GCSE Lessons on Catholic Marriage: A Syllalbus of Errors

Hugh MacKenzie FAITH Magazine November – December 2011

Fr Hugh MacKenzie, Editor of FAITH, presents some worrying weaknesses in a popular text book for 14 year old Catholics.

The Catholic Church is struggling more and more to make its voice heard in the western world. An example of the complexity of the problem can be found in the content of many of the religious education text books used in our Catholic schools. Below we would like to highlight some serious weaknesses in one section of one such book. As we hope will be clear from the context from which this book has emerged, we do not question the good intentions of the authors, nor their skill, evident throughout the book, in presenting relevant issues clearly and effectively. The nature of this piece will be to focus upon some serious problems.

The text book in question is the official one for the Religious Studies GCSE set by EdExcel, the country's largest examination board. Most London Catholic schools follow its syllabus. Some Catholic pupils begin studying for the exam in Year 9 (aged 13-14), but most start in Year 10.

The Catholic paper, Unit 3, is entitled "Religion and Life Based on a Study of Roman Catholic Christianity". The main Unit 3 text book is Roman Catholic Christianity. Section 3, "Marriage and Family Life", is profoundly antithetical to the Catholic faith. The book is produced and recommended by the examination board, but it is not mandatory, nor is it approved by the Church. The current edition was published in 2009. A previous version was critically reviewed in the March 2006 edition of Faith magazine.

The culture fostered by the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) is that of learning facts in order to pass an exam. The Curriculum Directory produced by the Bishops' Conference of England Wales accepts that the purpose of RE textbooks is to provide a framework to ensure that RE classes are as rigorous, objective and factual as those in any other academic subject. The directory acknowledges that there may be an overlap with catechesis, understood as fostering young people's faith, an essential aspect of formation in a Catholic school. But the bishops also accept that RE is an activity distinct from catechesis and evangelisation. They do not question the role of the QCA in determining public examination curricula, and nor do we. Catholic pupils need to understand both sides of thedebates that are prominent in our culture. We would also acknowledge from experience that most Catholic pupils are aware that studying for a GCSE in RE is not the same as being formed in the faith. Sometimes they are even aware that the course's content is set by people who hold no brief for the Catholic Church.

Our objection would be that the Catholic side of the argument in section 3, on marriage and family life, is woefully inadequate, and that the non-Catholic side is presented with unacknowledged quasi-relativist assumptions which are profoundly opposed to Catholic thinking and formation.

Even so, if a student is being taught by a well-formed teacher, or is receiving sound catechesis, the negative effects of such RE can be mitigated. The problem is that, with notable exceptions, few secondary school pupils are receiving such formation. This is not to denigrate the many excellent teachers, parents, priests and youth workers involved in young people's lives; we are merely recognising a fact of the cultural battle in which we are engaged.

Faith and Reason

The third of the four sections, "Marriage and Family", is about "changing attitudes" and "Christian attitudes" to sex. It encourages students to separate facts from feelings, reason from faith, head from heart.

Great emphasis is placed upon the Bible as the origin of our faith. Nature and the Church as sources of our faith are never explained, and observations from the former (let alone the Catholic Natural Law tradition) are rarely explained. The two main reasons given for Catholics being against sex before marriage are that "sexual intercourse is a gift from God" and that "Church teaching" is against it (p63). The two main reasons for Catholics being against contraception are couched in terms of the fact that God just decided that procreation is inherent to sex. (p76).

The presentation of Catholic teaching on contraception and homosexuality is very weak, and counter opinions are presented more convincingly. For example, the phenomenon of "love" is used to justify arguments in favour of abortion (p41), contraception (p76) and homosexual sex (p76). By contrast, the presentation of the Catholic position never mentions love, despite its central place in Christian civilisation. The basis of the Church position is apparently that Catholicism claims that God gave the procreative purpose to sex, and, for that reason alone, this claim must not be contradicted.

These weaknesses, and the ones outlined below, undermine the coherence of Catholic teaching. A convincing catechesis based on Natural Law could lessen the damaging effects of this presentation. But, as we have mentioned, such catechesis rarely happens, inside or outside school.


Two key omissions in the text book's presentation radically undermine the coherent presentation of Catholic teaching in the area of homosexuality.

First, it fails to mention that the Church "refuses to consider the person as a 'heterosexual' or a 'homosexual' and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and, by grace, his child and heir to eternal life" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, para. 16, 1986). While we acknowledge the relevance of using the words to refer to the phenomenon of same-sex attraction, the Church does not accept the labelling of people as homosexual and heterosexual. We are all wounded in this area. Our sexuality involves a complementarity in the image of Christ, the Bridegroom, and of His Church, the Bride. This basic biblical and Catholic theme is completely missing from the text book.

Rightly central to the book's presentation is the Catholic view concerning the distinction between homosexual tendencies (not sinful) and homosexual acts (sinful). Yet there's no mention of the Catholic doctrine that such tendencies, along with numerous others, sexual or otherwise, are "disordered" (cf. CCC 2358). This is no doubt a delicate theme to present, and one that would call upon all the skills of the authors. We would refer to our well-received editorial of November 2003, "The Debate about Homosexuality", for our own attempt to present theses issues truthfully and with sensitivity.

The book would seem to deny the crucial point of CCC. 2358. For instance, we are told that "Roman Catholics believe that all forms of discrimination are wrong, including homophobia, because the Bible teaches that we are all equal" (p69). The term homophobia (which is nowhere defined in the text) captures a range of negative attitudes towards people with same-sex attraction. Devaluing people who experience same-sex attraction, let alone being "phobic" towards them, is indeed condemned by the Church. Yet, in our culture, the Catholic belief that same-sex attraction is "objectively disordered" is sometimes itself regarded as "homophobic".

