Law and other documents of the Church clearly outline the right of parents as primary educators of their children. Others, especially the shepherds of the Church, may assist parents in their role, but never usurp it. Since the Office of Catholic Schools refused Les Femmes' request for the guidelines we cannot address their content. We do, however, have other serious concerns related to the following. 1.) Who is developing the guidelines? 2.) Who will administer them? 3.) What has been the impact on homeschoolers of guidelines already established? And, finally, 4.) Is there a need to establish diocesan guidelines at all?

BACKGROUND: Before discussing these four points some historical perspective is essential.

In 1994 the NCEA [National Catholic Education Association] surveyed diocesan education offices asking for the number of homeschoolers in dioceses, their impact on Catholic schools, and what "type of Catholicism" they practiced. Of 175 surveys mailed 129 were returned, a relatively high 74% response rate. Most educators described homeschoolers as "pre-Vatican II," "conservative," or "fundamentalist," indicating a hostile mindset toward homeschoolers and a liberal bias among diocesan educators. From the results of the survey, Sr. Antoinette Dudek, NCEA's Assistant Executive Director of Early Childhood and Special Educational Services drafted a policy statement for every diocesan education office in the country, which attempted to bring homeschoolers under the control of the educational bureaucracy. It was her 1995 memorandum reporting on the survey that set the stage for using "sacramental blackmail" to force homeschoolers to accept "approved" textbooks, place their children in parish catechetical programs many of which include sex education, and attend questionable confirmation retreats. Dozens of dioceses began developing guidelines. Some denied the sacraments to the children of recalcitrant parents who refused to conform.

At the time, NACHE, established in 1992 under the guidance of Jesuit Fr. John Hardon, was a support group for Catholic homeschoolers, its primary function hosting an annual convention held in Virginia or Maryland. But in 1996 well-known convert Kimberly Hahn joined the NACHE board. Hahn was working closely with Fr. Kris Stubna, author of Catholic Vision of Love, a controversial sex-ed program used in the Diocese of Pittsburgh under Bishop Donald Wuerl. Hahn was also in a "study group" developing homeschool guidelines for his diocese. Subsequently, the NACHE board began seeking closer ties to the bishops and began advertising Stubna's program to homeschoolers. At one board meeting Hahn disagreed with Fr. Hardon when he urged NACHE to oppose diocesan guidelines. He pointed out that, as a recent convert, she lacked the historical perspective to understand the problems many homeschoolers were facing with their bishops. It was a decisive conflict. From that point on, the board no longer consulted Fr. Hardon although he continued to be listed as their spiritual adviser. At a retreat I attended for Marian Catechists in 1999, Father responded to several questions about problems in the homeschooling movement. He said NACHE no longer sought his spiritual direction. When asked why he did not withdraw his name from the group he replied, "That's not the Jesuit way."

Things came to a head in 1997 when NACHE INVITED William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore to keynote their convention in Manassas, VA. Miki and Tim Hill, NACHE board members, extended the invitation. Many homeschoolers knew about the sex ed scandal at Notre Dame Prep in Baltimore where students were being exposed to a triple X-rated movie, Not a Love Story, and in the Cathedral elementary school where teachers showed little ones as young as kindergarten "anatomically correct" dolls and gave explicit sex instruction directly violating Church teaching. Parents at Notre Dame who objected to the film were excoriated. The school administration had police and a paddy wagon on hand at one parents' meeting as an intimidation tactic. Baltimore Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Dr. Ron Valenti, whitewashed the affair, exonerating the school without even meeting with concerned parents.

Those homeschooling parents aware of Keeler's negligence felt betrayed by NACHE's invitation. Some were homeschooling because of the kinds of things Keeler had allowed in his diocese. My sister, whose older children had been damaged by sex ed in the public schools, spoke to Kimberly Hahn and Mary Hasson, co-author with Hahn of Catholic Home Education: Homeward Bound and on the boards of both NACHE & TORCH, at the 1997 NACHE convention. She shared her experiences and questioned NACHE's support for Bishop Wuerl's sex ed program in Pittsburgh. Both women admitted they hadn't read Stubna's curriculum despite the fact NACHE was endorsing it.

