THE STATE cannot be allowed to have a monopoly in education, the Vatican reaffirmed in a major new policy document issued last Friday.
The Sacred Congregation for Education says: "A state monopoly of education is not permissible, and only a pluralism of school systems will respect the fundamental right and freedom of individuals."
But the document does admit that the exercise of this right may be conditioned by a number of factors according to the social conditions in each country.
In Britain the Labour Party has moved to a firm policy of abolition for private schools.
The Vatican document is called Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith, and intended primarily to outline a strategy in the face of withdrawal by many religious orders from work in education. In Britain, several teaching congregations have announced this year their intention of giving up schools.
The position in Britain is complicated by falling numbers of schoolchildren, closures of schools and cuts in the number of teachers being trained, but an increasing proportion of teaching is being taken on by lay people.
The document underlines the dignity of lay teachers and warns against the fallacy of thinking them second class Catholics.
It recalls the teaching of Vatican II on the duties and vocation of lay people which stem from their Baptism, and the obligation lay people have to sanctify themselves through their work.
The 44-page document encourages lay teachers to study theology and to obtain qualifications from Church institutes, but warns that they must be careful to remain faithful to the Magisterium of the Church.
When non-Catholic children are in a Catholic school, or when a Catholic is teaching in a non-Catholic school, the teacher must be careful to respect the children's freedom while bearing witness to his own beliefs.
The teacher also has a duty to help young people find their vocation. "They should help students to discern a vocation to marriage or to celibacy, including consecrated celibacy, within the lay state," as well as to the priesthood or religious life.
Teachers, while preserving cultural values, should not be uncritical of culture. "If the communication of culture is to be a genuine educational activity, it must not only be organic, but also critical. . . . Faith will provide Catholic educators with some essential principles for critique and evaluation."