Today, the European Court of Human Rights announced its judgment in the case of Wunderlich v. Germany. The ruling stated that the German authorities’ actions were not in violation of the Wunderlich family’s fundamental rights.
“We are extremely disappointed with this ruling of the Court. It disregards the rights of parents all over Europe to raise their children without disproportionate interference from the state. Petra and Dirk Wunderlich simply wanted to educate their children in line with their convictions and decided their home environment would be the best place for this. Children deserve this loving care from their parents. We are now advising the Wunderlichs of their options, including taking the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights,” said Robert Clarke, Director of European Advocacy for ADF International and lead counsel for the Wunderlich family.
In August 2013, more than 30 police officers and social workers stormed the home of the Wunderlich family. The authorities brutally removed the children from their parents and their home, leaving the family traumatized. The children were ultimately returned to their parents but their legal status remained unclear as Germany is one of the few European countries that penalizes families who want to homeschool.
Here is a link to the Deutsche Welle report on the ruling. Homeschooling has been banned in Germany since 1919.
Here is a link to the actual text of the ruling (in English). It says, in part (emphases mine):
49. It also notes that the German courts justified the partial withdrawal of parental authority by citing the risk of danger to the children. The courts assessed the risk on the persistent refusal of the applicants to send their children to school, where the children would not only acquire knowledge but also learn social skills, such as tolerance or assertiveness, and have contact with persons other than their family, in particular children of their own age. The Court of Appeal further held that the applicants’ children were being kept in a “symbiotic” family system.
50. The Court further reiterates that it has already examined cases regarding the German system of imposing compulsory school attendance while excluding home education. It has found it established that the State, in introducing such a system, had aimed at ensuring the integration of children into society with a view to avoiding the emergence of parallel societies, considerations that were in line with the Court’s own case-law on the importance of pluralism for democracy and which fell within the Contracting States’ margin of appreciation in setting up and interpreting rules for their education systems (see Konrad and Others; Dojan and Others; and Leuffen; all cited above).
51. The Court finds that the enforcement of compulsory school attendance, to prevent social isolation of the applicants’ children and ensure their integration into society, was a relevant reason for justifying the partial withdrawal of parental authority. It further finds that the domestic authorities reasonably assumed – based on the information available to them – that children were endangered by the applicants by not sending them to school and keeping them in a “symbiotic” family system.
There you have it. Terrible. Learning “tolerance” is so important in Germany that the state can override the rights of families.
I see on Twitter that someone is taking this ruling as proof that I’m wrong about The Benedict Option — this, along the lines of, “See, the State will not let Christians do the Benedict Option.” This is exactly wrong, as people who have actually read the book will know. This false binary thinking keeps people from understanding the meaning of the book.
Let me put it to you like this: what do German Christian families who cannot homeschool do now that (what seems like) the final door has been closed to them? They have no choice but to submit. So, what now? How do they work to form their children as faithful Christians in spite of this? This is why they need the Benedict Option, developed by German Christians for the German situation.
Of course they should also work politically to change the law. But in the meantime, what do they do? In my book, I write about the Czech anti-communist dissident Vaclav Benda, and his Catholic family. Under communism, they had no choice but to send their children to state schools. And yet, all of their children, now adults, held on to their Catholic faith, despite the overwhelming hostility of the society in which they were embedded — including the hostility of the schools to which they were forced to submit.
Benda’s big idea was the necessity to build a “parallel polis” to the official culture. This is precisely what the German state today wants to prohibit. Certainly the Czech communist government wanted the same thing. So what! People have to try to do the best they can under the circumstances. Here’s a relevant excerpt from The Benedict Option:
From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders”— formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture—but to “push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.”
In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.
“If you didn’t like how university education was going, help students find an underground seminar taught by one of these brilliant professors kicked out of university by the government,” [Prof. Flagg] Taylor says, explaining Benda’s principles. “Print good novels by samizdat and get them into the hands of the people, and let them see what they’re missing. Support theological education in one of the underground seminaries. When people see [that] resistance is connected to something that’s really meaningful to them, and that is possible only if there are a certain number people committed to preserving it in the face of the state’s opposition, they will act.”
Whether you call it “antipolitical politics” or a “parallel polis,” what might the Czech dissidents’ vision look like in our circumstances? Havel gives a number of examples. Think of teachers who make sure kids learn things they won’t get at government schools. Think of writers who write what they really believe and find ways to get it to the public, no matter what the cost. Think of priests and pastors who find a way to live out religious life despite condemnation and legal obstacles, and artists who don’t give a rip for official opinion. Think of young people who decide not to care about success in society’s eyes and who drop out to pursue a life of integrity, no matter what it costs them. These people who refuse to assimilate and instead build their own structures are living the Benedict Option.
If we hope for our faith to change the world one day, we have to start locally. Benedict Option communities should be small, because “beyond a certain point, human ties like personal trust and personal responsibility cannot work.” And they should “naturally rise from below,” which is to say, they should be organic and not handed down by central planners. These communities start with the individual heart and spread from there to the family, the church community, the neighborhood, and onward.
I should say that Benda wrote later in life that the failure of people interested in the “parallel polis” to establish a workable educational alternative was one of his greatest regrets.
Despite this law, and this ruling, German Christians have more freedom than Czech Christians did under communism. If they want to educate their children in a supplemental way, in addition to what they get in state schools (even contrary to it!), the secret police will not be monitoring them. Sure it’s going to be hard, but what choice do they have? And heaven knows American Christians are incomparably more free to act — for now, at least. These liberties must be defended, politically and legally. This is why it’s important for Christians to join and support the Home School Legal Defense Association, and to donate to organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, which fight for these kinds of liberties.
But the day may come when we lose these liberties. America is rapidly de-Christianizing. What happens if American Christians find themselves in the same place as German Christians today, regarding their childrens’ education? What happens when there is no political hope left — there is no popular clamor in Germany to repeal the anti-homeschooling law — and we have exhausted all legal recourse? You’d be a fool to think it couldn’t happen here.
Now is the time to start building the networks of the parallel polis. Besides, many people who might like to homeschool can’t do it, for economic or other reasons. What can the churches do for them? They need the parallel polis too. They need the Benedict Option also.
Seriously, reader: think about what you would do if you were a German parent who had no choice but to send your children to state schools, where you knew that their faith, as well as moral truth, would be denied or at least undermined by the lessons and the ethos there? You would, I hope, understand that the formation of your children’s hearts and minds required you to be deeply countercultural, and to do so in community. That’s when you need to meet others interested in the Benedict Option, and work together — quietly, if necessary — to undermine the indoctrination.
I hope German Christian readers of this blog will share their perspective.