A few years ago, as our family grew in size, we found that our children’s participation in the parish Religious Program no longer provided a benefit to our family and to the religious formation of our children. Therefore we decided to make a simple request that our children be exempt from the Diocesan requirement of participation in the parish catechetical program prior to receive the sacrament of First Holy Communion. Unfortunately we were told that although our children may have reached the age of reason, possessed the required knowledge and knew how to move through the rite of first communion, they would not be able to receive the sacrament until they sat through two years of religious education in the classroom based program at our local parish.
We consulted the Diocesan policies, spoke with each person in the chain of command and eventually the Bishop at the time instructed our pastor to administer the sacrament even though we did not participate in the parish program. When the new Bishop was installed, we had another child that was ready for the sacrament, but the new Bishop denied our request and so we contacted the Congregatio Pro Clericis and after discussing the matter with our Bishop’s office (through our Pastor) we received word that our children could receive the sacraments without attending the parish classroom based classes.
We firmly believe that the duty to instruct our children in the faith resides with the parents. The Diocese is doing their best to assist the parents to educate their children in the faith, but if the parents do not require any assistance, it should not be forced on them against their parental judgement. There are many factors that may lead a parent to determine that attendance at the parish religious education program may not be in the best interest of their family or the individual child. It is in the best interest of all parties involved to have educated parents that are adequately equipped to instruct their children in not only a knowledge of the faith, but a love for Jesus Christ and His church. The Church should assist the parents in this very important task, not attempt to take this duty from them.
Diocese of Austin Policies
The following information which related to the Diocese of Austin Guidelines for Sacramental Preparation can be found in the Diocese of Austin Policy Manual (Page F-7 in the Religious Education and Catholic Formation section):
It should be noted that this policy is perfectly in line with Church teaching as it only identifies the policy as the normal way that sacramental preparation should be carried out. Nowhere in this document does it require parents to participated in the parish catechetical program in order to receive the sacraments. The operative word is should and I have highlighted the places in this policy where this term has been used. If the word must was used, then this policy would be in opposition to Canon Law.
Update (June 2012): The Diocesan Policy on Homeschooling Religious Education was amended to allow for exceptions.
Policy on Home Schooling – Revised June 1, 2011
In order to serve the needs of the people of God in the Diocese of Austin and to be responsible stewards of the gifts given to the diocese, the Diocese of Austin issues the following policy:
I. Parents are the primary educators of their children in the Catholic faith.
A. They have the responsibility of awakening a sense of God, beginning the formation of a sense of conscience and celebrating the loving presence of God in their families.
B. They also have the responsibility of participating with their children in their local parish community, “the pre-eminent place for catechesis” (Catechesi Tradendae 67).
II. Children who are home schooled by their parents in academic subjects should participate in their local parish catechetical programs for preparation of and reception of the sacraments and to participate fully in the life of their parish. “The parish is the most important locus in which the Christian community is formed and expressed” (GDC 257).
A. At times, parents who home school their children in the faith may request an exception in particular cases.
B. The parish catechetical material should be used.
C. If the parents wish to supplement the catechetical program with additional resources, the material should be on the list approved by the USCCB and the Diocese of Austin.
1. This list is available from the parish or the diocesan Office of Religious Education and Formation.
2. The Office of Religious Education and Formation can assist parents who are home schooling their children with questions regarding sacramental preparation.
Implementation of the Policies within the Diocese
While the policy wording should allow for exceptions to the policy, the actual implementation has been to deny sacraments unless the child follows the policy. There is a bit of variance at the local parishes, but most are following the directives from the Chancery to strictly enforce the two year requirement to attend the parish classroom based program as well as the sacramental preparation program. In some cases the local parish will count home based religious education if the parent has registered at the parish as a homeschool RE family.
Universal Church Law (Canon Law)
The universal Church has the following laws that govern the administration of the sacraments (source: Preparing Children for the Sacraments – By Dr. Edward Peters)
For the valid reception of confirmation, it is only required that the confirmand be baptized (Canon 889 § 1). For the licit reception of Confirmation, however, a confirmand must be “suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew one’s baptismal promises” (Canon 889 § 2)
Canon 891 states that Confirmation is generally to be administered at about the age of discretion, which age is understood to be seven (see Canon 97 § 2). There are, however, three exceptions to this rule, two of which exceptions, “danger of death” and “grave cause,” were more often understood to support administration of Confirmation earlier than the age of discretion. But the main exception to requiring administration of Confirmation at the age of discretion lies in Canon 891’s phrase “unless the conference of bishops determines another age” for reception of the sacrament.
First Holy Communion
“Any baptized person who is not prohibited by law can be admitted to Holy Communion” (Canon 912).
