Debate Boils Over Sex Education in Catholic Schools

With recent well-publicized protests from parents of Catholic school students to the firestorm over new sex-education materials published by the Vatican, things only seem to be growing more intense, leaving many faithful Catholic parents looking for answers.

Screen shot of the homepage for the Meeting Point sex education materials from the Pontifical Council for the Family. Critics say the materials are explicit in some cases and are inappropriate the target age groups.
Screen shot of the homepage for the Meeting Point sex education materials from the Pontifical Council for the Family. Critics say the materials are explicit in some cases and are inappropriate the target age groups. (photo: Screenshot)

The issue of sex education in Catholic schools has been hotly debated for decades, but with recent well-publicized protests from parents of Catholic school students to the firestorm over new sex-education materials published by the Vatican, things only seem to be growing more intense, leaving many faithful Catholic parents looking for answers.

A group of parents recently raised an alarm over sexually graphic pictures and explicit text being included in their 14-year-olds’ sex-education course at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Tennessee.

The graphic drawings and detailed information go over the line, say some parents. “What I’ve seen is disturbing,” said one parent, James Bowman, who texted a number of pictures to the Register from the course material that are not fit for print.

While Bowman is careful to say there is “some good information” included in the program, “it doesn’t follow Catholic doctrine,” in that it is far too explicit, especially for a coed setting.

So what is the traditional Catholic teaching on Catholic sexual education?

Pope Pius XII, in his 1951 address “To Fathers of Families,” warns against any program, Catholic or otherwise, which “exaggerates out of all proportion the importance and significance of the sexual element. ... Their manner of explaining sexual life is such that it acquires in the mind and conscience of the average reader the idea and value of an end in itself, making him lose sight of the true primordial purpose of matrimony, which is the procreation and upbringing of children, and the grave duty of married couples as regards this purpose.”

Pope St. John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, his apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, declares that sex education is a “basic right and duty of parents,” which “must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them.”

The document goes on to affirm “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.”

The document continues to say that “Christian parents, discerning the signs of God’s will, will devote special attention and care to educate in virginity or celibacy as the supreme form of that self-giving that constitutes the very meaning of human sexuality.”

The Pontifical Council for the Family warned about the danger of schools taking the role that parents should play in educating children about sex. “The school, making itself available to carry out programs of sex education, has often done this by taking the place of the family and, most of the time, with the aim of only providing information,” states the council’s 1995 document, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.”

“Sometimes this really leads to the deformation of consciences.”


The Nashville Program

With explicit diagrams of male and female reproductive organs, chapters with extremely explicit titles and a discussion about “Aphrodisiacs, drugs and sex,” Bowman said he thinks the program at Father Ryan is clearly not living up to what Catholic sexual education is called to be.

“Why are 14- to 16-year-olds learning this?” he asked.

Dan Guernsey, the director of K-12 programs at the Cardinal Newman Society, said Catholic teachers faced with the task of educating students about the theology of sexuality, “should never focus on the physics of the marital act, but instead focus on the metaphysics of the marital act.”

“Students don’t need to be taught by a teacher in school to put point A into point B,” he added.

Coleen Kelly Mast, author, speaker and radio personality, as well as the head of Respect Inc., an abstinence education group, said, “Catholic education in human sexuality should gradually assist the child in understanding the true meaning of faithful, self-giving love, which includes living the virtue of chastity according to one’s state in life. The parent should help the child understand the facts of life within the context of the meaning of life, which for a Christian, is to express God’s pure love to others though marriage or celibacy.”

Some parents at Father Ryan requested that their children not be forced to participate in the sexual-education program, but the school reportedly refused.

Rick Musacchio, director of communications for the Diocese of Nashville and editor in chief of the Tennessee Register, defended the program, saying that it has been in place for over three decades and there have been fewer than five objections in that time. “It has been very well received over the years,” he said.

He defended the school’s decision to prohibit students from opting out of the course as a sign of the school’s commitment to educating and forming the whole person.

“As the primary educators of their children, parents freely make the choice of a Catholic education for their children,” he continued. “Registration and attendance at Father Ryan High School is an agreement by the parent to accept and abide by all the rules and regulations of the school and to support its mission, belief statements and vision.”

Susan Skinner, who protested the program and refused to allow her son to take part in it, said that, in the end, her protests led to her son being removed from the school. “They basically expelled us,” she said, because she was given the choice to comply or leave the school.


