Sex Education in Catholic Schools. The Deeper Questions


Editorial FAITH Magazine Jul-Aug 2007

A visceral shock

The appalling Channel 4 “Living and Growing” sex education material has caused something of a visceral shock to parents who have perhaps previously not enquired too closely what their school is teaching in sex education. Among other outrages, the programme shows cartoon animations of young people masturbating in order to teach children about the function of their sexual organs. At a state school in Dagenham some parents burst into tears when the school showed them the material that was to be taught to their children and several other state schools have had to fend off angry parents who have seen it[1].

 A case recently came to light of a Catholic school using the same programme[2]. Incredibly, the school insisted on continuing with the programme despite sustained complaints by parents. We understand that the Diocese concerned originally responded by saying that the Channel 4 programme should not be used “as a basis” for Sex and Relationships Education in its schools but has now revised its policy to delete the “as a basis” clause, leaving a simple prohibition of the material. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that any Catholic school could have imagined that such a programme would be remotely suitable for the children in their care.

 Although this is an extreme case, Catholic parents have become increasingly concerned at the content of sex education in many of our schools. We need to understand the underlying problem over moral teaching in Catholic institutions.

“A difficult silence to break”

The problem goes back to the policy of the hierarchy in response to the publication of Humanae Vitae. The history of this period has been documented in chapter 8 of Clifford Longley’s “The Worlock Archive”[3]. Longley sketches the history of the question of artificial contraception through the 1960s and the widespread expectation that there would be a change in the Church’s teaching concerning the immorality of its use. This expectation was fuelled particularly by the 1964 book “Contraception and Holiness” by Archbishop Roberts, a book which consisted of articles by married couples and others promoting the use of contraception; and by such statements as that of Archbishop Beck to the clergy of Liverpool in 1967. In this he said,that in an individual case, a couple might judge that they were excused from observing the “concrete directive” (viz. not to use contraception) if they judged that by following the Church’s teaching there would be a danger to the essential value of the “community of love.” Beck was asked by Cardinal Cicognani to instruct the faithful that whilst awaiting a statement of the supreme magisterium, the “norm hitherto taught by the Church” should be faithfully observed.

The expectation of change that had been built up caused tremendous difficulties once Humanae Vitae was published in 1968. Just before the publication of the encyclical, Cicognani sent a letter to the bishops of the world in which he said that the Pope was aware of the “bitterness that his reply may cause many married persons who were expecting a different solution.” In England, the encyclical was the occasion for a change of direction at the Tablet which attacked the encyclical as soon as it was issued and has continued to oppose it ever since[4].

 Throughout the country there were priests who publicly dissented from the teaching of the encyclical. Initially, some Bishops reacted strongly, suspending such priests or removing them from parishes. Relatively soon, however, the hierarchy adopted what Longley refers to as the “English solution” (something he regards as good). He describes the effect of a carefully worded statement from the hierarchy to the clergy. The statement supported the teaching of the encyclical but proposed a measure of leniency to priests who dissented from it. As Longley observes, the statement had consequences reaching far beyond the pastoral care of dissident theologians:

 “It was a tacit acknowledgement, at least for the time being, that there was nothing to be gained by an aggressive policy of promoting the teaching of Humanae Vitae in the parishes. This was where the statement was most eloquently silent. A bishop issued his carefully worded pastoral letter, and in many cases also a private letter to his priests, and then left the subject alone. After a while this silence became a difficult silence to break”[5].

 Nearly forty years on, it is still difficult to break the silence. The 2004 document of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales “Cherishing Life” has two brief statements about contraception: the first says that it undermines the full human meaning of sexuality and the second highlights the “important distinction” between contraception and abortion, going on to speak of the moral problem of abortifacient methods of birth control. Welcome as these indications are, there is still no real enthusiasm for promoting the teaching of Humanae Vitae in parishes.

