Sex Education—New Vatican Guidelines

The Holy See has done it again. The new teaching document issued by the Pontifical Council on the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family, is yet another one of the growing list of outstanding teaching documents produced by the modern papacy that provide precise and serene “correct answers” to so many of the otherwise intractable problems of our very troubled times.

What the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us about faith and belief; what Veritatis Splendor teaches us about today’s insidious and dishonest moral relativism; what Evangelium Vitae teaches us about today’s appalling culture of death; what Centesimus Annus teaches us about our economic and political dilemmas; what Ut Unum Sint teaches us about relations with those who do not share with us the fullness of our Catholic faith; The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality teaches about the vexed contemporary question of “sex education”: it is nothing else but the definitive treatment.

Sex education, while generally understood to be controversial, has not normally been too high on the list of most well-informed people as among the most critical moral and spiritual issues we face today. For one thing, almost everybody agrees that we do have to have some kind of sex education.

In this climate of opinion, people who come forward as opponents of sex education, if they are not instantly dismissed or at least condescended to on all sides, are almost invariably seen at best as impractical, unrealistic, head-in-the-sand types who have to be brought back into the real world. Or, if that is impossible, perhaps just humored while society goes on to do what is obviously necessary today.

Nobody likes this kind of treatment, and so even many who are uneasy about the current vogue of sex education tend to resolve whatever doubts they may have about it in favor of letting it go on anyway: maybe it will do some good.

The Catholic Church’s traditional teaching about sex education, especially as formulated by Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, is that it should not be primarily a matter of giving explicit “information” at all, but rather it should be a matter of inculcating modesty, purity, chastity, and morality, a matter of teaching the sixth and ninth commandments. Moreover, it should also be primarily a matter for the parents to impart privately in the home, not something to be purveyed and discussed in mixed classrooms of boys and girls at impressionable ages.

The Vatican II Declaration on Education calling for “positive and prudent sexual education,” when it gets around to discussing where education should be performed, speaks of the Catholic school as performing its services “as partners of the parents . . . [with] due regard in every educational activity to sexual differences” (emphasis added).

And in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II takes up the same theme again, stipulating that “especially in the heart of their own families, young people should be aptly and seasonably instructed about the dignity, duty, and expression of married love. Trained thus in the cultivation of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to enter a marriage of their own after an honorable courtship” (emphasis added). Thus, if there is anything than can rightly be called “Catholic sex education,” it cannot be anything else but an “education in chastity” imparted by the parents or in close collaboration with and in support of the parents.

By contrast, modern classroom sex education programs deliberately aim to “let it all hang out,” leaving nothing to the imagination; this is considered openness and honesty, in contrast to the hypocrisy with which matters pertaining to sex were formerly thought to have been dealt with. Far from being an antidote to today’s sexual revolution, most of today’s existing modern classroom sex education programs are a typical and integral part of it. More often than not, these school programs are designed to continue for years on end. Not infrequently they are Kthrough-12 programs, keeping the growing child’s mind constantly focused on his developing sexuality throughout his entire school career.

Sex Education

Much more important than the question of whether or not we need to have sex education, then, is the question: What kind of sex education are we talking about? Most people have not bothered to look into this question. They think they already know what sex education is, perhaps remembering their own school classes in health or hygiene and imagining that today’s sex education is something like that: if not talking up abstinence then at least sensibly informing and warning the kids against the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. What could be more needed than that kind of instruction in the middle of today’s twin epidemics of both of these things?

Few think to ask themselves why K-through-12 “comprehensive” school programs are necessary to accomplish such aims. Fewer think to ask themselves how it is that today’s twin epidemics of both sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies have come upon us in the very same years that “comprehensive” sex education has been so widely introduced into school classrooms—not to speak of the actual distribution of condoms in the schools.

Some of those who have looked more carefully into the modern phenomenon of classroom sex education, however, have discovered that today’s typical programs are not designed to warn the kids away from permissive and harmful sex experiences at all. Rather, what they really aim at is breaking down traditional morality and sexual “inhibitions” in favor of actually encouraging sexual experience—but “safe sex” through the use of modern prophylactic and contraceptive devices. Their real aim is to train the kids to “get with” today’s sexual revolution—times have changed!—not to warn them against it. These sex education programs are in no way any solution, but rather are a significant part of the problem of today’s sexual permissiveness—for when new attitudes about sex are purveyed in the classroom and under the authority of the school, the kids can be affected even more decisively than they are affected by the sexual permissiveness they regularly encounter in the media.

Almost all of today’s formal classroom programs in sex education include minute descriptions of every type of modern contraceptive. Modern contraception, of course, along with the availability of abortion, makes the very idea of sex without consequences possible—which thus lies at the heart of the modern sexual revolution; the sexual revolution would have been impossible without contraception and legalized abortion. Typical classroom sex education programs thus stress them tirelessly; they are also heavily into descriptions of today’s “alternative lifestyles”; those shocked by the discovery of such school books as Heather Has Two Mommies, justifying the lesbian lifestyle, are simply unaware of what virtually all programs in school sex education consist of generally.