A Different Perspective

Others see it differently, however.

Jason Evert, a Catholic author and founder of the Chastity Project, an organization that promotes chastity primarily to high school and college students, said, “The role of the school is to assist the parents, whose right and duty is to be the primary sex educators — and evangelists — of their children.”

“Because of the cultural assault against innocence, most parents appreciate any help they can receive from schools and churches to promote purity to their children,” said Evert. “But all such efforts should be done with the understanding that institutions ought to aid parents in this effort, without attempting to replace them or override their judgments as to what is best for their children.”

Colleen Perfect, the president of Catholic Parents OnLine, an organization that advocates for parents to be recognized as primary educators of their children, said she believes sex education should remain chiefly in the hands of the parents.

She pointed to the Tradition of the Church being that parents are chiefly responsible for teaching children about human sexuality.

Guernsey, however, says that while great care must be taken, he believes that the Church and Catholic schools do have a role to play in teaching the theology of sexuality.

“First and foremost,” he said, “it is the responsibility of the parents, but the truths are coming from the Church.”

He cautioned, however, that if a parent feels that his or her child isn’t ready for sex education, “then they have the right to present that information themselves when the child is ready.”


Related Controversies

In the late ’90s, a family objected to a sex-ed curriculum at their Catholic elementary school. And just last year, a Catholic school board in Ontario, Canada, was forced to delay implementing its curriculum, which contained sexual health topics, after an outcry from parents.

Mast, a pioneer in the field of chastity education, said “most of the so-called sex-ed programs out there are offensive to the dignity of the human person and the privacy of the marriage bed. The marriage act, which is meant to be sacred, is treated as a commodity, a free choice, a way to get attention or a thrill, or a casual activity.”

“These crass ideas ignore and corrupt the needs and desires of the human heart,” she added. “Children need to know just enough information to help them make good moral decisions, not an introduction to their honeymoon activities. Forming the will to live purity is more important than informing the mind of the human science.”

Guernsey said all who teach about Catholic sexuality must understand that it is “very sensitive ground you’re walking.”

“You have to know and believe the teachings of the Church and know the students well and make appropriate adaptations for them,” he said.

Evert said that “the ultimate goal” of all Catholic sex education must be “purity.”

But he makes it clear that students shouldn’t be taught to perpetually avoid sight of the human body, but, rather, how to properly view it.

“Biology and theology are not at odds, but can work together in harmony to reveal God’s plan for human love,” he said.

He added, however, that “because of our fallen nature (and the maturity level of adolescents), great prudence and reverence are needed when discerning what might be shown to students, when it could be shown and if it ought to take place in a mixed-sex classroom or at home.”

In his book Love and Responsibility, Pope John Paul II noted, “Man, alas, is not such a perfect being that the sight of the body of another person, especially a person of the other sex, can arouse in him merely a disinterested liking which develops into an innocent affection. In practice, it also arouses concupiscence, or a wish to enjoy concentrated on sexual values with no regard for the value of the person.”

Because of that risk, parents, said Evert, parents must have the ultimate say as to what ought to be shown to their children and when.

“Education in human sexuality must be presented in an age-appropriate manner, but because each child is unique, the home is the most conducive environment to teaching the more delicate aspects of sexuality,” he said.


‘The Meeting Point’ Program

Many Catholics concerned with sexual-education programs in Catholic schools found cause for even more concern when a sexual-education program for teens was released by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family.

Colleen Perfect of Catholic Parents OnLine said that in her years of experience she has learned that “so many sex-ed programs are not appropriate,” including, sadly, “The Meeting Point: Course of Affective Sexual Education for Young People,” which was developed by lay Catholics in Spain, endorsed by the Spanish bishops’ conference and recently released by the Pontifical Council for the Family.

The Cardinal Newman Society issued a report titled “Meeting Point Sex-Ed Program Not Ready for Catholic Schools.”

The study said, “We find that ‘The Meeting Point’ makes frequent use of sexually explicit and morally objectionable images, fails to clearly identify and explain Catholic doctrine from elemental sources, including the Ten Commandments and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and compromises the innocence and integrity of young people under the rightful care of their parents.

“With admiration for the work of the Pontifical Council for the Family and confidence in the Church’s authority on faith and morals, we find that ‘The Meeting Point’ in its present form represents a significant break from the traditional approach to Catholic instruction and learning about human sexuality.”

