SHOOTING A MOVING TARGET: Sex Education in the Catholic Classroom is an Oxymoron

By Alice A. Grayson

Recently, Veil of Innocence ( ) has been in touch with several notably respected Catholic pro-life directors of Catholic pro-life organizations regarding their unreserved approval of some abstinence based classroom sex education. The worldwide influence of these organizations is something to pay attention to. One program which spawned the dialog was the notorious "Teen Star" program, which promotes, for instance, boys charting their sexual arousal patterns and girls charting their fertility symptoms. The other one was called “Alive to the World" by Alliance for Families. The latter is a secular-values sex education program. Alliance for Families features USAID and Chastity Clearing House on their web site.

In both instances, the Catholic agencies disagree with Veil of Innocence's claim that the Catholic Church's total body of authoritative teaching prohibits classroom sex education. These gentlemen are not alone. Even some Catholic bishops endorse them.

The Veil of Innocence site names and actually critiques several nationally recognized so-called “Catholic” chastity education programs. For three decades, organizations like Veil of Innocence, Mothers' Watch, U.S. Coalition for Life, and National Coalition for Clergy and Laity, to name only some, have maintained that there is a universal ban on classroom sex education proclaimed by the Catholic Church. The documents speak for themselves and can be found on the Veil of Innocence web site.

Unfortunately, although I referred the aforementioned Catholic leaders to the Veil site, and wrote several personal letters, I did not convince them. In short, they both continue to endorse the concept of a Catholic classroom sex education.

I do believe that they were busy men and did not take the time to study the documents the way a concerned mother or father would when they suddenly learn what the teacher is teaching in class. One of the gentlemen challenged Veil's position with the following comment:

I doubt it is possible to follow Pope Pius XI in every detail, as education in human sexuality is necessarily to some degree culturally-dependent. The situation Pius XI was facing in terms of sexuality in popular culture was very different from our own. All education must proceed both according to sound principles AND with the conditions of the surrounding culture in mind.

I thought that this leader’s challenge required a different sort of response. I wrote the following, in the hopes of meeting this gentleman's mind on the platform of "sound principles" found in the church documents.

Dear X,

…you did express to me that you were not usually in favor of these programs. As our previous correspondence indicated, the former is quite graphic and the latter is a secular approach to values applied to sexual ethics, with referrals to USAID on the Alliance home page.

Also, your email indicated your reluctance to believe that the Church could prohibit sex education programs carte blanche. My feeling is that you envision sex ed as a moving target or an evolving scenario, and therefore impossible to shoot. One program might fix what is deficient in another.

I did consult some friends on this matter. My priest friend suggested to me to do as you perhaps envision - just that- to theorize a program which embraces Catholic principles proclaimed in the collective body of Church teaching and shuns what has been prohibited in the same body of Catholic teaching. Look what happens when I try:

1. We can obtain parental permission. Yes, but parents are allowed to delegate only so far- namely re-teaching (not teaching for the first time), very abstractly, very briefly, gradually, within the context of the full teaching of the Catholic Faith- inclusive of virtues, saints, sacraments, prayer, grace, and the moral law. In other words- this cannot be a stand-alone program of sexual morality; it cannot comprise sexual detail, and it cannot be a course of study because what might be thought to foster temperance might indeed do the opposite.

2. Observing those principles above, let us shoot for affirming what has been taught in the home, in class. A class setting renders three additional dangers.

  1. A teacher cannot know the different maturity levels of a group of children. However, if individual parents were advised of the curriculum before hand and communicated with the teachers, and the above guidelines in number one were observed, no child would be exposed to anything which could traumatize.

  2. The second problem is that of distorting the very sacred nature of God's plan of human sexuality. Human sexuality is sacred and intimate: it is a mystery. Put it under a microscope and you kill it. Teach - or even re-teach - sexual topics to a class and you lose the personal reverence you have for the individual persons. You generalize it. You communicate that the student and the topic is not worth a personal formation. Become too detailed and you engender impure thoughts. What is too much for one is just right for another. By communicating it to a group then, rather than gradually, incidentally, and personally, to one child at a time, by life's incidental experiences, and you end up distorting its very meaning. It becomes impossible to foster a love of purity; and it can do irreparable harm. Moreover, formation is not assured by communication of information.

  3. A Pandora’s Box always is present in classroom discussion. A teacher needs to be so cautious and delicate because children's questions could lead to places the teacher does not envision. Sex and sexual morality is a volatile subject.

That is why the Catechism of the Council of Trent calls for brevity and tasks parents with the job. (It is interesting to note, regarding the sacraments, that they are conferred personally. Why? I think because of reverence.)

There are other questions of course, like what are the teacher's values and how do we evaluate that. Who evaluates? And, consider that most Catholics contracept. The Catholic vote elected Obama! What sort of person wants to teach other people’s children about sex? What agendas, like values clarification or homosexuality-conditioning, lurk behind abstract curriculum words? These issues vary from program to program- bad in some, better in others. Sometimes bad and good are taught in different places in the same program. An Oath of Fidelity for religious professors is required in Catholic colleges. If I were in charge of Catholic schools, I would be sure that all my teachers pledged one as well. As role models, they must be living faithful examples of Catholic identity.

Following the principles set forth by the Magisterium in numerous documents, letters, and essays found on the Veil site, then, what are the Catholic schools left with? Answer: what Christ commanded his disciples to do: Teach the fullness of the Catholic Faith. Information and formation on sexual morality is one part of that under the conditions discussed above. This is accomplished gradually. It encompasses the meaning of love, of covenant, of promise, of truth, of vocation. It involves a modesty in speech and comportment. The Catholic school should be God centered, and all teaching should reflect that. That is the noble mission of the Catholic school. That is what Catholic education used to be before sex ed or chastity programs. Just look at the length of skirt uniforms worn by current day parochial school teen girls. If they are short - and most of them really are short - you can bet that that school has a sex ed program.

God's plan is that children should be brought into a loving family with specific sacramental grace to form the child, by example, by prayer, and by gradual individual teaching of delicate subjects. However, when a parent is missing, or grossly negligent, the child obviously needs a parental substitute to lovingly do the parent's job in the same way a parent would. A valuable job for the Church or the Catholic school would be to identify mentors to help with the needy child's individual formation.

In conclusion, I think I have answered your question regarding the binding nature of the Church documents. That is, although some people continue to produce what they consider "better" programs, if one looks at them, a separate program which teaches sexual information, to a class full of kids, violates by definition, identifiable principles taught by the Magisterium.

It is the hope of Veil of Innocence that this letter is helpful for those readers who are confused about the role of the Catholic school in their responsibility to foster a love of the “Angelic Virtue” in their students.

Alice A. Grayson

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