Despite a spectrum of popular opinion, Church teaching is clear
NEW YORK — Few issues are as divisive on a parish level as Catholic school classroom sex education. Pastors and principals have been pitted against parents, and parents have taken sides against one another. Many parents ask that some form of sex education be provided, but sparks can fly when parents find a sex education curriculum too explicit or inappropriate for the age and maturity of their children and do not find a responsive ear from the school administration.
Significant numbers of parents, when allowed, opt out for their children from programs they find offensive, and others have removed them from Catholic schools altogether, choosing to home school. There are parents who think sex education should not be in the classroom at all, those who think a prudent program should be in place, and those who prefer to leave the whole responsibility in the hands of the schools. There are educators, childhood experts, Catholic advocacy groups, and Church officials who fall at various points along the spectrum of opinion.
What is a Catholic parent to do?
The Church has been consistently clear in all its documents about sex education — parents are the primary educators of their children in the sensitive area of sexuality and marital love, and schools should play a subsidiary role in assisting parents in fulfilling their obligations. Schools should not usurp this parental right in regard to their children and the competence of the parents in instructing their children must be assumed, unless severe circumstance indicate otherwise, since they have a greater and more intimate knowledge of their children's level of maturity and understanding, and bear the grace of their vocation as parents.
Pope John Paul II in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio states explicitly, “The right and duty of parents to give education is essential since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others” unless there is a physical or psychological impossibility to do so.
In regard specifically to sex education, the Pope states that the parents have the basic right and duty, and the task of education “must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them.”
The November 1995 document published by the Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, sums up the Church's position: “No one is capable of giving moral education in this delicate area better than duly prepared parents.” The normal and most basic method is “personal dialogue between parents and their children ... individual formation within the family circle.”
On the particularly sensitive issue of depicting sexual anatomy and discussing the act of intercourse, the document states, “No material of an erotic nature should be presented to children or young people of any age, individually or in a group.”
All efforts, whether by parents or in schools with the parents approval must emphasize the spiritual and moral dimensions and be more an education in chastity than simply sex education.
Yet there are still incidents in which parents and school officials lock horns regarding who is best qualified to provide instruction in sexuality. Even school curricula carrying a Church imprimatur can be undermined by teachers who invite explicit discussions or “supplement” the textbooks with personal opinions.
There are reported cases of parents not being allowed by school officials to remove their children from programs they find inappropriate, and of students being faced with expulsion or held back from graduation for refusing to take part in such classes. In a few cases, parents have taken or threatened legal action.
Keith Bower, senior editor of the New Corinthians curriculum for the Couple to Couple League in Cincinnati, Ohio, said that the program was developed in 1995 in response to complaints from countless numbers of parents.
“People had been calling up our organization for years asking if any materials were available to replace the sex education that has been typical in Catholic schools,” he told the Register. “The basic approach of the most programs is to copy what Planned Parenthood is doing in the public schools and try to somehow make it Catholic.”
Bower began planning his curriculum on that same model until he read more deeply into the Church's stance.
“We realized that you really couldn't teach facts and details on sexuality in the classroom, it's imprudent,” he said. “We decided to teach once again the moral theology of the Catholic Church, and to give parents a resource they could use at home.”
Excerpts from Truth and Meaning are given, stressing the basic right of the parents and giving guidance on how they may fulfill their obligations.
The New Corinthians has been approved by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Catechism, which is reviewing materials from all fields of Catholic education and scholarship for their conformity to the teachings of the Catechism.
Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) in Steubenville, Ohio, publishes a pamphlet outlining essential features to look for and to avoid in a sex education program. Drawing from Truth and Meaning, CUF outlines five major points: (1) teaching sexuality in a coeducational setting violates a child's privacy and is counterproductive; (2) programs must respect the phases of childhood development and present biological information appropriately, particularly respecting the “latency” or pre-puberty stage; (3) instruction must recognize that the primary obstacle to chastity is man's fallen nature and sin, not ignorance; (4) thus the program must be structured along moral lines leading children toward holiness; (5) graphic illustrations and eroticism have no place in a curriculum, and safeguards must be in place to assure that teachers do not go beyond prudence and encourage immodest discussion, and that teachers adhere to Church teachings on the sanctity of human life and sexuality.
CUF, an advocacy group that has as its mission the defense of the Magisterium and orthodox Catholic practice, and does not publish a sex education series itself, devotes a pamphlet to a detailed review of the third edition of the Benziger Family Life 1995 curriculum, for kindergarten through grade eight. The group judges that the program violates several principles of Catholic chastity education, lining up specific lessons with statements in Truth and Meaning. Among the criticisms is that Benziger does not respect the different developmental stages of students, “presenting explicit, biological information prematurely and providing other materials that offend modesty.”
Benziger Family Life programs are used in some 5,000 Catholic schools and parishes, according to a company spokeswoman.
Curtis Martin, president of CUF, told the Register that Benziger is not the only program that he sees as deficient. The New Creation series by Brown-ROA, and others, are problematic for many of the same reasons, he said.
Cullen Schippe, vice president and publisher for Benziger, told the Register that the curriculum was voluntarily submitted to the bishops’ Catechism committee, and a decision is pending. He admitted that his company hears complaints about its program, particularly on placing the presentation of procreative anatomy in the fifth grade. He said it was a judgment call on where to place the material, with some experts holding for an earlier presentation and others for a later. All information is presented in a moral context, he said, under the basic themes of God's gifts of family, self, life, sexuality, and community.
Sexuality is “a sensitive issue and you have to treat it sensitively,” he said.
The whole series was approved by a committee recommended by officials of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, he added, and carries an imprimatur.
Greg Lloyd approaches the issue as both a father with young children and head of a lay organization that advises parents on their rights, how to opt out of school programs and seek help when troubles arise.
“This has been the hot issue for decades and it's not going to go away soon,” said Lloyd, executive director of the National Coalition of Clergy and Laity in Whitehall, Penn. In his dealings with parents from across the country, he said, the implementation of Truth and Meaning in schools has been “a non-event.”
He told the story of the parents in southern Florida who contacted him and later had their fight with their Catholic school featured on a television news show. After threatening legal action, their children were given permission to opt out of the school's sex education class, but after they left the room on schedule, the principal expelled them.
“It's a scandal that in most of these classes, Catholic youth have been taught more about the craft of sinning than about the mysteries of the faith and the virtues,” said Lloyd.
Although parents should be the primary teachers, there is a recognition on the part of the Church that there are many broken marriages and other conditions that would reduce the effectiveness or competence of parents, said Msgr. Anthony Lafemina, a Florida priest and former member of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
In any case, he stressed, “The school is subsidiary and should work with parents in developing a program.”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.