Sex Education and Catholic Schools

Author: Thomas Dolan


Thomas P. Dolan

When the Council Fathers asserted, at Vatican II, that children should be given prudent sex education and that this education ought to be given in the heart of the family, they said nothing new, but reaffirmed the consistent teaching of the Church. Pope Pius XI has said the same thing in the encyclical, The Education of the Redeemed Man, in December, 1921; and a decree of the Holy Office on March 21, 1931, said that "no approbation whatever can be given" to group sex education, and that precautions must be taken to see that young people avoid all occasions of sin.

Pope Pius XII, in an address on September 23, 1951, insisted that only parents should give sex education, and on April 13, 1953, he reaffirmed the decree of 1931. In an encyclical, Sacra Virginitas, he condemned immodest sex education, and again in an address to families he urged them to fight the writings which were even then flooding the world concerning "sex initiation," and exaggerating the importance of sex.

Pope Paul VI, in an address on September 13, 1972, classed sex education along with erotic literature and pornography as one of the evils of the day.

Despite this wise stand on the part of the Church, some Catholic schools have followed the example of public schools or have bowed to liberal pressure and have put in sex education programs; and some Bishops have been persuaded to permit, and even to recommend, sex education in classrooms.

This is probably due, on the part of the Bishops, to a misunderstanding of what is meant by sex education. The Bishops probably envision instruction in morals as pertaining to sexual matters. This is of course badly needed — but it is not at all what is encompassed in the sex education programs which proliferate today under various names, e.g., family life education, hygiene, personality development. These programs are based on a philosophy of humanism. Their proponents frankly state that they are not intended to teach morals.

Many psychologists and psychiatrists have spoken out vigorously against sex education in schools, pointing out its deleterious effect on children. A few of those who have opposed it are Dr. Rhoda Lorand, psychotherapist; Dr. John Meeks, Director of Child and Adolescent Services at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington; Dr. Myre Sim, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Ottawa; Dr. Charles Sarnoff, Chief of Child Psychiatry at the Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn; Dr. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist; Dr. Louise Eickoff, psychiatrist; Dr. Val Davajan, professor at U.C.L.A. Medical School. They have declared that sex instruction of children in the classroom or in groups is dehumanizing and leads to neurosis. Dr. Eickhoff notes a correlation between emotionally disturbed children and those who have been exposed to sex education, and Dr. Davajan states; "I am convinced that those who have planned and are presently promoting this national sex education program have a very definite goal ... to degrade and denigrate the mentality of an entire generation of American children."

Bishops who countenance sex education in schools quite probably tell themselves that if the instruction is given under Catholic auspices, it will be given "the right way." But there is no right way to give explicit sex instruction to children who are mentally and emotionally unready for it. There is no right way to give information in groups that should be given privately. There is no right way for an outsider to assume a role which belongs particularly to the parents.

The Bishops, in all probability, would be embarrassed if they themselves were exposed to the type of sex education that is given children in many classrooms today, and would dislike reading some of the material. Much of the material in use is explicit and sensual, and in some cases borders on pornography. These sex education programs which run from the first grade through high school certainly foster preoccupation with sex.

The things that have followed the introduction of sex education in schools should dismay any thoughtful person. Sweden was a pioneer in this field. The programs were followed by what was termed "sexual hysteria," with a catastrophic increase in venereal disease, a great increase in promiscuity and an increase in the number of teenage pregnancies. Precisely the same pattern has been observed in the United States in areas where sex education has been introduced in schools.

The reason for this should be very easy to see. When students learn, for example, arithmetic, it is taken for granted that they can put what they learn into practice and can do simple things with their knowledge like handling a small allowance or going to the store and bringing back the right change. It cannot but appear to the students, when they are given detailed and exact information about sex, that they are regarded as ready to make use of this information. Add to this the fact that the teaching is, of its very nature, emotionally stirring and provocative, and you have an explosive situation.

Modesty and reticence are guardians of chastity. When these are broken down, through casual discussion in groups of what should be intimate, personal matters, the child loses his strongest defense against unchastity.

When bishops have countenanced sex education in schools, it is clear that they intended an education based on morality, and aimed at forming, in the young, the virtues of modesty and chastity. In the Basic Teachings, the bishops said: "In a sex saturated society, the follower of Christ must be different. For the Christian, there can be no premarital sex, fornication, adultery, or other acts of impurity or scandal to others. He must remain chaste, repelling lustful desires and temptations, self-abuse, pornography, and indecent entertainment of every description... The follower of Christ must be pure in words and actions even in the midst of corruption."

These things should be taught to young people in every Catholic school. But what we have in many schools is something altogether different. We have courses which reflect the obsession with sex that has permeated secular society.

