A Reader's Guide to 'The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality'

Author: Msgr. Peter J. Elliott

A Reader's Guide to "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality"

By Msgr. Peter J. Elliott

Parents fighting the present culture's obsession with matters sexual should rejoice. In addition to moral support and great advice, they will find that "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education Within the Family" (TMHS), promulgated by the Pontifical Council for the Family, is quite easy to read. This useful document, released last Dec. 20, has four parts: 1. doctrine (chapters 1-3), 2. pastoral principles (chapters 4-5), 3. applications in family life (chapter 6) and 4. recommendations and norms (chapter 7). The conclusion (chapter 8) is short, but significant.

The introduction presents the current and difficult "sex education" situation, but without dwelling on problems. It sets the positive tone of the guidelines-encouragement and help for parents "who possess the secrets and resources of true love" (no. 7). The introduction emphasizes love and a personalist understanding of sexuality (no. 3), the virtue and discipline of chastity (nos. 4-5) and the "indispensable" role of parents and the family (no. 7).

1. Doctrine and Sexuality

You cannot get human sexuality "right" unless you understand what a human being really is, what Pope John Paul II calls the "truth of the person." Therefore, the three doctrinal chapters present the human person, created in the image of God, an embodied soul called to love in a particular vocation in life. Each person has an eternal destiny.

Human sexuality, therefore, is to be lived in marriage or celibacy according to the "virtue of chastity." But we must understand the wisdom of chastity- what "chastity" means and how education in human sexuality is only one part of a wider and deeper education for love. Scripture, the Church Fathers and Church teaching underline the Gospel message running through TMHS: when considering sexuality, our love of God and union with Him through sacraments and prayer remain paramount. Therefore, these guidelines unashamedly express the Catholic Faith.

Chapter 1, "Called to True Love," centers around "love as self- giving," divine and human (no. 9). Love is presented in the context of human sexuality and marriage, open to new life (nos. 10-15). By making the divine gift of love (no. 12) the central theme, TMHS echoes and compliments "Educational Guidance in Human Love," guidelines for schools published by the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education in 1983. But the new guidelines for parents go much further in presenting love within marriage and the family, echoing the Pope's Letter to Families (1994).

In Chapter 2, "True Love and Chastity," the "virtue of chastity" is presented as self-giving and self-mastery, especially in marriage (nos. 2021). This is why Pope John Paul calls for "education for chastity" (, [on the family], no. 37). This also explains why these guidelines tend to avoid the expression "sex education," although this term is used when criticizing inadequate methods. Education for chastity includes instruction in human sexuality, but always and only within the whole Catholic doctrinal, spiritual and ascetical tradition.

Chapter 3, "In the Light of Vocation," presents marriage as a vocation, a call to married love (nos. 27-30). But today many parents are concerned about whether their children will enter a happy and stable marriage (nos. 31-33). By providing a good education for chastity, they can prepare their children for their vocation in life, especially a happy marriage. The vocation to virginity or celibacy is then presented as another goal of formation, to help parents cultivate priestly and religious vocations, based on a mature understanding of chastity (nos. 35- 36).

2. A Pastoral Approach

The pastoral principles are introduced in terms of parents' "rights and duties" in chapter 4, "Father and Mother as Educators." These rights are the basis for the recommendations which later appear in chapter 7. But you cannot separate parents' rights and duties from the responsibilities involved in being a parent. Attention is paid to the particular needs of single parents (see no. 38).

The home as an environment for formation is developed in chapter 5, "Paths of Formation Within the Family." As the "school of the virtues," the home is the place where decency, modesty, privacy and self-control can develop. Parents are models for their children (nos. 59-60). The family is "the sanctuary of life and faith" (nos. 61-63).

From these chapters of TMHS we see that: (a) parents have innate rights in this field; (b) these rights imply duties with regard to their children; (c) the family, the home, is the normal place for education for chastity and hence for imparting information about sex, which is only one part of a wider and deeper education for love and chastity.

3. In Family Life

The parent-child relationship is central when we apply our principles in the family. Chapter 6, "Learning Stages," is one of the most interesting parts of TMHS, obviously written in the light of the experiences of parents themselves.

Four principles help parents impart moral and sexual information during the various stages of a child's life: 1. "Each child is a unique and unrepeatable person and must receive individualized formation" (no. 65); 2. "The moral dimension must always be part of their [parents'] explanations" (no. 68); 3. "Formation in chastity and timely information regarding sexuality must be provided in the broadest context of education for love" (no. 70); 4. "Parents should provide this information with great delicacy, but clearly and at the appropriate time" (no. 75). By emphasizing the individual child, focusing on his or her needs, questions and problems, TMHS strikes a balance between parent-centered and child-centered approaches.

