Sex Education or Chastity Education: Church Teaching and Civil Law
Eric Hester FAITH Magazine July-Aug 2007
Our Blessed Lord radiated forgiveness and mercy to all who turned to Him. One could consider the case of the woman taken in adultery. Rarely did He condemn and even more rarely did He couple condemnation with a threat of dire punishment. This He did about those who threatened the consciences of the young: “Anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck. Alas for the world that there should be such obstacles! Obstacles indeed there must be, but alas for the man who provides them!” (Matthew 18: 6-7). Teaching the young about the marital act in a culture which has moved away from the Christian vision is surely an area which might, lest care be taken, fall under thesesanctions. It is not a trivial matter.
In this article I will argue that the Church teaches that ‘sex education’ must be given primarily by parents and always be under their “attentive guidance whether at home or in educational centres chosen and controlled by them.” (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio). It should primarily be about and ordered to chastity. Further, I will demonstrate that no one should give any child any sex education at all in the stage of latency (until about eleven or twelve years old), except when correction of misunderstanding is clearly needed. I will show that the laws of education in England and Wales. say that Catholic schools need not give any sex education at all in primary schools and in secondary schools are required to give sex education only about AIDS and venereal diseases.
From the perspective of classical Christianity the young are being corrupted by modern sex education. Even from a purely secular perspective it is not working. Britain has the highest rates in Europe of teenage pregnancy, venereal diseases among the young, and abortions of the young. This has touched Catholic schools. In the opinion of this writer this is, in part, so many have gone against Catholic teaching with sex education programmes that, unwittingly, lead our young people astray.
The teaching of the Church has always been consistent on the absolute primacy of chastity education within this delicate arena. There is a long tradition of Papal teaching, especially from the Nineteenth Century onwards, though it was only the advent of secular education for all (from 1870 in England) that produced the need to fight explicitly against what was happening in schools. As long ago as 1929, Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Christian Education of Youthwarned of the dangers of so-called sex education programmes given away from the home and without proper moral and spiritual formation.
His words are still relevant today:
By the 1990s, the situation in different parts of the world was becoming ever increasingly worrying for Catholic parents. In 1996 the document The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality – Guidelines for education within the familywas published by The Pontifical Council for the Family.
It is a worthy document. It beautifully brings out the importance of a “personalized dialogue” with parents (n.66), of the importance of imbuing modesty (n. 69), and of teaching the complimentarity of the sexes (n. 80) and the effects of original sin (n.122). Paragraph 78 states: “During ‘ the years of innocence’ (up to puberty)... this period of tranquillity must never be disturbed by any unnecessary information about sex.” Before puberty no such necessity can arise except to correct serious misunderstandings.
Parental rights It is worth reflecting on the document’s recommendations for parents:
Parental ability This writer has heard it suggested by diocesan officials, and even sometimes by teachers, that the vast majority of parents are incapable of giving sex education to their own children, or are embarrassed, unwilling or too lazy to give it. This is condescending and untrue. Parents know at least enough about sex to conceive a child and to feed the child at the breast. The mother of a child may not know too much science (and how little science is needed to understand the nature of sexual union!) but she is the world expert on the development of her own children. It is a truism of education that it must take account of a child’s prior knowledge. And who will know this better than the child’s mother or father? The Church insists that sex education must take account of the stateof development of the child. The child’s teachers are not likely to know this better than the parents. When parents give sex education, they will probably find, as we found with our four children, that the age for this differs according to the individual child.
Let us compare what happens with the comparable area of learning the skills of speaking. Parents, without the benefits of philology, psychology, sociology and the other ‘ologies’ of education, manage successfully to teach their children a reasonable command of their native language by the age of five, often younger. One can imagine the comparative results of an experiment where a group of children were removed from their parents and taught the language only by teachers. A mother, instinctively, knows how to respond to a baby, what words to use, and how to “teach” the language without lessons or pedagogy. English is my university discipline, and I was an English teacher for years, but I have to agree with the statement by one teacher: “If we had to teach them to speak, they’d never learn.”If parents can give a child the gift of a complicated and subtle language, they can be trusted to pass on the relatively little biological information that children need to know about sex, and in a manner that, most likely of all methods, will place it in the context of the language of love and life. It is through such familial interaction that sex education can truly be chastity education. No doubt some parents will need support and encouragement in aspects of this, especially in our secularized country and Church.
The argument is often advanced, “Of course, we would like to keep to what the Church teaches, but, alas, in England and Wales, the law requires us to teach a modern sex education policy.” This position has sometimes grown out of a misunderstanding of the requirements concerning the science curriculum.
First of all it should be noted that one should never harm the consciences of children in going against Church teaching merely to obey the law: “Our fathers chained in prisons dark were still in heart and conscience free” and better to be thus than to be applauded by the Local Authority advisers and teach what is wrong. This argument – we have to obey the law – would not be accepted on matters such as race, asylum seekers, green issues or others considered important by the politically correct.
But actually and happily there is no need for such a clash. No primary school need have any formal sex education at all and secondary schools need only teach about AIDS and venereal diseases, something they could do quite easily. In fact Catholic chastity education can confirm that those who follow the teaching of the Church will find it almost impossible to catch AIDS or any other venereal disease.
Both primary and secondary schools in science and biology will need to teach some relevant items but none of these have any moral consequences and need trouble no conscience. For those readers who are interested in the detail with regard to English and Welsh schools I will now explain before concluding.
The relevant act is the 1996 Education Act concerning what it calls SRE (sex and relationship education). The best place to find the full statement is via the DfES website and all my quotations are taken from there as it was in November 2006. This, then is the government’s own summary of the requirements for schools:
The 1996 Education Act consolidated all relevant previous legislation.
• All schools must have an up to date policy that describes the content and organisation of SRE provided outside the National Curriculum Science Order. It is the school governors’ responsibility to ensure that the policy is developed and made available to parents for inspection.
• Primary schools should either have a policy statement that describes the SRE provided or give a statement of the decision not to provide SRE other than that provided within the National Curriculum Science Order
• Secondary schools are required to provide SRE which includes (as a minimum) information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS.
• young people are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate, having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned
• governing bodies have regard to the SRE Guidance.
The SRE Guidance (DfEE, 0116/2000) builds on these legal requirements and states that all schools must have an up to date SRE policy which:
• defines SRE
• describes how SRE is provided and who is responsible for providing it
• says how SRE is monitored and evaluated
• includes information about parents’ right to withdrawal • is reviewed regularly
• is available for inspection and to parents.
The raising of the matter of the requirement to follow the National Curriculum in science is a red herring. First, it does not follow that since the government requires schools to follow the National Curriculum then schools should voluntarily do lots of other things in sex education. But, again, there is no harm in what the government requires: all that is required is basic biological information (see box).
There is nothing here to which Catholic parents should object. There is nothing about contraception, abortion, being “gay”, “lifestyle choices”, “alternative families” and all the jargon of “sex ed”. So what ever reasons Catholic schools advance for doing “sex education” it cannot be that the law forces schools’ hands.
To defend our children we must hope that governors, parish priests, teachers and parents will enter into the necessary battle with those who insist that the government requires a full ‘sex education’ programme. Church teaching gives us our manifesto, and it is not formally opposed by civil law.