 A wide and easy road

Many might ask what advantage there would be in promoting this teaching today. As is well known, many Catholics use artificial contraception without considering it to be wrong. Among priests there is a fear that preaching the doctrine of the Church in this matter would meet with responses ranging from indifference to outright hostility. Unfortunately, the teaching of Humanae Vitae is not the only teaching that will meet with such responses today. When meeting parents who wish to arrange the Baptism of their child, priests nowadays find that a large proportion are not married but cohabiting. It is a delicate task to encourage such couples to marry.

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI said:

“Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the Church in this field is based, if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificial birth control. Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality”[6].

The widespread breakdown of marriage, which Pope Paul VI correctly predicted as a consequence of artificial birth control, led in turn to a fear of marriage among the young, resulting in the routine practice of cohabitation for several years at least before marriage if indeed that is ever considered. It is unlikely that Pope Paul VI or any of the bishops in 1968 would have imagined that within a few decades a substantial proportion of Catholic parents in some Western countries would be living together outside of marriage or that the Church in those countries would be defending her rights against those who claim that homosexual partnerships must be treated as being of equal value with marriage. Had anyone suggested in 1968 that such consequences would ensue, it is likely that they wouldhave been regarded as scaremongering prophets of doom.

The reason that legitimising artificial birth control led to a “general lowering of morality” is that a fundamental principle was overturned, the principle that sex is for the procreation of children within the stable state of loving which is marriage. There were a few voices in the late sixties and early seventies who spoke of the importance of this cardinal principle (Faith Magazine, for example) and the consequences of overturning it but for very many laity and clergy it was the “hard case” argument that won. Stories abounded of hard-pressed couples for whom the “rhythm method” had failed, and Pope John XXIII’s vision of openness to the world had become for many Catholics a desperate desire not to be seen as “old fashioned.”

 The silence over the teaching of Humanae Vitae amounted in practice to consent. The grandparents of today who accepted this consent with relief became in some cases the “condoning generation” with regard to abortion in difficult cases with the result that many mothers today ,even within our own community, carry the burden of a decision that was sold to them as a solution to their problem pregnancy. If the teaching of the Church could be rejected as old fashioned in one area of morality, hard cases could justify its rejection in others.

Rediscovery of Humanae Vitae

In recent years, however, there has been a wealth of literature, disseminated all the more effectively by means of the internet, which bears witness to the rediscovery of Church teaching concerning contraception by many young couples. Fortunately, the converse of Pope Paul VI’s prediction holds good: those who reject artificial contraception and live according to the teaching of the Church contribute to a general raising of morality, and very often have the actual experience of a better relationship of mutual love and life. The “bottom line” figure is the very low incidence of divorce among those who live by the teaching of Humanae Vitae, only regulating their family by the use of natural fertility awareness[7].

 The work of Janet Smith[8] examines the reasons why we should expect such positive consequences of following the Church’s teaching. Significantly, the case studies are not limited to those who have always followed the Church’s teaching but include many couples who have used artificial contraception in the past but have since ceased to do so and found that the happiness of their marriage was greatly enhanced as a result. She also examines the “therapeutic” character of Natural Family Planning in healing the wounds many couples have carried for years through being used and abused sexually.

 She points out that although sexual union obviously means “I wish to have a deeper bond with you” it means something more:

 “Sexual intercourse also means, ‘I am prepared to have a baby with you,’ (not, ‘I intend to have a baby with you’). A sexual act open to the possibility of procreation ideally represents the kind of bond to which spouses have committed themselves; it is an act ordained to lifetime commitments, for a child is a lifetime commitment. Contraceptives, however, convey the message that while sexual intercourse is desired, there is no desire for a permanent bond with the other person. The possibility of an everlasting bond has been wilfully removed from the very act designed to best express the desire for such a relationship. Contraceptive sex does not express the full meaning of sexual intercourse – it attempts to thwart and deny the life-giving meaning of the sexual act[9].”

 The work of Janet Smith and others in promoting this Catholic teaching and the widespread interest in the teaching of Pope John Paul on love and marriage should stir the conscience of those who promoted the “follow your conscience” line on contraception. If the formal teaching of Humanae Vitae is indeed of Christ (as it itself claims, cf. para.s 4 & 6) and that, as we might expect, living in accord with it deepens the quality of married love, strengthens fidelity, brings male sexuality under control, significantly lessens the likelihood of marital breakdown and fosters a generally pro-life attitude then we have done a great disservice to generations of Catholics by failing to break the silence on it.

