A portrait of Pope John Paul II hangs on the wall behind Jennifer Haggerty’s desk, fitting for the principal of St. John Vianney School in the Chicago suburb of Northlake: Her school has instituted a sexual-education program for its junior-high students based on the late Pope’s theology of the body.

“The kids tell me they love being taught their unique call to chastity,” said Haggerty.

St. John Vianney’s program is one of many to be sponsored by the Chastity Education Initiative, which is led by Mary-Louise Kurey, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Respect Life Office.

Kurey, who has been proclaiming the value of chastity since her days as Miss Wisconsin (1999), has given the “Second City” a first-place ranking for being the largest such diocesan program in the nation.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the goal of theology of the body is “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (No. 2337). This allows the chaste person to give a pure “gift of self” in imitation of Christ (No. 2346).

In a sex-obsessed culture that perverts the gift of human sexuality, it is easy for young people to be led away from the God-designed purpose.

“The best compliment to date was when I overheard an eighth-grade girl say — and I couldn’t believe it, it was so well put — ‘I can hear the why behind the what of Church teaching,’” Haggerty said. “Isn’t that awesome?”

Before she became director of the Respect Life Office in 2003, Kurey already had achieved national prominence as a lecturer and author of Standing With Courage: Confronting Tough Decisions About Sex. According to Kurey, proclaiming the universal call to chastity is a vocation in its own right.

“When Cardinal Francis George interviewed me for the Respect Life position, we discussed how essential chastity is for young people to develop an authentic relationship with Christ and for preventing abortions,” she explained. “He was familiar with my background because he had endorsed my book. He said that if I got the job, he wanted me to create a robust chastity-education program for the archdiocese, but that I’d need to raise the money for the program.”

Raising the initiative’s annual budget of $260,000 is a yearlong struggle, she noted, but it has been made easier by the measurability of its results.

“In spite of all the anti-life and anti-family legislation that we’re facing on the city, state and national level, the CEI had a great 2009,” she said. “We were blessed to have Cardinal Francis Arinze speak at our annual benefit dinner last November. [See the transcript of his remarks at RespectLifeChicago.org.] His presence really raised the profile of the program, especially in secular Chicago.”

The initiative annually reaches about 25,000 teens, college students, parents and teachers. Its outreach includes educational materials, retreats, parent resources, training for teachers, and all-school assemblies featuring speakers like Jason Evert.

“Jason spoke for an hour and a quarter and had a line stretching out the gym door to speak with him afterward,” commented Michael Dougherty, president of Josephinum Academy, an all-girls college preparatory school in inner-city Chicago. “It wasn’t your parents’ chastity education, believe me. There wasn’t any finger wagging, but a calling on the natural desire to true love. There’s no way we could have been able to bring him without the CEI’s sponsorship. CEI programs are helping fill real needs in our girls.”

Evert attests to the good this program is doing. “Chicago’s chastity program for youth is saving lives,” he said. “Having spoken to tens of thousands of students in the archdiocese, I can testify that the efforts of the Church in Chicago are changing the hearts and minds of countless teenagers. My hope is that other dioceses throughout the world will also recognize the importance of offering their young people such a strong, positive and proactive education about the value of human sexuality.”

But because it is so countercultural, CEI does encounter opposition.

“Some of my students have questioned and even oppose Catholic morality,” explained Kevin Hansen, who teaches theology at the all-boys Mount Carmel High School on Chicago’s South Side. “The acceptance of contraception, the prevalence of relativism, and the ‘as long as it doesn’t hurt someone, it’s morally okay’ mindset are obstacles to the Church’s message of chastity. But the help of God and the resources offered by the CEI, especially its theology-of-the-body workshops and guest speakers, are helping me explain the reasonableness of chastity.”

Sister M. Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Chicago Archdiocese, has seen the impact of this program firsthand.

“In a sex-saturated culture, it’s imperative that young people realize the value of their own unique sexual identity,” she said. “The Respect Life Office in general, the Chastity Education Initiative in particular, is a lifeline to our teachers, giving them the training and resources necessary to help our young people love themselves right by seeing their sexuality as an integral part of their God-given nature.”

Father Steven Bauer needs this lifeline at the college level.

“The struggles at a secular university are daunting,” according to Father Bauer, who is associate pastor at the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “How to make theology of the body tangible to students, important to their lives, something truly liveable — it’s a completely different world” compared to his previous pastoral experience working with high-school students.

“I always remind students that we are not one-hour Catholics [only attending Sunday Mass] — that it’s a way of life,” he said.

And Father Bauer, who has worked closely with the Respect Life Office since his seminary days — he was ordained in 2004 — credits his ongoing partnership with that office and the Chastity Education Initiative for helping him make a compelling argument for chastity to college-age students.

“Being pro-life isn’t just about stopping abortion,” he said. “Something needs to happen before that — knowing the faith and living it practically, the sooner the better.”

If anyone doubts the fruits of the Chastity Education Initiative, they have only to read a poem. A girl named Stephanie composed a poem on the meaning of marriage after last spring’s theology-of-the-body class for St. John Vianney’s eighth-graders:

We were promised to one another,

to this we are called to love.

To give a gift of one another,

as purely as a dove.

Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.

INFORMATION RespectLifeChicago.org (312) 534-5355