Twenty years ago, when my parents began homeschooling first my younger brother (who had some non-standard learning needs) and later all of us, homeschooling was still very much a fringe phenomenon. It was not unusual for people to predict, on hearing that children were homeschooled, that they would not be able to get into college, or for neighbors to harass homeschoolers by repeatedly calling the truancy officers on them. The extent to which homeschooling has become mainstream since that time has been quite extraordinary, and due in no small part to the academic and personal successes that homeschooled students have shown themselves capable of. Many states’ public education systems are now actively friendly towards homeschoolers, and make state curricula available free of charge to homeschoolers who wish to use them at home.
Sadly, one area where this increasing social acceptance of homeschooling has often been lagging is in Catholic circles at the parish and diocesan level. Homeschoolers are sometimes seen as a threat by parochial school systems — this despite the Church’s teaching that parents bear the primary responsibility as first educators of their children.
Such a situation has recently reared its head back in our old home diocese of Austin, Texas. A local Catholic homeschooling group, Holy Family Homeschoolers, sent an invitation to their annual Homeschoolers Blessing Mass to newly appointed Bishop Vásquez. In past years, an invitation had always been sent to the bishop. Bishop Aymond had officiated at the Blessing Mass when he first came to the diocese and had allowed a certain degree of openness in dealing with Catholic homeschoolers at the parish and diocesan levels.
Given the many demands on Bishop Vásquez’s time, it is hardly surprising that he was unable to attend this year. What is, however, both surprising and distressing is that the response to the invitation sent to Bishop Vásquez’s office came not from the Chancery but from the Catholic Schools Office, and in a tone which was decidedly dismissive:
> Bishop Vásquez received your invitation to celebrate a Eucharistic liturgy for the fall homeschooling 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 homeschooling Mass would convey a contradictory message equating the importance of Catholic school education with Catholic homeschooling; therefore, Bishop Vásquez must respectfully decline the invitation.
> Sincerely in Christ,
> Ned F. Vanders, Ed.D.
Ned Vanders is the diocesan Superintendent of Catholic Schools, and I think that the above email pretty clearly backs up the complaint I have heard that he is “openly hostile to homeschooling”.
Again, let me be clear: I think it is quite reasonable and understandable that Bishop Vásquez is unable to attend. A note from his office to that effect would in no sense be offensive. However, I think that the response that was received by the Holy Family Homeschoolers is worrisome in two senses.
First, it suggests that “Catholic education” means nothing other than institutional Catholic schools run by the diocese. Understand, Austin is not one of these diocese with a long and rich history of parochial schools. In a rapidly growing diocese of half a million Catholics in 125 parishes, it offers 17 elementary schools and 5 high schools, serving a mere 5,000 students. Clearly, the diocese is equipped to serve only a small minority of Catholic school-age children directly through its schools. One would think, under such circumstances, that the diocese would be especially eager to work with parents who take it upon themselves to provide a Catholic education to their children in the home. Instead, what we see is the claim that “Bishop’s presence at the homeschooling Mass would convey a contradictory message equating the importance of Catholic school education with Catholic homeschooling.”
Surely, Catholic education is something more than a particular 22 institutions in the diocese, serving a small fraction of the diocese’s children. Catholic education includes not merely those 22 schools, but also the religious education programs in all 125 parishes, and also the efforts of those parents who, in the spirit of the Church’s teaching that they are the primary educators of their children, take on the responsibility of educating their children. If “Catholic education… is an essential part of the life of the Diocese of Austin” then surely this essential part encompasses more than 1% of the people in the diocese. Surely it involves the education, in the faith, of all the children in the diocese. This does not mean that the bishop must be present at a mass blessing homeschoolers. He is a busy man with many duties, and such things are often not possible. But it does mean that it should not be suggested to homeschooling parents that they are acting in opposition to “the heart of the mission of the church.”
Secondly, it is concerning to see such a response issued on behalf of the bishop and the diocese to members of the flock. Politeness is something which costs very little. A simple, “Bishop Vásquez appreciates the efforts of Catholic parents who are striving to educate their children in the faith, but the demands of his office make it impossible to officiate at the Blessing Mass this year,” would have caused the diocese no inconvenience and earned it continuing goodwill among a dedicated and active group of parents. Instead, the response sent seems calculated to be as dismissive (if not actively adversarial) as possible.
In my experience, such an openly contemptuous communication to the public is almost never made by an administrator unless he believes that he has the full backing of his superiors — or believes his superiors to be so oblivious to his actions that he has free rein. If Superintendant Vanders’ email is an accurate indication of Bishop Vásquez’s attitude towards Catholic homeschooling, it seems to suggest a great deal of unnecessary antagonism on the bishop’s part. If it is, instead, an indication that the Catholic Schools Office receives little guidance or oversight, that seems a troubling sign for the diocese.
Either way, this is a regrettably provocative opening in the relationship between homeschooling families and the Austin Diocese.