ROME—Pope John Paul II took advantage of his weekly Angelus address Oct. 27 to reaffirm Church teaching on the right to Catholic education. Speaking to the thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square to celebrate Catholic Schools Day, the Pontiff reminded his listeners that “Catholic schools provide an important service to the Church and society and serve as modern educational outposts.”He went on to affirm that parents' choice of Catholic schools “should not unjustly penalize family finances.”

The Italian secular press was quick to read between the lines. Though on this occasion the Pope made no explicit mention of government subsidies to private schools, the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa headlined its story about the address “Government Should Aid Catholic Schools.”The leftward-leaning journal La Repubblica called John Paul's words “a clear, albeit indirect, reprimand of the government,” and “something more than a papal exhortation.”

As loose as these interpretations may be, they aren't far off the mark. Just two years ago the Pope unequivocally stated that “it is the task of governments who have the grave obligation of organizing the educational system to make the exercise of this freedom concretely possible.”Still earlier, in his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul affirmed that “that right of parents to choose an education in conformity with their religious faith must be absolutely guaranteed,”and “the state and the Church have the obligation to give families all possible aid to enable them to perform their educational role property.”

The Pope's recent remarks on school choice are squarely in line with traditional Catholic social teaching. Vatican II's declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum Educationis, warned against a “monopoly of schools which would be prejudicial to the natural rights of the human person.”The decree explicitly maintained the right of parents to choose Catholic schools and called on civil society to guarantee this right through a just distribution of economic assistance.

“Parents, who have the primary and inalienable right in regard to the education of their children, should enjoy the fullest liberty in their choice of school. The public authority, therefore, … is bound according to the principles of distributive justice to ensure that public subsidies to schools are so allocated that parents are truly free to select schools for their children in accordance with their conscience”(GE6).

The point of contention for some Italians is article 33 of the national Constitution, which speaks of the right of private persons to organize schools, but “without burden to the State.”During the latest convention of the International Office of Catholic Education in March 1994, Cardinal Pio Laghi, head of the Vatican Congregation which oversees all Catholic schools, requested—without result—the establishment of a bilateral commission for full academic recognition of Catholic schools, and economic parity visávis public schools. At that time the Australian system was put forward as a model. In Australia, 50 percent of Catholic school teachers' salaries are financed by the federal government, 25 percent by local government, and the remaining 25 percent by the Church. In Chile, Belgium and the Netherlands, the state provides full funding for all schools, public and private.

These arguments are not foreign to Americans. In the past several years the school choice movement has experienced steady growth despite fierce opposition from America's largest union, the NEA. Many U.S. citizens have come to believe that the effective monopoly of public schools over families unable to afford private education constitutes a violation of their religious convictions. This frustration has given rise to concrete programs. In Milwaukee and Cleveland, for example, legislation was struck down to provide needy students with tax-funded scholarships, enabling them to attend the school of their choice, whether public or private. The Milwaukee program was struck down by the courts; Cleveland's is currently in force, pending judicial decision.

Politically, school choice accounts for one of the prime areas of divergence between the Democratic and Republican parties. Bill Clinton, who receives substantial funding from the NEA, is decidedly anti-school choice, whereas Bob Dole supported school choice as part of his platform.

Father Thomas Williams is based in Rome.