The link with sex education

Sex and relationships education given in accord with the “silence difficult to break” regarding Humanae Vitae, has a number of inevitable characteristics. First of all, it becomes assumed, tacitly, that the Church’s moral teaching is somewhat unrealistic and therefore needs to be presented as an ideal – in the sense of something that we know most people won’t follow even if, in ideal circumstances, it might be a good thing. This way of thinking is similar to the acceptance in the secular sphere that most young people will have sex even though we might prefer them ideally to wait for a while.

Artificial contraception attempts to remove the procreative end of sexual union. A tacit acceptance of this will also mean a tacit acceptance that the only essential thing about sexual union is pleasure and the deepening of a relationship. Again, marriage may be thought the ideal but there will be a strong motivation to ensure that young people have all the necessary information about contraception because they may end up, fairly naturally, doing the “loving” bit first before they are ready to have children.

Such an understanding of sexual union inexorably fosters an increase in its use, especially given the reality of concupiscence. Such acts will tend gradually to spread as far as the bounds of love itself, which is a “many splendid thing” with many types and degrees. This broadening of the cultural appropriateness of sex is inexorable because the ideology that sex is primarily for loving, which is its root cause, has become unquestionable, even inside the Church. Its dire consequences, from family breakdown through sexually transmitted infections (STIs) even to abortion itself, can, in such a mind-set, only be responded to by measures that do not address the deeper issue, the core anti-life ideology itself.

From this brave new moral philosophy follows the paradox of the failure of and the relentlessness of the government’s policy of attempting to reduce teenage pregnancy and STIs by the widespread promotion of contraception, ‘emergency’ or otherwise. The propaganda for sex education usually takes the line that children need to have information about sex in order to avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Professor Paton carefully shows the falseness of this shibboleth later in this issue.

It is sometimes alleged also that explicit information assists children in resisting abuse. In fact, much sex education could be considered abusive in itself, exposing children to explicit information in the classroom – animated scenes of masturbation or sexual intercourse, being a very real, if more extreme, example.  The reinvention of sexual union as a means of loving separated from its inbuilt procreative meaning inevitably leads also to the loss of modesty and self-control. If sex is just about “loving”, there can be no cogent reason not to talk to children about it explicitly. The “therapeutic”, man-centred mentality which has infected much moral thinking since the 1940s has become a dogmatic insistence that the only really harmful thing is “repression” and that children willbe more healthy, the more “open” they are about sex and sexual activity.

 Education for chastity

If Church teaching were to be wholeheartedly accepted by the Church as something that should be promoted with enthusiasm, if Humanae Vitae becomes seen as teaching that will make people’s lives holier and happier, several consequences follow for education concerning sex and relationships. The first of these is that such courses will not be primarily about sex but about chastity. The greatest misfortune will be seen correctly to be mortal sin rather than “repression” and there will be a renewed focus on the importance of developing modesty and self-control as a basis for future married love.

At the same time, it will be seen as important to encourage the young in that Christian optimism which is part of the virtue of hope. Such optimism conveys the message that it is possible to keep the commandments. Sometimes it can be difficult; Catholic doctrine can account for this difficulty with reference to the doctrine of original sin and concupiscence. The doctrine of grace gives us grounds to hope that we may in fact keep the commandments fully if we call upon God for help and co-operate with his assistance by exercising modesty, by keeping custody of the eyes, by avoiding impure conversations and by using all the other means traditionally employed in support of chastity. (See Richard Whinder’s outline of St Philip Neri’s approach later in this issue.)

Such an approach has a far more realistic understanding of male sexuality which is particularly violated by explicit sex education. Presenting boys with graphic information about body parts, menstruation, and masturbation will not help them to avoid impure thoughts, to put it mildly. It is unrealistic to expect boys to go from such a lesson free from the temptation to put the theory into practice. Distressing cases of little girls being molested after school by the boys are surely not unrelated.