We have learned that some sex education courses, some of them in the name of religion or theology, are given to young people with the admonition that they are not to take any of the printed material home with them, or even to discuss the subject matter with their parents. In programs we have seen which were given with this admonition, nothing at all is left to the imagination. Intimate parts of the body and their sexual functions are described in minute detail. Every aspect of sex is explored, and the most explicit descriptions of deviant and aberrant behavior are included. All types of contraceptives are described and their use explained in detail. One course we have seen provides students with the vulgar words for sexual functions or parts of the body, and gives a full explanation of each one.

It would be difficult to claim that the purpose of these programs is to teach morality, in view of their explicitness, their amoral manner of representation, and their use of crude language. In fact, in the programs of which we speak, there is no mention of the morality or immorality of any particular action. In at least one of them, Humanae Vitae is described as presenting a papal position which "is not of the faith nor is it infallible," and the student is told that "after much thought and responsible consideration each person must follow his/her own educated conscience in this matter."

It is apparently assumed, by those who prepare these programs, that young people are going to engage in premarital sexual activity. This attitude, in itself, is psychologically devastating. A Christian society should expect its young people to be moral, and a Catholic school should be particularly positive in expecting this, and positive in its teaching of virtue. These programs are quite the opposite. They give the young person an ugly and not at all Christian view of sex, the material, by its very nature, will inevitably produce unchaste thoughts, and this may readily lead to immoral actions. While they are particularly bad for the young, these programs would not be good for people of any age, for they include information that no moral person needs. St. Paul tells us that immorality, obscenity, and uncleanness should "not even be mentioned" among Christians.

Proponents of sex education presumably believe in frankness and in factuality. But these are important facts we have not found in any of the sex education programs we have read:

1. that fornication and adultery are serious sins; that indeed any use of one's sexual powers outside marriage is seriously sinful;

2. that unchastity inevitably has sad emotional and psychological repercussions which are unknown to the person who lives a chaste life;

3. that illicit sexual activity can result in incurable diseases which will torment the victim for all the rest of his life;

4. that there is NO certain way of avoiding venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy other than the practice of continence.

Some of the courses we have seen are worse than others, but they are all destructive of reticence and modesty. Some of them are prone to vulgarity and all of them infringe on the student's privacy.

None of the programs we have seen teach young people the most essential facts — e.g. that fornication and adultery are mortal sins; that committing these sins just once may result in acquiring an incurable disease that will be with the person for life, or in an unwanted pregnancy. There is hardly anything a teenager could need to know that would be of more importance to his present and future life.

One omission is all reference to life-long celibacy and continence. The authors seem to assume that the unmarried priesthood is due to end, or they would refer to the fact that some people, if they have vocations to the priesthood or to religious life, will never marry and are therefore bound to continence. Or, if they have vocations to single life in the world.

These sex education programs disregard Pope Paul's call, In Humanae Vitae, for the fostering of an atmosphere favorable to chastity. None of these we have seen are favorable to chastity. The preoccupation with sex that they foster is neither normal nor desirable. The increase in teenage promiscuity, pregnancy, and venereal disease since the introduction of sex education in schools bears testimony to that fact.

Pope John Paul II has recently issued an Apostolic Exhortation on the Role of the Christian Family (in 1981). He insists that the right and duty of parents to give education is essential, original and primary, "and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others." Sex education, Pope John Paul says, is "a basic right and duty of parents" and must always be carried out under their guidance, whether at home or in education centers controlled by them. Education for chastity, he says, is absolutely essential.

We urge all parents to investigate their children's religion programs, as well as any sex education programs or "family life programs" that may be used in their schools. Know precisely what your children are being taught in every area. Insist on your right to know. Explain to your children that when anyone tells them not to tell their parents about something, this is a clear sign that something is wrong, and they should tell their parents at once.

If, upon investigation, you find objectionable programs in your schools, talk with other parents and go in groups to protest to the school authorities, and if necessary, to your Bishop. Be prepared for "put-downs" from those who are defenders of the programs, such as: "You are not qualified to judge the appropriateness of the material because you are not professionals." Or, to quote another statement that has actually been made: "Children need this information so desperately that it must be given in spite of parental disapproval and even without parental knowledge or consent."

Do not be put off by these or similar answers. Parents are the first educators of their children. This is a principle that the Church has always upheld, and it is reaffirmed very clearly and firmly by Vatican II. Parents must insist on respect for their rights and authority.

The above is chapter XI of
On Teaching the Faith,
by Thomas P. Dolan, 1984.
This book is available from
The Institute on Religious Life
P.O. Box 41007
Chicago, IL 60641.

Taken from:
The July-August 1994 issue of
Religious Life
Published by
The Institute on Religious Life
P. O. Box 41007
Chicago, IL 60641.