In our increasingly cynical world may people assume that sex education is a necessary evil required to protect our children. Such people would argue that we need to protect our children with information about human sexuality. Here begins the slippery slope. Do we need to teach them about what some have falsely called “safe sex?” Do we merely offer them a moral compass and an admonition to abstain until marriage? How much information is appropriate? How much detail about the mechanics? Who should teach this information? The Church has not left us adrift with these important questions. The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, has given us a document entitled, Educational Guidance in Human Love: Outlines For Sex Education (1983) and the Pontifical Council For The Family, has given us a document entitled, The Truth And Meaning Of Human Sexuality: Guidelines For Education Within The Family (1995).
I can only offer a few summary thoughts here. It is strongly recommended that all parents read these documents. Quoting Pope John Paul II, the first document, Educational Guidance in Human Love (1983) strongly emphasizes the fact that it is the parent who is responsible to give clear and delicate sex education to their children. Education in human sexuality should be personal and viewed as an enrichment of the whole person rather than something dealing solely with the body and with selfish pleasure (Guidance 16). Again quoting John Paul II they note, “Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must also be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them. In this regard, the Church reaffirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents” (Familiaris consortio 37). The right and duty of parents to be the primary educators of their children in this area is strongly affirmed.
While many commercial sex education programs assume the best approach is an institutional whole class activity with a group of teens, the norm should be that the parents privately and delicately take care of this formation themselves in the home. If the school is involved it merely helps the parents to accomplish this duty and does not take over this responsibility. Educational Guidance in Human Love (1983) offers a whole section on the responsibility and role of the family in this area. The Congregation clearly acknowledges that the family and not the Catholic school or youth group is “best environment to accomplish the obligation of securing a gradual education in sexual life” (Guidance 48) and then only secondarily the “collaboration of parents with other educators who are co-responsible for formation.” If fact this document explicitly says that catechesis in the family is the “privileged form” and only “if parents do not feel able to perform this duty” that “they may have recourse to others who enjoy their confidence.” (Guidance 59 emphasis added). The norm should be that the school helps the parents to accomplish this duty and not that school or youth group takes over this responsibility. The Church’s responsibility is to train the parents to accomplish this task.
Highlighting the primary role of the family, the Congregation notes, “the role of the school should be that of assisting and completing the work of parents, furnishing children and adolescents with an evaluation of ‘sexuality as value and task of the whole person, created male and female in the image of God’.” (Guidance 69). The role of the school is to add a catechetical dimension rather than to discuss the delicate matters of human sexuality. The content of this instruction would seem to relate to John Paul II’s catechesis on the Theology of the Body.
In the most recent document by the Pontifical Council for the Family, entitled The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines For Education Within The Family, the Vatican outlines four principles regarding information about sexuality. The first principle is that;
Each child is a unique and unrepeatable person and must receive individualized formation. Since parents know, understand and love each of their children in their uniqueness, they are in the best position to decide what the appropriate time is for providing a variety of information, according to their children's physical and spiritual growth. No one can take this capacity for discernment away from conscientious parents. (Truth and Meaning 65).
The meaning of this principle is clear. Young people are not all ready to hear the same information at the same time. Parents are in “best position to decide what the appropriate time is for providing a variety of information.” Secondly the instructional model should be “individualized formation.” Any kind of whole class instruction that touches on the delicate maters of human sexuality, rather than merely catechesis on the dignity of the human person violates this principle at the outset. If this instruction happens without the parent’s knowledge the violation is even graver. It should also me mentioned that an unskilled or poorly trained educator can easily be led off course in this matter by group questions, which the catechist falsely feels they must satisfy with an answer, in a group setting. The fact that young people have legitimate questions does not mean random “on demand” whole class instruction is the best way to answers these questions.
The second principle notes that, “The moral dimension must always be part of their explanations. Parents should stress that Christians are called to live the gift of sexuality according to the plan of God who is Love. . .” (Truth and Meaning 68). The instruction is not merely about the mechanics of human intimacy, but a moral context stressing the dignity of the human person and the purpose of sexuality in God’s plan. Clearly this principle has in mind again the context of the dignity of the human as seen in John Paul II’s catechesis on the Theology of the Body. Unfortunately the Theology of the Body has been commercialized by some groups and the mere fact that a resource has this name in its title does not guarantee that sufficient attention has been paid to this principle.
More difficult to understand is the third principle outlined by the pontifical council:
Formation in chastity and timely information regarding sexuality must be provided in the broadest context of education for love. It is not sufficient, therefore, to provide information about sex together with objective moral principles. Constant help is also required for the growth of children's spiritual life, so that the biological development and impulses they begin to experience will always be accompanied by a growing love of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and an ever greater awareness of the dignity of each human person and his or her body. (Truth and Meaning 70).
These truths are not a separate isolated area of study but part of a comprehensive training in the spiritual life. It is not enough to merely provide information about sex and objective moral principles. This needs to be integrated with formation on prayer and the interior life, with spiritual direction aimed at conversion and intimacy with God. The Pontifical Council suggest the following means; “discipline of the senses and the mind, watchfulness and prudence in avoiding occasions of sin, the observance of modesty, moderation in recreation, wholesome pursuits, assiduous prayer and frequent reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Young people especially should foster devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God” (Truth and Meaning 71).
Finally the pontifical council advises;
Parents should provide this information with great delicacy, but clearly and at the appropriate time. [. . .] In order to evaluate properly what they should say to each child, it is very important that parents first of all seek light from the Lord in prayer and that they discuss this together so that their words will be neither too explicit nor too vague (Truth and Meaning 75).
While we might accept that there are times for the cooperation of Catholic school and parish youth groups in the formation of young people in human sexuality, the primary responsibility rests with parents to prayerfully educate the children God has entrusted to their care. The pontifical council makes four further suggestions to parents in this area. First they suggest that parents form associations to network with other parents to discuss this issue (Truth and Meaning 114). Secondly parents should “keep themselves precisely informed on the content and methodology with which such supplementary education is imparted” (Truth and Meaning 115). Thirdly the pontifical council notes;
We are aware of the difficulty and often the impossibility for parents to participate fully in all supplementary instruction provided outside the home. Nevertheless, they have the right to be informed about the structure and content of the program. In all cases, their right to be present during classes cannot be denied. (Truth and Meaning 116).
Finally the pontifical council notes,
It is recommended that parents attentively follow every form of sex education that is given to their children outside the home, removing their children whenever this education does not correspond to their own principles. However, such a decision of the parents must not become grounds for discrimination against their children. On the other hand, parents who remove their children from such instruction have the duty to give them an adequate formation, appropriate to each child or young person's stage of development (Truth and Meaning 117).
With these principles in mind let us entrust the care of our children to the Holy Family and especially to the care of our Blessed Mother.
On the First Sunday of Advent,