From this point the homeschooling community was deeply divided. Keeping it Catholic, a group headed by Marianna Barthold, had been outspokenly critical of NACHE and its sister organization TORCH [Traditions of Roman Catholic Homes] for their part in promoting guidelines. In reply to Barthold's article "A House Divided," about the growing rift in the homeschooling movement, Mary Hasson wrote an article for the TORCH newsletter (May 1998) criticizing the attitude of homeschoolers who distrust the bishops. (NACHE spokesmen generally focus on the "positive" reasons for homeschooling ignoring the fact that the Catholic homeschool movement originated primarily as a reaction AGAINST scandals in the classroom.) Hasson's article condemned Catholics who "regard our bishops as enemies" asking "W]ho ordained them to pronounce judgment on the orthodoxy of priests and of bishops chosen by the Pope?…As for me I stand with the Church and invite those who have chosen to be adversaries of the bishops and priests of our Church to take a step for unity and come back to the fold." These were fighting words and some homeschoolers felt they'd been accused of schism for defending the faith against the errors of their bishops. Mary Kay Clark, Director of Seton Home Study School, the largest Catholic homeschool curriculum provider in the world wrote a point by point response to Hasson's article in the Seton newsletter. It received the blessing of Fr. Hardon who declared it free of doctrinal error. The result? Hasson accused Clark of defamation and demanded a retraction. Later in the Fall the TORCH newsletter carried an article by Fr. Stubna, Love Your Bishop as You Love Christ, stating that "Each and every one of the faithful must always and everywhere give respect and assent to their bishop — even when we don't agree with his decisions." The statement, of course, was patently false as demonstrated by the lives of many saints, including our own patron, St. Thomas More. Respect? Yes. Assent? Yes, IF the bishop acts in conformity with the teachings of the Church. No letters responding to the article were printed. It wasn't surprising. NACHE and TORCH had established a pattern. When criticized, circle the wagons and stonewall.

In 1999 Fr. Hardon attempted to bring about a reconciliation between Clark and Hasson since NACHE had banned Seton from participating in the convention vendors' fair. His efforts were futile. At one point it seemed a resolution might occur when Clark and then-President of the NACHE board, Dan Bailes, agreed to meet together privately. But the full board would not allow it, demanding that Clark appear before them to answer their charges. It was an inquisitorial demand she reasonably refused. So, since 1999 the largest Catholic curriculum provider in the world has been banned from a curriculum fair for Catholic homeschoolers while Protestant vendors, some of whom carry anti-Catholic materials, remain. It's hard to see how that serves Catholic families. And Seton is not the only one. Our Lady of the Rosary and Our Lady of Victory also no longer participate because of profound disagreements with NACHE policies.

If one reads the extensive documentation on this unhappy situation carried on the NACHE, TORCH, and Keeping it Catholic websites, it's clear that misunderstandings and personality conflicts play a role. They almost always do where strong-minded people are involved. But the primary disagreement is philosophical. Who will direct homeschooling? Parents or diocesan bureaucrats. Which brings us back to our initial questions.

1) Who is developing the guidelines? Dr. Timothy McNiff, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, and Fr. Paul deLadurantaye, Director of Catechetics, with input from parents identified by Tim and Miki Hill, co-presidents of NACHE.

At the 2001 NACHE convention Dr. McNiff participated in a workshop titled "A Diocesan Panel: Homeschooling in the Heart of the Church" with Dr.Valenti (of the Baltimore sex ed scandal) and Tim Hill. (Fr. deLadurantaye was listed on the program, but did not attend.) Both Valenti and McNiff talked about developing a "partnership" with homeschoolers that stresses communication and "trust." But why should homeschoolers trust the education bureaucrats? Dr. Valenti demonstrated his contempt for parents in Baltimore. Dr. McNiff, in a meeting with Les Femmes several years ago, said he has no problem with pro-abortion politicians speaking in Catholic schools as long as they talk about something else. Sex education, one of the primary reasons parents flee parochial schools, is also common in the diocese. The fact that McNiff led a delegation to last year's NCEA convention featuring notorious dissenter, Sr. Joan Chittister, did little to alleviate the fears of orthodox parents.

The involvement of the Hills [i.e. NACHE] is not encouraging either. Tim Hill volunteered that he and Miki "have had several invitations to go and meet with bishops, with Dr. Valenti, with Dr. McNiff and others over the last several years." In a written evaluation of the workshop, Marianna Barthold raised a legitimate question. "How is it that the Hills of TORCH/NACHE have received such invitations? One cannot expect so many dioceses "just happen" to know the Hills and extend "dialog" requests to them. The reasonable conclusion is that the Hills, if not the entire NACHE organization, are purposely initiating contact with various dioceses in order to…institute guidelines for Catholic homeschooling families."

NACHE has often said they do not claim to represent homeschoolers many of whom oppose guidelines altogether, but Tim Hill's comments make one wonder. "One of the reasons that Miki and I have been so willing to go when invited to talk to the bishops and their staffs about homeschooling is so that position papers, like in Baltimore, can be the result of their decision to have a more formal relationship with homeschoolers, rather than some onerous document that puts what we would perceive as unrealistic demands on us, that we cannot separate ourselves from as Catholics. And so we have to work with our Church so they can better understand what we're doing and keep that dialog open."