While this program has not been endorsed by the U.S. bishops, and while there are no plans for it to be put to use in Catholic schools in the U.S., many are wary.

“The program has flaws,” said Guernsey. “I would not recommend using this program in a school. I would use other programs that oddly enough adhere to the Pontifical Council for the Family’s own guidelines.”

As the council’s “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality” states, “No one should ever be invited, let alone obliged, to act in any way that could objectively offend against modesty or which could subjectively offend against his or her own delicacy or sense of privacy (127).”

Guernsey rhetorically asked if the Spanish program endorsed by the Vatican would be welcomed throughout the universal Church.  

“The Church teaching is appropriate,” he said. “But the packaging and emphasis is misguided and too parochial to secular Spain.”

Guernsey added that the “current zeitgeist” among some in the Church is “Let’s make the sheep think we’re cool because if they think we’re cool maybe we’ll have a chance to present the Church’s teaching.”

But he warned, “If we’re trying so hard to fit in with the cool kids, we may do things that might be unchaste and imprudent.”

“What we want to avoid are the erotic and provocative,” he said. “Be modest and delicate. The Spanish document is not delicate. It’s in your face and designed to titillate and provoke.”

“The funny thing is that kids don’t need to be provoked when you want to talk to them about sex,” he said. “They are already interested. Just speak the truth with clarity and delicacy.”


Resources for Educating Parents

Perfect said that it is parents who need to be educated about how to teach these issues, as she believes that, in the end, it must be the parents who teach the faith to their children. She warns them, “Never doubt that or allow yourself to be intimidated into thinking otherwise.”

She said that the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church provide all the information that children need to know about being a member of God’s family. And the strongest religious-education materials that she has found include Image of God and the Faith and Life series, both of which are published by Ignatius Press.

Catholic Parents OnLine even released a video titled “Teaching the Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality” for parents for this express purpose.

Perfect also pointed to other programs that she considers appropriate and faith-filled, including “All in God’s Plan for Parents” and “Purely You,” which states on its website that it “conforms to Catholic teaching in both content and approach.”

And LoveEd is a brand-new, parent-based, specific to boys and girls, video-discussion program for parishes or homes developed by Mast over the past five years, in response to her bishop’s request to implement the U.S. bishops’ “Catechetical Formation in Chaste Living.”

The program equips parents to have a private conversation with their child between a series of five or six video clips, whether in a parish setting or at home. There are five seminars available; one is for parents of young children, and others four are father/son and mother/daughter programs two for preteens and two for young adolescents.

“You: Life, Love and the Theology of the Body” is a new high-school curriculum by Ascension Press that includes Evert and others, all in an aim to help teens find answers about who they are and how God is calling them to live.

“Teens today are bombarded with questions about identity, gender, marriage and sexuality, and often feel at a loss about how to navigate through the issues,” said Evert, who recalled a story about a young woman he met at World Youth Day.

“As part of her college application process, her university required her to check a box to identify her ‘gender,’” he said. “She was given 18 options to choose from, but ‘male’ and ‘female’ weren’t even on the list!”


Following St. John Paul II

“Thankfully, the Holy Spirit knows what the Church needs before she needs it and blessed us with a great saint in Pope John Paul II,” he added.

Mast, too, gives great credit to St. John Paul II in helping young people resist the culture. Despite the culture’s attempts to indoctrinate young people, Mast said she sees hope in students’ reactions for the future.

“I believe that, in the past 10 years since the ‘Pope St. John Paul II Generation’ has come of age, youth are much more open to listening to the beauty and goodness of the marriage act and more interested in learning how to live the Church’s beautiful teachings of chastity and natural family planning,” she said. “Many young people have seen the ugliness of the misuse and twisting of the meaning of human sexuality and instinctually want something more than merely being used for someone’s pleasure.”

Mast does, however, see resistance from those feeling guilt over past mistakes or who are simply confused about what the pop culture is telling them. “But when they learn about God’s mercy, truth and love,” she said, “they can move from their past justifications and rationalizations to an open heart that desires to know about real love.”

Evert said he, too, believes progress is being made. In fact, he points out that the Centers for Disease Control released a report last summer that shows that teen sexual-activity rates have been dropping for the past 25 years.

“Good things are happening, but we need to work as a team and remember that parents are the primary sex educators,” he said, “and our job as teachers is to support their heroic efforts.”


Matthew Archbold writes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.