Colleen Bennett never intended to home-school her children. But when her son was getting ready for kindergarten, his birth date would have made him one of the youngest in the class, which some parents think can be a disadvantage, especially for boys. 

She and her husband, Craig, thought about holding him out of school for a year — a move The New York Times calls “redshirting,” the way some college football teams keep freshmen out of competition to give them a chance to mature. Then she settled on a compromise: She would try home-schooling him for a year. If it didn’t work, there was no harm; she was thinking about sending him to school a year later anyway. If it did work, great: She could send him to first grade the following year, or, if they wanted to, the family could continue to home-school. 

That 4-year-old kindergartner is now a 16-year-old rising senior in high school, applying to colleges, and he has never been enrolled in a formal school. Neither have Bennett’s three younger children. 

All of them are doing well academically and socially, but that has not been the biggest benefit of home schooling, she said. For her family, the biggest benefit has been the way teaching their children at home has fostered spiritual growth for all of them, parents as well as kids. 

Question of commitment 

According to the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis), parents are the primary educators of their children, and Catholic home-schoolers take that commitment seriously. For them, their homes are places where authentic Catholic education occurs, and many members of the clergy and hierarchy agree with them. Several dioceses explicitly recognize home schooling as a valid option for Catholic education. 

But not all priests and bishops agree. At the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, the bishops wrote that parents have an obligation to send their children to parochial schools, and some clergy members today say Catholic home-schoolers abrogate that responsibility. 

The latest skirmish flared earlier this year when the Holy Family Homeschoolers Association invited Austin Bishop Joe Vásquez to celebrate a blessing Mass at the beginning of the next school year. The response came not from the bishop’s office but from the Catholic schools superintendent, Ned Vanders, who wrote

“Bishop Vásquez received your invitation to celebrate a Eucharistic liturgy for the fall home-schooling blessing Mass.Bishop Vásquez believes Catholic education, and in particular Catholic school education, is an essential part of the life of the Diocese of Austin. As you know, Catholic schools are at the heart of the mission of the Church.“Bishop’s presence at the home-schooling Mass would convey a contradictory message equating the importance of Catholic school education with Catholic home schooling; therefore, Bishop Vásquez must respectfully decline the invitation.Sincerely in Christ,Ned F. Vanders, Ed.D.” 

A spokesman from the Diocese of Austin declined interview requests for Vanders and Bishop Vásquez. 

In defense of schools 

But if Vanders’ letter reflects Bishop Vasquez’s thoughts on home schooling, he is not alone. 

Father Peter M.J. Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, has become something of a bete noire for the Catholic home-schooling community, championing the idea that Catholic children should be educated in Catholic schools.  

There are several reasons to prefer Catholic schools, Father Stravinskas told Our Sunday Visitor, including that the Church Fathers made clear that catechesis is the job of the whole Church, with the main responsibility resting on the shoulders of the pastor, not the parents. 

And Catholic parents who choose to home-school when there is a Catholic school available at least implicitly send the message that they do not trust the Church to educate their children properly, and the children get that message. 

“On the same property where they go to church on Sunday is a school where the parents don’t wish to send them,” he said. 

That leads to a subtle anti-clericalism, he said, because the children learn that priests cannot be counted on to hand on the faith. It shows in what he sees as a dearth of vocations from home-school families. “Why would you want to join the club if its members can’t be trusted to their jobs?” he said. 

He also believes it is psychologically unhealthy for mothers to spend 24 hours a day with their children as they get older, and it’s academically nearly impossible for one person to teach all that is included in a modern high school curriculum. 

What’s more, he said, some home-school families say they have no issues with the faculty or teaching at their local Catholic schools, but they don’t want their children exposed to others whose families might not have the same values as theirs. 

“That sets up an elite, a church within a church, and that is to be avoided,” he said.

Best fit for lifestyle 

Leslie and Bill Hammack, who live in the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., do support the school at their parish, Holy Cross, in Batavia, Ill. They helped raise money for its construction and have no complaints about the quality of the education or catechesis offered there. 

But they are home-schooling their four children and started a CRECHE (Children Receiving Education in a Catholic Home Environment) home-schooling group that includes several dozen families, about half from their parish and half from neighboring parishes. 

“They’re looking at home schooling as having opted for Catholic education, just not in the parochial school,” said Bill Hammack. “They would support the home-school option and the parochial option as a matter of course.” 

Their pastor allows the group to meet at the parish twice a month and he or another priest celebrates Mass for them once a month, the couple said, and treats the home-school group as almost a parish ministry. 

Holy Cross opened its school after the Hammacks started the CRECHE group; only their youngest could have really benefited from it, they said. But when it opened, six or seven families from the group put their children in the school. 

The next year, more than half pulled their kids out again. 

“None of them went to the pastor and said, ‘Msgr., you have a real problem in your school,’” Bill Hammack said. “They just found it didn’t work as well with their lifestyle.” 

In any case, the number of home-schoolers at Holy Cross parish has not hurt the school, which is planning a major expansion to accommodate the number of families who want to enroll their children.  

Bennett told OSV the Catholic schools in her area also have waiting lists.

The Hammacks’ oldest son did attend Catholic high school for the first semester of the 2010-11 school year. He struggled a bit at the beginning of the term at Marmion Academy, a Benedictine school in Aurora, Ill., because he was not accustomed to having to work on every subject every day, moving at the pace of the class rather than following his own interests. By the end of the semester, he was doing well, but neither he nor the rest of the family liked having to incorporate the school schedule into their lives. 

“It was a lot to deal with,” said Leslie Hammack. 

So, when he asked to return to home schooling, after praying about it, his family agreed. 

But Leslie Hammack cautions against choosing to home-school as a way to get away from something. Rather, she said, it works best when the parents have a positive goal they want to accomplish. Her goal? 

“To get my children into heaven,” she said. 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

What About Religious Ed? (Sidebar)

While many dioceses have no guidelines concerning home schooling when it comes to academics, several do have rules about religious education. In some places, home-school groups offer their own religious education sessions to members; in other areas, the diocese or the parish requires that children attend parish-based religious education programs. 

Canon law requires that pastors examine candidates for sacraments of initiation to make sure they are ready, and Bill Hammack said some of them delegate that responsibility by making everyone go to religious education. 

Colleen Bennett said she does send her children to religious education when they are preparing for sacraments of initiation like first Communion or confirmation, but she also volunteers to serve as a catechist during the one- or two-year preparation period. 

“That way, I know they are being taught by someone who knows what she is talking about,” she said. 

Still, she and other home-school parents chafe at the idea that their children have to go to religious education classes where the other students — and, they say, sometimes the volunteer catechists — are way behind them in terms of learning about their faith. 

“It’s like they hold the sacraments hostage,” she said.