Secular Drift in Catholic Sex Education

In November 1995 the Pontifical Council on the Family set forth sex-education guidelines in “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.” Months later, a letter on the subject was sent out to all the bishops in the United States over the signature of the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This letter states that the USCC 1990 document, “Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning,” in no way diverges from anything now being said by the Pontifical Council. Like White House disclaimers these days, the very fact that such a statement is thought necessary tends to arouse suspicion, especially where so disputed a question as sex education is concerned.

If, in fact, the Pontifical Council document and the USCC document really are so complementary to one another, an immediate question arises: Why did two bishops’ committees—the USCC Committee on Education and the NCCB Committee on Marriage and the Family—and the USCC Administrative Board go to such trouble to belabor the obvious?

One clue is found in the penultimate sentence of the bishops’ committee’s letter. There it is asserted that “the document from the Pontifical Council does not lend support to those categorically opposed to Church or school assistance in sexuality education.” The ones being addressed here are the persistent critics of sex education in Catholic schools. As this letter officially reaffirms, it is the sponsors of such classroom sex education in Catholic schools who continue to enjoy the official support of the relevant bishops’ committees, in spite of the severe strictures against imparting “sexual information” in the classroom set forth on principle in the recent Roman document.

Covering Up

The fact of the matter is that the Pontifical Council’s document, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality,” almost completely vindicates what the critics of classroom sex education in Catholic schools have been saying for the past quarter of a century. How does the current educational establishment respond to this inconvenient development? The relevant bishops’ committees are told to find no conflict between the two documents. The Roman document, so they say, is addressed to parents, while the bishops’ document is addressed to “diocesan leaders.” Ignoring the fact that all authoritative Church documents state that the parents are the “experts” in this area where their own children are concerned, this letter reflects the same belligerent approach that has marked the whole sex-education controversy since it first arrived on the Catholic scene.

Nearly a generation ago, Catholic school educators very unwisely began buying into secular sex-ed programs as if they were somehow antidotes to the sexual immorality of our day, rather than very thinly disguised reflections of it. Considering the public schools’ dramatic record of failure, why Catholic educators would have looked to them for anything is a mystery.

But in the case of classroom sex-education programs, Catholic educators actually adopted educational models developed by organizations like Planned Parenthood that were designed to promote the ambiguous morals of the sexual revolution. Oftentimes these educational models were uncritically adapted for Catholic schools with only minimal modifications to give them the semblance of accord with Catholic doctrine and morality.

It was always startling to see in these programs the subordination of Catholic teaching to all-pervasive psychologism, an accent on autonomous decision making, an obsession with self-esteem, and a denigration of “puritanism.” In fact, these classroom sex-education programs are not based on any traditional Christian view of man. Rather, they are based on the fashionable view that neither sin, nor temptation, nor the Church’s remedies for sin are to be taken very seriously.

Parents Beware

The bishops’ letter credits the recent Roman document with providing “welcome warnings in regards to the dual problems of sexually permissive cultures and of poorly done, values-neutral, overly explicit sex-education programs.” Yet it is really doubtful if a single one of the current “Catholic” sex- education programs published by typical Catholic textbook publishers could escape the same characterization.

The Catholic educators who employ these programs typically have been quite uncritical of them. The bishops, meanwhile, typically have relied on their educators, their experts, in this as in so many other respects. At any rate, both educators and bishops regularly have rejected and set aside any criticism of classroom sex education, no matter how carefully and responsibly prepared or presented.

Of course there also has been a fair amount of “emotional” criticism of sex education too, some of it perhaps excessive. Some parents, understanding that these sex-education programs have the potential to corrupt their children morally, have gotten very upset about them. One wonders, however, why more parents have not protested these programs’ inclusion in the Catholic schools. It may be they do not want to be labeled. Like abortion protesters who are quickly characterized in the media as extremists, opponents of sex education are often branded with the same label.

The 1990 bishops’ document “Human Sexuality” is being whitewashed by the current letter of the two bishops’ committees. This document came after classroom sex education already had been widely introduced and accepted in Catholic schools, and so attempts to confer Church approval upon something that already had been put in place, oftentimes over the protests of many parents, pastors, and teachers.

There never has been a Catholic tradition of imparting sexual information in a classroom setting. The Catholic tradition in this matter has been that modesty and chastity always have to be taught, along with the Ten Commandments and the sacraments. Sexual information always has been considered something to be imparted privately, in the family, preferably on a one-to-one basis.

Neither does the fact that sex is now discussed so openly in our society generally invalidate the principle of keeping sexual instruction private. On the contrary—when the general authority of the school is employed to promote and advocate an equal frankness concerning sexual matters, the lower standards of society are implicitly validated.

In Name Only

It also has always been the responsibility of the Church and of the school to assist parents in this difficult area of sexual education. But neither Church nor school should take over the parental role as the primary provider of sexual information. This replacement nevertheless has come about with the introduction of comprehensive, so-called “family-life,” programs into the classroom.

The letter drafted by the two bishops’ committees and sent out to all the bishops describes current Catholic school sex-education programs as “school assistance in sexuality.” This characterization, however, is surely only semantic. These programs do not really respect the Church’s true position. The bishops’ letter does not, and probably could not, cite any existing school programs that merely assist the parents. Once a school has developed a program for something, that program effectively takes over.

This last fact finds unwitting confirmation in one of the very same passages from the USCC “Human Sexuality” document quoted in the bishops’ letter. This letter states that parents are “encouraged . . . to become actively involved in the formation, implementation, and evaluation of programs for education in human sexuality” (emphasis added) —that is, programs that the school is going to implement regardless of whether any parents become actively involved in them or not. Moreover, the parents are merely encouraged to be involved.

What has happened most recently with classroom sex education, however, is that the school has taken over the role of the parents. These programs do not just assist parents. They co-opt those parents who become actively involved, while the school retains total control over the programs themselves. Have you ever tried to tell a school principal or teacher what to teach in the classroom?

What is more, these programs usurp the rights and responsibilities of those parents who do not get actively involved. Such parents either do not know what these programs contain, or somehow they go on believing that the Catholic schools are still functioning properly as they furnish indoctrination in modern sexual attitudes to captive student audiences in mixed classrooms.

It is time we started paying closer attention to what Rome is saying. It is not true that “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality” is addressed only to parents without application to what educators have been doing. Those men and women who have been characterized as “categorically opposed to Church or school assistance in sexuality education” are hardly the problem.

  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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