Pope Asks Public Aid for Parental School Choice
Arguing that "a totally secular school system" in a modern nation would not satisfy "the legitimate claims" of religious groups and would deny "a fundamental right" to parents, Pope John Paul II last week told Roman Catholic educators in Canada that governments have a responsibility to support educational services for all.
Catholic officials in Washington said that the Pope's address was one of the few public pronouncements on the subject he has made since becoming leader of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978.
"We cannot leave God at the schoolhouse door," the Pope said, echoing language President Reagan has used in expressing support for a Constitutional amendment to permit prayer in public schools.
"Society is called upon to provide for and support with public funding those types of schools that correspond to the deepest aspirations of its citizens," the Pope said, adding that the role of the modern state is to respond to these expectations "within the limits of the common good."
The Pope, who spoke at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Newfoundland, said other nations should look to Canada as an example of a country in which public aid to religious schools has worked without conflict.
For excerpts from thePope's address, see Page 13.
"In a society such as Canada's," he said, "people's freedom to associate and enter into certain groups or institutional endeavors with the aim of fulfilling their expectations according to their own values is a fundamental democratic right. This right implies that parents have a real possibility to choose, without undue financial burdens placed upon them, appropriate schools and educational systems for their children."
Several Catholic leaders said last week that they did not think the Pope timed his address to influence American Catholic voters in the upcoming Presidential election, as some observers suggested, but rather out of concern over the conflict the public-funding issue has generated around the world.
They also maintained that the Pope's statement is consistent with the position the Vatican has held on the issue for almost 50 years.
"On the surface [Pope John Paul II's] statement is not new and it is consistent with what he has said in the past," said the Rev. Thomas Gallagher, secretary for education at the United States Catholic Conference.
"He is simply following the tradition of modern Popes who have seen this as a response to the need for justice in providing equitable funds," added Patricia Feistritzer, director of communications at the National Catholic Educational Association.
Papal advocacy of public aid to religious schools dates back at least as far as 1936, Catholic officials said, when Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical letter calling on the state to provide assistance to religious schools "as justice demands."
In another more recent document issued in 1977 by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, an office of the Vatican, Catholic officials maintained that public aid to private schools worked very well in some countries.
"From the economic point of view," the document said, "the position of very many Catholic schools has improved ... in [cases] where governments have appreciated the advantages and the necessity of a pluraity of school systems which offer alternatives to a single state system.
"While at first Catholic schools received various public grants, often merely conceded, they later began to enter into agreements, conventions, contracts, etc. which guarantee both the preservation of the special sta-tus of the Catholic school and its ability to perform its function adequately," the document continued. "Catholic schools are thereby more or less closely associated with the national system and are assured of an economical and juridical status similar to state schools."
Pope John Paul II also addressed the issue during the visits with American bishops last year, Father Gallagher said.
Father Gallagher speculated that the Pope chose to deliver his address in Canada because the country provides public aid to private schools.
An Issue of Justice
But whatever the Pope's motivation for his statement on aid to religious schools at this time, said Msgr. John Meyers, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, Catholic educators in the United States hope that Americans will heed the message.
"I would hope that people of the United States will recognize the fairness and justice in the Pope's encouragement of the government to provide the type of education that parents think is best for their children," Father Meyers said.
Father Meyers said Catholic education officials in the United States had not asked the Pope to address the issue of public aid to private schools at this particular moment, but that the ncea is "in constant communication with the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican ... representing the interest of [American] Catholic education."
The Vatican's chief education official, William Cardinal Baum, was in Washington, D.C., for meetings last week, but was unavailable for comment.
U.S. Catholic educators have been vocal in their support of proposals advanced by President Reagan during his tenure, such as tuition tax credits and vouchers.
A White House spokesman said last week that the President had no statement "at this time" on the Pope's call for government aid to private schools.
The Democratic Presidential candidate, Walter F. Mondale, opposes aid to private schools, according to a campaign spokesman.
A 'Political' Pope
Some religion experts observed last week that the Pope's statement seemed timed to coincide with the intense debate about aid to private schools underway in this country's political arena.
"I cannot picture that he drafted his speech without an awareness that this was going on in America," said Martin Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago. "It must have been meant to be overheard by us."
Mr. Marty said he expected the Pope's remarks to be used considerably by President Reagan during his re-election campaign, but that the religion issue does not seem to be "converting" people to the Republican Party.
"I think Mr. Reagan has it in the bag--right now religion needs Reagan more than Reagan needs religion," he said.
James Wood, Simon Bunn Professor of church-state studies and director of the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., agreed that the Pope's address was politically motivated to a certain extent.
Pope John Paul II spoke on principle, but also out of "pragmatic" consideration to advance Catholic education, Mr. Wood suggested.
"He is astute and he is politically sensitive," Mr. Wood said. "I just assume that he certainly is fully aware of what he is doing and his judgment is that he is saying this with the hope that it would bear some fruit."
Cuomo Tackles Church Issue
The day after the Pope's address, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, whose stances as a Catholic and politician have been questioned by religious leaders, criticized "the manipulative invoking of religion to advance a politician or a party" before an audience at the University of Notre Dame. The Governor's address focused on the issues of public policy and religious values, and how his Catholic faith has influenced his governing.
Governor Cuomo said Americans "know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman."
Roman Catholics should practice their religion by setting an example, not "by trying to make laws for others to live by. ... We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us," he said.
Assistant Editor Anne Bridgman contributed to this article.