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
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-
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
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
(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
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.
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Msgr. Peter J. Elliott is on official of the Vatican's Pontifical
Council for the Family. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of
This article was taken from the September/October 1996 issue of
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