The open sponsorship of such programs by Planned Parenthood and allied organizations should long since have provided clues to alert citizens as to the real nature of these programs, but this does not always seem to have happened. Instead classroom sex education has widely continued to be considered “necessary” and also to enjoy a fairly strong measure of public support; to attempt to oppose it almost automatically marks one as a troglodyte.

Catholic schools too, often forgetting the Church’s traditional strictures against imparting explicit sexual information, and—with the typical Catholic-school inferiority complex of always wanting to be up to date with whatever is going on “in the field” of education—have tended to ape what their secular counterparts are doing by buying into the sex education craze in a big way. A number of publishers catering to the Catholic-school textbook market have produced their own “comprehensive” family-life programs—a standard euphemism for sex education programs, even in the secular schools. These programs seem to be in fairly wide use in the Catholic schools.

Often these “Catholic” sex education programs claim to have added in “values” and “morality,” and indeed a veneer of both usually is found in them—but they are not essentially different from the secular programs in that their aim remains sustained indoctrination in a new and modern understanding of “sexuality” by purveying supposedly “objective” or “scientific” information about sex and sexual functioning.

Catholic Confusion

Even the official Church has not been unaffected by the widespread incidence and promotion of classroom sex education. In 1981, a USCC-sponsored committee of typical educational experts issued “guidelines” for “Catholic” programs that unfortunately bought heavily into the whole mistaken trend and helped validate it. These guidelines, although never approved by the bishops, were nevertheless widely accepted in the Catholic education and family-life establishments as permission to go on promoting “Catholic” classroom sex education.

Nor was Rome of much practical assistance at this point. In 1983, the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome issued a document entitled Educational Guidance in Human Love that, while strongly reiterating the Church’s constant emphasis on privacy and on the teaching of modesty, purity, chastity, and morality, nevertheless conceded that “the Catholic school . . . [was] called to collaborate with the family.”

Pope John Paul II himself, in his fine 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio on the Christian family, while re-affirming that “sex education . . . is a basic right and duty of parents,” had conceded that it could also be carried out in “educational centers chosen and controlled by them,” provided it was “carried out under their attentive guidance.”

These two Roman documents were very careful to re-affirm the Church’s traditional emphasis on parental rights and responsibilities, as well as her traditional strictures against classroom sex instruction; but they also recognized the difficulty for families today to carry out their responsibilities in today’s permissive society. What resulted in practice, however, was somewhat different from what Rome had no doubt envisaged: in practice the careful and circumscribed Roman concessions allowing that parents could be assisted in their primary task of sex education quickly became interpreted as near blanket permission, if not encouragement, to go on offering and promoting the existing comprehensive sex-education programs in the schools.

At the time the two Roman documents were issued, of course, many Catholic schools were already doing precisely that—just as Catholic textbook publishers had already produced their own comprehensive programs, sometimes K through 8 or even 12. Thus, while the applicable Church documents presented the role of the school as qualified and limited—indeed, determined—by parental decisions, in practice it was the role of the parents that became qualified, limited, and determined by decisions of the school and the educational bureaucracy.

In 1990, this whole questionable school-based approach to “Catholic” sex education received a formidable degree of official Church approval when the U.S. bishops voted to approve a new document entitled Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning. The very notion expressed in this document’s subtitle that “sexuality” somehow had to be the subject of “lifelong learning” only too quickly signaled some of the aberrant tendencies to be found in this unfortunate document itself. Once again the document had been prepared by another no doubt typical committee of educational experts, whose actual identities, except those of five individual bishops who also were on the committee, have never been officially disclosed.

This bishops’ document, Human Sexuality, was quite controversial and was severely criticized on the floor of the bishops’ annual meeting in November 1990. It had been brought forward for a vote after a period of less than three weeks in which individual bishops had had an opportunity to examine the text. Nevertheless it succeeded in garnering the necessary votes for NCCB approval, and this in turn meant that the Catholic education and family-life bureaucracies, eager to justify the large investment they had already made in classroom sex education, could now point to an official bishops’ document to justify what they had been doing all along. For a Catholic Church document, Human Sexuality was dismayingly positive toward secular sex education programs in general.

New Guidelines

The Pontifical Council for the Family’s new document, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family (henceforth TMHS), welcome as it is, cannot be said to have arrived on the scene at exactly the right moment. Actually, it is twenty or thirty years overdue. As a practical matter, Rome was not really much help when the battles over classroom sex education began. Those Catholics who perceived that the whole sorry trend was a serious mistake were obliged to try to make their case by quoting the actually very strong strictures of Pius XI and Pius XII against ever trying to teach sex, of all things, in the classroom; but in the atmosphere that prevailed, most people had come to believe these popes were very much out of date on this subject.

