Grace perfects the natural primacy of parents

Last Saturday, at the Family and Life Academy, Dr Alan Fimister began the third lesson of his course on parents as primary educators with a concise review of the vast and complex plan of the first two lessons. In its broadest terms, the mission to educate begins with the family in the natural order, is perfected by the Church in the supernatural order — without violating the natural primacy of parents — and is supported by the state in all things natural which the family cannot necessarily provide on its own. This plan corresponds in every point to the principles of natural law and the deposit of the faith. As the course breaks until the new year, participants can take this opportunity to consolidate their understanding of the premises established so far, before the course concludes with an in-depth look at the praxis of Christian education today, in some of the most hostile historical conditions that the family has ever encountered.

Dr Fimister closely models the spirit and structure of the course on Pius XI’s encyclical Divini illius magistri: a monument to the Church’s infallible teaching and probably the foremost document ever produced on the subject of Christian education. The encyclical was written between the two world wars, when Christians knew themselves to be beset by the dangerous seduction of utopian ideas, and the Church still urged her children to steadfastness. Dr Fimister described Pius XI’s approach:

“Surveying the landscape of the world in 1929, he was not tempted to complacency but observed that ‘in these our times … alas, there is so great and deplorable an absence of clear and sound principles, even regarding problems the most fundamental’ and it was in this spirit that he gave his teaching on this question. The Second Vatican Council issued only a very short declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum educationis which is less than a third of the length of Divini illius magistri and cites Pius XI’s encyclical thirteen times. While repeating much of Pius XI’s teaching, it reflects the unfounded optimism of its time which has aged so poorly in comparison with the sobriety and vigilance of Pius XI. Despite its much greater length Divini illius magistri reflects the high noon of the great thomistic revival launched by Pope Leo XIII and is lucidly organised and succinct.”

This appears to be, in all respects, the rock on which to rebuild Christian education after the inevitable desolation of the secularist experiment. “Even a writer as sober as Pius XI,” Dr Fimister observed, “could hardly have imagined the tsunami of unnatural vice which has swept over western society.” Sticking closely to the text of the encyclical, however, he succeeded in showing the realisation of its warnings in the nearly-a-century since its composition. Thus the material is arranged, in the first half of the course, to provide a thorough and up-to-date treatment of the subject while preserving the overall form of Divini illius magistri.

“When, a few years ago, some homeschooling families had their children removed from them by the German authorities (which tyrannically presumes to forbid homeschooling in a law dating back to the Third Reich) these families sought asylum in the United States. The Obama Administration strongly opposed this claim… [They] wanted to establish that the right of parents to educate their own children is not an essential human right, not because they care about the fate of families in Germany, but because they want to clear the way for some future liberal administration to eliminate homeschooling in the United States, ten or twenty years down the line, on the grounds that ‘an open, pluralistic society’ requires this sacrifice.”

This is the trajectory of virtually all western states. The Church, on the other hand, has always respected the natural rights of parents, nor claims for herself any jurisdiction over the unbaptised. The reasons for have been set out in some detail by Dr Fimister, and some of its wider ramifications explored more deeply in the Q&A which followed lesson 2. At its centre stands what Pope Pius XI called “the order of providence”, in which order man can only achieve his natural end through his supernatural end; his pursuit of happiness through strictly human means being doomed to ruin. And since “grace perfects and does not destroy nature”, not only do his rights and duties remain intact, but they are elevated beyond all human capacities by the sacraments of the Church, beginning with baptism. For the Church to begin her work of salvific “generation”, which perfects natural generation, parents must “subject their offspring to the Church’s jurisdiction through baptism”. In this plan, which gives all due consideration to man’s political nature, the state has no jurisdiction whatsoever.

“The teaching of the Church therefore is that the Christian child has an absolute right, even against its parents, to education in the truths of the Gospel, and that the parents of all children have a duty antecedent to the very existence of civil society, and therefore superior to all positive law, to educate their offspring in all matters necessary to bring their children to adult maturity, and in which the state does not have any interest so vital that it cannot be met by the parents or by educators employed by the parents. Teachers, therefore, in all schools for those below the age of majority, educate always by a right delegated by the parents, the Church or both; never by a native right and never by a right derived from the temporal power.”

But the teaching authority of the Church is in the throes of its own crisis:

“[M]any Christian parents have been forced to judge that their bishops are among those wolves of whom St Paul warned and that the judgement of those bishops as to the capacities and intentions of those offering their skills as teachers cannot be relied upon… It is right and good that children should be taught in schools, by and with the authority of the parents, the primary educators in the natural and supernatural orders, and with the approbation of their bishops; but in dark times sometimes parents themselves must chose not to delegate this great duty because there is no one who can be trusted to execute it other than themselves. This is a right that cannot be taken away from the parents. Some are blessed with a special gift to fulfil it, some are not, but all have graces and gifts natural and supernatural through their baptism, confirmation and the sacrament of matrimony.”

Parents are pressed between the apparently ineluctable self-demolition of western nation states and that of the teaching Church. They are charged, above all, with the grave responsibility of preserving and passing on the deposit of the faith, through gifts and graces which make their success nothing short of an ongoing miracles. In the Q&A to lesson 2, Dr Fimister responded to a question about the complementary responsibilities of mothers and fathers.

“Insofar as the father is the head of the family, he bears final responsibility, but his spouse is his helpmate in all things and the relationship between man and wife is a relationship between two rational creatures who are by nature equal. Consequently, it must be a relationship of constant counsel and aid between the two and not servile in any respects. So, for all intents and purposes, the responsibility is the same and entirely shared between the father and the mother.”

Dr Fimister will return in January for the concluding lessons of the course, in which he will examine the necessary conditions of Christian education and its final end in forming perfect servants of Christ. The social and spiritual importance of fatherhood will be also be explored in greater depth at the Family and Life Academy in the new year.

You can catch up with this course at the Family and Life Academy and join the concluding lessons live on Saturday 7 and 14 January. Click here to enrol.