Canon 914 opens with the word “<Parentum>” and clearly declares them as having the primary place in the Eucharistic education of their children. If that were not enough, Canons 226 §2, 793 § 1, 835 § 4, and 1136, each taken from very different sections of the 1983 Code, weigh in heavily on behalf of parental primacy in the education of children, almost as if the point cannot be stressed often enough in an age veering toward social collectivism and bureaucratic supremacies. Even parental negligence in this area, which obviously happens and which should be addressed by pastors and catechists in accord with Canon 529 § 1, cannot be used as an excuse to disregard the integrity of the family unit, the family which Pope Paul VI so insightfully called “the domestic Church.”
Canon 914, which recognizes parental primacy in the education of children for the Eucharist, also reminds pastors “to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed.”
Canon 913 states that children should be able “to understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion.” Such a canon is much easier to apply in real life than it is to explain in the abstract, but a few points seem clear.
Sacramental preparation periods are times of special grace and expectation. No one wants to see them turned into an arena for a contest of wills between parents and pastors, or catechists, and in most cases, of course, this does not happen. When it does occur, however, it behooves all involved to step back from the situation and to reassess more precisely what is, and what is not, required in sacramental preparation. If that is done carefully and honestly, then, I suggest, most instances of disagreement can be resolved by recognizing that the Church’s expectations for sacramental participation have already been set out in canon law and are applicable without regard to the preferences of parental or parochial figures.
Since the Diocesan implementation of the policy within the local parish appeared to be in opposition to the law that governs the Church, my wife and I petitioned the Vatican and received the following reply:
“while children who are ‘home schooled’ are expected as a rule to participate in the parochial catechetical programme in preparation for the sacraments, the Pastor can also exempt those children who are shown to be adequately prepared.”
“The duty to prepare and present the children for the sacraments of initiation belongs principally to parents, while the Pastor is to provide the necessary assistance and to satisfy himself of the preparedness of the child for the reception of the sacraments (cf can. 914 CIC). Clearly it is the duty of the Diocesan Bishop to oversee catechesis in his Diocese and to provide programmes accordingly (cf. can. 775). The Congregation would urge you to consider carefully and prudently how you can collaborate with the reasonable requests of your Pastor, especially insofar as that concerns the participation of your children in the life of the parish in which they live as members of the Catholic community and in which they experience immediately the life of Holy Church”
The entire letter from the Congregatio Pro Clericis can be viewed here.
With all this information in mind, I suggest that the following steps be taken to have your children receive the sacraments without being compelled to participate in the parish based sacramental preparation program:
- Contact the Director of Religious Education at your parish, ask them if it would be possible to prepare your children for the desired sacrament at home. Be sure to let them know that your child has been taught the faith by you using materials approved for catechetical instruction by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Also inform them that your child has reached the age of reason (normally considered the age of 7) and that your child desires to receive the sacrament and knows how to move through the ritual.
- Confirmation is a little different, the current minimum age for receiving confirmation in the Diocese of Austin is not actually an age, but a grade level, which is currently set at 9th grade. Use your best judgement, if you child is only 12, but is doing 9th grade level work (especially in the area of faith formation), you may feel comfortable informing the DRE that your child is in 9th grade.
- If this request is denied, contact your pastor and ask the same question providing the same information on the qualifications of your child.
- If this request is denied, contact the Vicar General of the Diocese of Austin, who is currently Msgr. Mike Sis (512-949-2401).
- If the Vicar General denies your request, then you may wish to show him the letter from the Congregatio Pro Clericis (click here). This should be all that is necessary. The Austin Diocese is aware of the response of the Congration Pro Clericis and I do not think they wish to have them consulted again in this matter. (Here is the letter I wrote to the Congregatio Pro Clericis – (Sacraments letter)
- If you are not in the Diocese of Austin, then you will need to collect written documentation that you will need to send to the Congratio Pro Clericis via the Apostolic Nuncio (that is what seemed to work for me):
- Apostolic Nuncio to the United States:
The Most Reverend Carlo Maria Vigano
Embassy of the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See
3339 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W,
Washington, DC, USA
Fax (202) 337-4036
- Congregatio Pro Clericis:
Palazzo delle Congregazioni,
Piazza Pio XII, 3, 00193
- Update, the new Vatican Congregation for this type of thing is now:
“Accepting the agreement proposed by the heads of the dicasteries concerned, therefore, I have decided to transfer the competency for catechesis that the Apostolic Constitution ‘Pastor bonus’ had entrusted to the Congregation for the Clergy on 28 June 1988, to the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelisation, with the same jurisdiction in the matter as previously exercised by the Congregation as required by canon law.”
- Apostolic Nuncio to the United States:
We have felt called to pursue this issue within our family and to be honest there are some within the Church who were not happy that we did so. While the Bishop and the Vicar General and our pastor are all aware of this information, I am not aware that any other pastors within the Diocese have been informed of any change in the Diocesan policy or its implementation. The parish DRE has a lot of work they do and having to deal with a parent who wishes to do things outside the normal way may be frustrating, don’t take it personally. You may also get the same response from your Pastor. Be prepared and know that when you stand before God, he will ask you what steps you took to pass on the faith to your children, so pray about it and if you feel strongly that God has called you to a different path than the parish RE program, follow your conscience and do what you need to do.