Now that we finally have it, though, TMHS resoundingly vindicates the critics of classroom sex education in every important respect. This represents quite a turnaround for people who mostly just managed to get themselves labeled “kooks” and “extremists” for trying to oppose yet one more of modern society’s flawed and ersatz “solutions”—why can’t the conventional, right-thinking people who keep buying into these solutions ever just take a good look at modern society, if they really imagine that some of its characteristic solutions ought to be accepted by the Catholic Church?

TMHS has looked at modern society, as well as at some of its favored solutions; and, with customary Roman clarity, it focuses unerringly on what the real sex education situation is:

In the past, even when the family did not provide specific sexual education, the general culture was permeated by respect for fundamental values and hence served to protect and maintain them. In the greater part of society, both in developed and developing countries, the decline of traditional models has left children deprived of consistent and positive guidance, while parents find themselves unprepared to provide adequate answers. . . .

The guidance that TMHS provides to parents is positive, comprehensive, and entirely in accord with the Catholic tradition, beginning with the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.

The Catholic tradition in this matter is: sexuality has been part of God’s plan from the beginning and thus it is “very good”; sexuality is inextricably related to love and life and to lifelong self-giving, whether in marriage or in celibate chastity; but owing to sin, sexuality can be willfully and grossly misused, and for this reason every human person is called to purity and chastity no matter what his state of life. “Every person knows by experience,” TMHS confidently declares, “that chastity requires rejecting certain thoughts, words, and sinful actions”; one cannot always just be “positive” where this topic is concerned; temptation is a reality.

Any “education” offered in matters related to sexuality is therefore necessarily an “education in chastity,” according to the Catholic tradition, as beautifully summarized at some length in TMHS. Such an education in chastity is not, and cannot be, confined to, or chiefly characterized by, the imparting of mere “information,” however true—this is probably the least important aspect of effective education in chastity, in fact.

Moreover, given the delicacy and sensitivity of this particular kind of subject matter, the Church has constantly and consistently held that this kind of education in chastity is best done privately, “in the heart of the family,” as Vatican II taught. This should take into strict account the individual stage of development of each child thus being educated—TMHS has a long, scientifically accurate, and very useful section on “Children’s Principal Stages of Development,” which, among other things, reaffirms the importance of the child’s “latency period” (although it does not use this particular term). The latency period, of course, is the time in the young person’s development when the explicit information about the “facts of life” should precisely not be given—although most modern school programs are specifically and perversely designed to give it at this very time (usually the fifth grade) in order to break down the child’s natural defenses.

TMHS goes on at great length explaining why sex education is primarily and necessarily a matter for parents to carry out in the home. The document declares that its own primary purpose is “to give parents back confidence in their own capabilities and help them to carry out their task.” Although the school is not entirely excluded, it almost disappears from sight in this perspective except as it might help parents in their task. Where school programs are mentioned, they are assumed to be supplementary; and it is immediately added that parents are to “keep themselves precisely informed on the content and methodology with which such supplementary education is imparted.”

The document’s mention of teachers is practically confined to saying what they must not do: they must not (1) interfere with the child’s right to modesty and chastity; or (2) fail to respect the primary right of the parent. On the other hand, they must freely allow any child or young person “to withdraw from any form of sexual instruction imparted outside the home” without penalties or discrimination.

One of the strongest features of this papal document is its insistence that parents should remove their children from school programs “whenever this education does not correspond to their own principles.” We can only speculate concerning the degree to which the document’s Roman authors understand that, in this country at least, some of the harmful programs from which children ought to be removed according to their standards are unfortunately to be found in the Catholic schools, not merely in the public schools.

What the private approach taken by TMHS says about the whole system of public classroom sex education currently in vogue in the United States is not hard to understand. The document provides what it calls four “working principles,” which it says should always be operative whenever matters related to sexuality are taught:

(1) Human sexuality is a sacred mystery and must be presented according to the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church, always bearing in mind the effects of original sin.

(2) Only information proportionate to each phase of their individual development should be presented to children and young people.

(3) No material of an erotic nature should be presented to children or young people of any age, individually or in a group.

(4) No one should ever be invited, let alone obliged, to act in any way that could objectively offend against modesty or that could subjectively offend against his or her own delicacy or sense of privacy.

These working principles are accompanied both by explanatory norms and by a discussion of those teaching methods to be used and those to be avoided. The favored method, which is no surprise by the time we reach this point in the document, is “personal dialogue between parents and their children, that is, individual formation within the family.” In the end, of course, education in chastity is indistinguishable from religious and moral formation generally.

Discernment, therefore, is necessary concerning what we can, and what we cannot, adopt and adapt for Catholic use from the largely neo-pagan society which now surrounds us. Comprehensive school sex-education programs are clearly among the things we cannot adopt and adapt. Some people have been trying to point this out for a couple of decades, and now the Church has strongly and definitively confirmed it at the highest level.

In short, the Holy See has done it again. The Pontifical Council for the Family’s new teaching document on The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality turns out to be a very worthy addition to the now long list of outstanding teaching documents that have not ceased to issue from the living teacher that Christ providentially left in the world for our benefit.


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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