Thousands of Catholic parents rejoiced when the Pontifical Council on the Family released The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality in January. The statement reaffirmed the essential right and responsibility of parents to “provide a clear and delicate” education in sexual morality to their children.
It resoundingly restated that parents are the primary and irreplaceable educators of their children, that schools must observe the principle of subsidiarity with regard to parents, and emphasized the critical importance that the authentic teachings of the Church on the meaning of sexuality be transmitted to the young.
Did the document say anything new? Yes and no. It is a comprehensive compendium of teaching on human love, the meaning of marriage and human sexuality, and the responsibilities of parents, contained in other Vatican documents. The “new” slant is that it provides guidelines and concrete suggestions for teaching sexuality morality. Furthermore, it also acknowledges the deficiencies of most sex-education programs in schools.
What does the new document accomplish? First of all, it should encourage parents who have often fought a lonely battle with Catholic school officials over defective sex-ed programs. Second, it provides parents a useful resource for teaching important lessons on sexuality to their offspring. Third, it gives these folks an authoritative document to invoke when they find themselves having to defend Church teachings from noxious programs.
Although many American Catholics may assume the PCF was directly addressing the deeply distressing problem of defective programs in the Catholic schools of this country, it is worth noting that other countries are, if anything, worse off than we are.
Within a few days of the Vatican’s letter, the French bishops made news when they issued a statement that included an observation that, given the AIDS epidemic, use of condoms might be “necessary.” Although the bishops said later that their statement was more “nuanced” than the press reports at first indicated, they apparently could not deny the substance of the reports.
A year ago, the archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, made headlines when it announced a “classroom revolution” in its new system for family life education. Religious education spokesman for the archdiocese, Fr. Chris Toms, was quoted by the Melbourne Herald Sun on March 1, 1995: “This is an attempt to present the Gospel to young people in a way which understands the context of modern times.” A revision was also needed because of the growing multicultural, multifaith makeup of Catholic schools, according to Fr. Toms.
“Before, teachers were forced to teach from theological concepts,” said Fr. Toms, but the new program would take into account the “life situations” of students: “The Church is now more aware of the need to sit and listen and understand tensions in society and what is happening,” he said. Students would not be lectured about religious concepts. Instead, Fr. Toms said, “it is important that they try and get answers themselves and we are giving them the skills for this and teaching them to ask questions.”
Last year the English bishops devised a program of sex education, promoted by Bishop Konstant of Leeds, that even provoked negative public comments from another bishop.
Clearly, in writing this letter, the Pontifical Council for the Family responded to a global crisis. Sex-education programs in Catholic schools are not working. It also seems clear that many Catholics today who have problems accepting Church teachings in the area of sexuality and morality have not actually been adequately taught them in the first place—even if they have attended Catholic schools.
Whatever the motivations of experts who developed them, most sex-education programs and textbooks used in Catholic schools today cite the Church’s teachings on human sexuality only as one among many choices. Legitimate authority outside the self is scarcely acknowledged, if at all.
In short, the approach of most sex-education curricula currently in use in Catholic schools is defective, often worse than none at all. Far from being “countercultural,” classroom sex-education often promotes the most destructive and unhealthy aspects of the zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age.” Most programs present official Church teaching as but one among several options.
In a cultural context openly hostile to Christian beliefs and moral principles, this situation is disastrous for the individuals who receive this defective instruction, for their relationships with other people, and for the future of the Church and society.
Will the NCCB Committee on Marriage and Family now insist that The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality be fully implemented? Or will this document languish on the shelf as so many others have?
Chairman of the Marriage and Family Committee is Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Charron, of St. Paul–Minneapolis. Its secretariat is headed by Mrs. Dolores Leckey. The North American representative to the Presidential Committee of the Pontifical Council for the Family is Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha. Maybe they would like to hear your views.