Valenti's comments also indicate the guidelines are coming from NACHE. Discussing Baltimore's draft, "Homeschooling: A Gift to the Church," he said, "It really was a document that originated from the grass-roots up." Like Kimberly Hahn, Hill considers diocesan guidelines "inevitable." But NACHE's actions have made that opinion a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is unclear how they can guarantee the results will not be "onerous" as the question and answer session illustrated.

A member of the audience asked, "When these guidelines or policies are contrary to Canon Law…what's the best way to deal with that?" Asked to be specific, the gentleman said that the diocese of Columbus, OH has denied his nephew (who's 10) first communion for three years because his parents won't use the textbooks mandated by the parish. McNiff's reply was anything but helpful. "If you make no headway with fostering communication with those folks at that level, I would always encourage you to work within the system, and take [your grievance] to the next level. I don't know of any other recourse that you would have." Dr. McNiff could have referred him to St. Joseph's Foundation, which provides help on canon law abuses. But perhaps McNiff is unaware of their work.

Another questioner commented, "a core group of people [was] involved in the creation process. The majority of the people in this room…were not…. I guess I'd like to know what will be done in the future…what you're asking from us, which is two-way communication, how that can happen when the majority of the people are left out of those decision-making processes?" McNiff said his primary contacts were the Hills and the people they selected. He also contacted Seton Home Study School, but they did not participate. [Seton opposes diocesan guidelines as unnecessary.] McNiff closed with a troubling statement, "This position paper is a living document. It can change and ebb and flow as we go down the path." Which means passing guidelines doesn't protect homeschoolers. They can be changed tomorrow.

2) Who will administer the guidelines? If the Office of Catholic Schools and the Office of Catechetics developed the guidelines, one can reasonably expect they will administer them. Obviously Dr. McNiff and Fr. deLadurantaye can't oversee every homeschooler in the diocese. McNiff said that himself. "In our Catholic school systems, we have roughly twelve hundred teachers. I cannot have twelve hundred teachers e-mailing me with their thoughts. Nothing would come about. It needs to be funneled…i.e. through the principals — now I can dialog with 41 people. So we would have to have that type of infrastructure in place." [Our emphasis] Exactly what type of "infrastructure" McNiff was talking about was unclear — an office in the chancery to oversee homeschooling perhaps? I used to work for the government. Bureaucracies are self-perpetuating. If homeschool offices are established, it is guaranteed they will meddle.

3) What has been the impact on homeschoolers of guidelines already established? Hard on parents. The case of the 10-year-old denied First Holy Communion is far from isolated. Sacramental blackmail is being practiced in many dioceses around the country. Typical requirements for parents are using "approved" textbooks (generally nothing written before Vatican II), enrolling children in CCD for a period of time before the sacraments (usually at least a year), attending retreats and other mandated events which often include sex-ed, requiring parents to be certified catechists, supervision and evaluation by the parish DRE [Director of Religious Education], etc. As of June 2000, 19 dioceses had guidelines in place. Among the worst is New Orleans which orders homeschoolers to attend CCD, ("home schooling cannot replace catechetical instruction or sacramental preparation in the church parish.") but also will not recognize the religion programs of private Catholic schools. The Seton newsletter often reports sad stories of abused parents who must engage in canonical warfare to defend their rights or jump through hoops to find alternatives. I personally know a number of homeschoolers who have gone to other states where a sympathetic bishop agreed to confirm children facing offensive requirements in their home dioceses.

4) Is there a need to establish diocesan guidelines at all? No, Church guidelines already exist - in canon law, the documents of Vatican II, the Charter of the Rights of the Family, Papal Encyclicals on education, etc. CHSNA [Catholic Home School Network of America] offers a booklet, "Parental Responsibilities and Rights of Parents in Religious Education." These types of things spell out parental duties. Homeschoolers tend to be among the most active members of a parish (if it's orthodox.) If it isn't, parents often lie low and instruct their children in what is fundamentally an underground church. If a bishop wants guidelines, let him establish them for his pastors, emphasizing their responsibility to preach the authentic faith from the pulpit and follow the rubrics of the Mass. Let the bishops get their own houses in order. The greatest helps to homeschoolers (and all other Catholics) are holy priests. NACHE says we should trust our bishops. With evidence of negligence and worse all over the papers these days that is a naïve position at best. Blind trust is not a virtue. Some foolish parents who practiced it are wringing their hands today over the devastated lives of their molested children. Others mourn their children's lost faith. Pray for bishops and priests, absolutely, but only trust those who have earned it.

My interest in homeschooling guidelines is more than academic. I homeschooled from1991 to 1996. During that time I taught several group classes including confirmation preparation and spoke at two NACHE conventions. I also participated in a homeschool e-mail loop of about 60 parents who discussed and debated guidelines. Most did not want them nor did they want NACHE or TORCH claiming to represent them to their bishops. MAK

Copyright 2001 Voices