Friday, February 20, 2009

State Aid for Catholic Schools: Help or Hindrance?

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[. . . Speaking at a daylong conference devoted to the subject of "State Financing of Catholic Schools," held Feb. 16 at the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome and hosted by the Acton Institute], the American perspective was given by Professor Thomas C. Berg, who lectures in law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He said that although the United States has a healthy history and tradition of church-state separation that carries an in-built wariness of state funding, the United States is beginning to increasingly resemble Europe, and conflicts are emerging because of a distrust of religious schools by a secular-oriented state.

Two options

So what needs to be done to secure permissible state financing for Catholic schools while helping such institutions remain faithful to the magisterium? Gregg believes the whole issue needs to be rethought in ways consistent with magisterial teaching. He then presented two possible options. One would be for Catholic schools to opt out of public funding altogether. He believes that would show how much some schools are reliant on such funding rather than faithful support of other groups. It would also reduce bureaucracy and re-engage the laity on how to best educate their children.

A second option would be to shift from direct subsidies to a policy of tax breaks, whereby Catholic parents could nominate a particular school they would like their taxes to go to. That, argued Gregg, would create "major incentives" to educators to pay more attention to parental wishes rather than "the whims of state officials and politicians pushing politically correct agendas."

For his part, Berg argued that two things are needed if pluralism is to coexist with the state financing of Catholic schools: first, a developed jurisprudence to determine which regulations are legitimate or illegitimate for Catholic schools financed by the state. Second, even if state financing continues to be available, Catholic schools will still need to call on the voluntary commitment of the faithful.

"The tradition of voluntary support will have to be there as a backstop," said Berg, "because state funding brings too many dangers."

Father David Jaeger, professor of canon law at the Pontifical Antonianum University, stressed that parents have a right to state funding for education under canon law. But this whole area of whether such financing should be sought and accepted in light of encroaching secularist ideology is "something new."

Like Berg, he believes the key question for the future will be where to draw the line between helpful state intervention and impermissible interference.

But for [Professor Sam Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute], if that line cannot be satisfactorily drawn, then the Church should take radical action. "Anything that impedes the ability of Catholic schools from maintaining and promoting that which is at the very heart of its inspiration -- which is the Catholic faith -- ought to be dispensed with," he said. "In our age, if this includes state funding, then it, too, ought to be one of those things that the Church casts off, not as an act of defiant confrontation, but rather as an inspiration of love for its beginning and ultimate end, the Lord Jesus Christ."

That may inadvertently please the likes of Barry Sheerman, but at the same time he’d be less able to prevent Catholic schools from being, as he would put it, “too serious” about the faith. Zenit
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