Four phases of a young person's development are then set out where we apply these principles: 1. the "years of innocence" (nos. 78- 86), 2. puberty (nos. 87-97), 3. adolescence (nos. 98108) and 4. early adulthood (nos. 109111).

The "years of innocence" represent a peaceful phase of development when prepubescent children should not be given sex information prematurely. This phase is recognized by parents and described by psychologists. But no particular psychological description is favored, hence terms such as "the latency phase" are not used.

There is a strong spiritual and moral emphasis in the study of puberty and adolescence, taking up once more the theme of vocation and formation of conscience (no. 95). Advice on problems such as masturbation and homosexuality is included. But the final section, "Towards Adulthood," is not detailed, because that phase is taken up in the "Guidelines for Marriage Preparation," also published by the Pontifical Council for the Family.

4. Recommendations and Norms

Chapter 7, "Practical Guidelines," is based on the rights of parents in chapter 4, the priority of the home in chapter 5, and the principles and phases of child development in chapter 6. Various "recommendations for parents and educators" are made (nos. 113120). But what is the status of these "recommendations"?

When examined in the light of their authoritative sources, such as the "Charter of the Rights of the Family" (footnotes 140 to 150), they are the kind of "recommendation" that only an irresponsible person would ignore. In fact, they encourage parents to associate and defend their children and their own rights in difficult situations (nos. 114-117). At the same time, the right of the child not to have his or her "right to chastity" violated (nos. 118-120) is clearly recognized, a truth that is so often overlooked in this field. This is a key section of the guidelines.

Four "working principles and their particular norms" follow, to guide parents and educators (nos. 121-127).

1. "" (no. 122). This is described as a "doctrinal" principle. It brings together Christian reverence for the mystery of sexuality and Christian realism in face of the effects of original sin and our need for grace and a properly formed conscience (no. 123).

2. "" (no. 124). This "principle of timing" is a synthesis of key points in chapter 6. Only parents, who know a child as an individual person, can decide when that child is ready to receive information.

3. "" (no. 126). This "principle of decency" rejects erotic material and method and cites four magisterial words: "positive and prudent" and "clear and delicate," taken from the Second Vatican Council, (Declaration on Christian Education, no. 1) and (no. 37), respectively. Footnote 155 indicates unacceptable material and method.

4. "" (no. 127). The fourth "principle of respect for the child" embodies the recommendations made in nos. 118120 to protect children.

These recommendations and norms are immediately applied to the critical issue of methods of "sex education." Some methods are recommended (nos. 129-134), especially those which involve parents. Other methods are rejected (nos. 135-142): anti-life and anti-natalist sex education; methods of sex educators, sex counselors and sex therapists; methods linked to AIDS education programs; the "values clarification" method; and inserting sexual instruction into other subjects, including catechetics.

What seems to be common to unacceptable methods is not only immoral content but that they are always beyond parental control, hence undermining what the Catholic home represents.

Chapter 7 concludes with references to "inculturation" in this field (nos. 143-144). But you cannot use inculturation to justify premature and explicit sex information in a society such as the United States (no. 143), just as you cannot deny a child the right to adequate information in a more traditional society (no. 144).

The concluding chapter encourages parents and calls on others in the Church to support them, for example with good resources (no. 147).

Chapter 8 applies the Church's favored principle of subsidiarity: "The role which others can carry out in helping parents is always (a) , because the formative role of the family is always preferable, and (b) , that is, subject to the parents' attentive guidance and control" (no. 145).

The conclusion is a message of solidarity, hope and confidence in the parents' capacity to be the best educators. Parents in fact do carry out education in chastity and human sexuality much better than anyone else.

Understanding the Guidelines

The Pontifical Council for the Family based its guidelines on the teachings of Pope John Paul II, especially and the Letter to Families, with relevant paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Catechesis on the mystery of being a man or a woman is one of the greatest gifts the Church has received from Pope John Paul II, the "Pope of the Family," as he was called by the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, at the World Meeting of the Holy Father with Families, Oct. 9, 1994. The footnotes in this document are a useful key to his teaching, not only on this question, but on human sexuality itself.

Therefore, it is important to read "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality" as a whole. It is not enough only to cite the norms or the phases of child development. These applications depend on the doctrinal and pastoral chapters.

Education for chastity can only be understood correctly in the context of a theology of married life and love, a sense of vocation in life, God's saving grace, the meaning of parenthood and, above all, God's love for us, our love for Him and our pilgrimage of faith toward eternal life.


Msgr. Peter J. Elliott is on official of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia

This article was taken from the September/October 1996 issue of "The Catholic Answer". To subscribe please write: "The Catholic Answer", Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

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