Education for chastity, on the other hand, can teach boys to grow to be “real men”, offer them a noble understanding of their own masculine sexual identity, and give them a chance to avoid falling into the cycle of sexual addiction offered by pornography on their camera phones and computers. If they fall, they have the hope of returning once again to a state of grace without the assumption that a life of impurity is an inevitable part of their manhood.

 Reconciling schools and parents

An approach that enthusiastically accepts Church teaching in this area will also find it much easier to manage the related relationship between school and parents. If we are engaged in chastity education rather than giving information about sex, it is easy to show that such education, is part of the character building for children that finds its natural place in the home. The role of the school will be to support this loving parental authority by reinforcing the cultivation of virtue both in the classroom and in the playground.

Unsure parents will also be relieved to know that their own responsibility is not focussed on giving information about sex but rather on teaching their children to be chaste, self-controlled and prudent. The embarrassment of parents is sometimes put forward as a reason for school sex education: “the parents won’t do it so we have to.” Sometimes parents themselves, bombarded with nannying advice about how they should teach their children to be “safe”, feel that they are letting their children down if they don’t give their ten year old explicit sex instruction. Many parents need to be reassured that their embarrassment is not a dereliction of duty but a natural concomitant of modesty and itself conveys to their children a certain respect for the body and for the generation of new life.

Once parents are relieved of any understandable fears about having to teach their young children how to have sex, it will be easier to convince them of the importance of exercising their God-given role as educators in chastity. No parent wants their son to grow up as the class pervert or their daughter to be thought an “easy lay”. It is not difficult to help parents to see that their most heartfelt desire for their children is that they should grow up to be good people who are respected by others. There may be some resistance to the idea that their own contraceptive practice is a significant problem but being a parent can bring about a remarkable capacity for conversion.

Reclaiming love, life and family

As Eric Hester explains later in this issue The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality[11] teaches that formation in chastity and any information imparted about sexuality should be given in the broadest context of information about love. The document stresses the importance of the spiritual formation of children so that as they grow up, their awareness of their own sexuality occurs in the context of their vocation to love. Specifically, it is not sufficient, therefore, to provide information about sex together with objective moral principles. (n.70).

As we have insisted, the “broadest context of information about love” must include an honest commitment to the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Unless that teaching, accepted with conviction, underlies our approach to love and family, any attempt at “Catholic sex-ed” will necessarily be fatally flawed.

It is time for a new confidence in the teaching of the Church. The utter moral bankruptcy of the therapeutic mentality regarding sex, and the promotion of “safer sex” is evident in the breakdown of the family, the epidemic of pornography, and the mainstreaming of the homosexual lifestyle. Dissent from Humanae Vitae has done much to ensure that Catholic society has failed to remain adequately distinct from these societal trends. Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to provide a real, life-giving alternative vision of love and the family. Confident and committed education in chastity for the young will give them a chance to live the standards of Christ with joy and hope in the face of a corrupt society.

[1]Daily Mail 26 April 2006
[2]Cf. Article “Watch out for classroom violation” Pro-Life Times (34) September 2006 p1 reporting on St William of York Primary School, Forest Hill.
[3]Longley, Clifford. The Worlock Archive. London: G. Chapman, 2000. Chapter 8 ‘The Greatest Shock’
[4]Cf. ‘Crisis in the Church’ (Leader article) The Tablet 3 August 1968.
[5]Longley op cit p254
[6]Humanae Vitae n.17
[7]To date, the evidence for this claim is limited to small scale studies and nonrandom surveys. However the effect shown by these is dramatic enough. See (Accessed 23/5/07). Priests who have been involved in integrally Catholic formation of married and engaged couples often have their own confirmatory anecdotes. This for instance is the experience of numerous priests involved in Faith movement.
[8]See for example Smith, Janet Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (1991)
[9]Janet Smith “Humanae Vitae. The Church’s Best Kept Secret?” Eutopia Sep-Oct 1998 available online at (Accessed 23/5/07)
[10]For online references, see 2006/05/ england-stats-on-stis.html
[11]Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. Guidelines for Education within the Family (1995)

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