Consider the following statement, which is presented as a model example of the "development" of Catholic teaching, one that is likely to "gain higher marks" if used appropriately in the GCSE exam: "The Roman Catholic Church thinks that homosexuality is wrong, but that homosexual feelings are not. They argue that you cannot change your sexual orientation, but you can control your actions" (p69). This statement, which typifies the way Catholic moral teaching is presented in the book, is incoherent. For it would seem from the preceding text that by "homosexuality" the authors actually mean homosexual sex (which is confusing because elsewhere "homosexuality" is used as a general term covering "orientation" and actions). Moreover, the word "wrong" would appear to mean "morally wrong". Yetwithout this qualification the word also has the meaning "disordered", which would render the second half of the statement false in the light of CCC 2358, as explained above.

The implication is that the Church teaches, without reservation, that sexual tendencies cannot be changed (in this life, at least). While in many cases this would seem to be the case, the Church does not rule out the possibility. To do so would be perverse given that the Church considers some such tendencies to be disordered, and must do so for the coherence of her position. Indeed, as we made clear above, the Church ultimately rejects the concept of "sexual orientation" as something that defines a person.

The attitudes that infuse so much of section 3 of the book are hinted at in countless dubious affirmations, suggestions and examples. For instance, we are told: "Civil partnerships were a huge step forward in the recognition of homosexual love and commitment in a relationship" (p69). It is difficult to use the word "forward" of a campaign that one might think is bad. While the Catholic Church would certainly want to recognise that love and commitment between two people of the same sex is a good thing, the term "homosexual love", understood in the sense in which it is used in our secular environment and in this book, is an oxymoron for the Catholic mindset.

We also find the suggestion: "Make a list of as many famous homosexual people as you can" (p68). This encourages internet searches which could easily reveal material that is profoundly antithetical to, and undermining of, Catholic formation. The last section, on community cohesion and the media, offers three picture examples of relevant issues. One shows the character Todd Grimshaw from Coronation Street about to kiss another man. Whilst this certainly raises a relevant issue the appropriateness of displaying this to Catholic 14 year olds is surely a parental decision.


The text of the "Christian Attitudes" section includes a list of internet links which students are strongly encouraged to follow to get "more information about contraception devices" (p75) and "about views on contraception" (p77). The first points to the home page of the Brook Advisory Centre.

Once on the Brook site it is easy for a young person to access all sorts of "reproductive" advice that strikes at the heart of Gospel values and right reason. At the time of writing, visitors to the site are prominently invited to sign up to a campaign to "support young people's right to enjoy and express their sexuality". The research "information" provided on this site is highly contentious and the "views" one-sided. The result is that many pupils studying RE at our Catholic schools will find themselves perusing a slick, youth-centred site whose moral vision of human life and sex is profoundly alien to the Catholic vision, and therefore potentially extremely harmful.

Here are some examples of the skewed emphasises that, throughout this text book, are being presented to pupils aged 13 to 15 in our schools. Under the title "Natural Family Planning" the student is told solely about the rhythm method, which was pioneered in the 1930s. Since then, a great many other methods using periodic abstinence have been developed, all of which are universally accepted as more effective than the rhythm method. Examples include the temperature method, the sympto-thermal method, the Billings ovulation method, Napro, and even the Persona kits from Boots that test hormone levels. The Billings method was independently tested by the World Health Organisation and found to be 98.5 per cent effective.

The main reason given for the Church's opposition to artificial contraception is this: "Artificial methods are wrong because they prevent humans from fulfilling God's command to 'be fruitful and multiply'" (p76). Given that the Church places no moral obligation on couples to have as many children as they possibly can, the insinuation contained in this statement is a crude caricature of Catholic teaching.

In the section "Can contraception be viewed as abortion?" there is no mention that the "conventional pill" can have an abortifacient effect. And concerning "the use of contraceptives to protect against sexually transmitted diseases" the students are told, without further qualification, that sexually transmitted infections are "a greater threat to people than pregnancy ... some Catholics are looking again at this issue for this reason" (p77). No doubt, as we mentioned at the beginning, a good teacher could provide the necessary context for this statement. Yet the official text is loaded against Catholic teaching, and pregnancy is placed in the category of misfortunes to be avoided at all costs.


In our November 2006 editorial, "Catholic Schools Revisited: What Future Now?", we argued that the crisis concerning whether or not we should fight for the integrity of State-aided Catholic education had rapidly deepened. We have now reached the point where many respected Catholic schools are failing so conspicuously to present the Church's sexual teaching in a forthright and coherent manner that, in effect, they have already raised a white flag. No wonder the taste for forcing upon Catholic schools and parishes moral agendas incompatible with Catholic teaching seems to be getting stronger among our political elite.

Still one response might be for dioceses to introduce integrally Catholic text books which, if it is possible, do not compromise the principles and syllabuses of public examining boards. The option of home schooling, or of withdrawing children from aspects of the curriculum, seems to be increasingly considered by Catholic parents. In our current editorial we mentioned that some sound Catholic parents are being sorely tempted to throw in the towel and leave their children to cope as best they can with whatever is thrown at them in their RE classes. Yet the role and example of good Catholic families, parishes and movements has never been more important. We need to ask for the grace to grow in mutual awareness and to support each other against the developing storm.

Faith Magazine