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New Vatican document vindicates concerns about classroom sex education

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 Contents - Mar 1996AD2000 March 1996 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: The problem is belief - B.A. Santamaria
New Vatican document vindicates concerns about classroom sex education
Examining the impact of Vatican II after 30 years - Fr John Parsons


The Pontifical Council for the Family has recently issued a document titled 'The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education Within the Family'. It is dated 21 November 1995 and signed by Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo. The Guidelines could easily have been written with the situation in the Adelaide Archdiocese in mind (see February 'AD2000') for it identifies as unacceptable a number of items to be found in the Adelaide 'Family Life Education' program about which many concerned parents have been strongly critical.

The Pontifical Council for the Family's latest document, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education Within the Family, makes it clear that the normal environment for sex education (better described as education in chastity) is the home. Exceptional circumstances may justify the use of outside experts or some form of carefully handled group instruction. But the Council's criteria for acceptability would disqualify most forms of present-day classroom sex education in Catholic schools. These criteria include:

  • Sex instruction should "be presented according to the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church, always bearing in mind the effects of original sin" (122).
  • "Only information proportionate to each phase of their individual life should be presented to children and young people" (124).
  • "Sexual perversions that are relatively rare should not be dealt with except through individual counselling, as the parents' response to genuine problems" (125).
  • "No material of an erotic nature should be presented to children or young people of any age, individually or in a group" (126).

Personal information

  • The involvement of children and young people in 'dramatised' representations, mimes or 'role playing', making drawings, charts or models, etc, which depict genital or erotic matters are to be excluded; likewise unacceptable are any seeking of personal information about sexual questions, asking that family information be divulged, and oral or written exams about genital or erotic questions (127).
  • Parents have a right to be informed "about the structure and content of the [sex education] program. In all cases, their right to be present during classes cannot be denied" (116).
  • A child or young person has the right to withdraw from any form of sexual instruction imparted outside the home (and the parents have the right to remove them). "Neither the children nor other members of their family should ever be penalised or discriminated against for this decision" (120).
  • Any forms of sex education that promote an "anti-life" mentality (136-142), i.e., information about abortion and contraception and acceptance of promiscuity through "safe-sex" lessons are to be avoided.
  • "Values clarification" is unacceptable, for this approach conveys the idea that "the moral code is something [students] can create themselves". It also fosters moral relativism.

The document reaffirms the "duty and right" of parents "to be the first and the principal educators of their children", especially in the matter of chastity (4). Parents, it says, are particularly well equipped in this sensitive area: "In a unique way they know their own children; they know them in their unrepeatable identity and by experience they possess the secrets and the resources of true love" (7). Central to an education in chastity is the example of good Christian family living which shapes young people for responsible fatherhood and motherhood so that they in turn can "build stable and united families" (32-33).

The Guidelines accept that other educators may be needed to assist parents "but they can only take the place of parents for serious reasons of physical or moral incapacity" (23). The Pope's recent Letter to Families (Gratissimam Sane, 39) is cited: "... all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent and, to a certain degree, with their authorisation."

But those who are to help parents in this area (146): "must be mature persons, of a good moral reputation, faithful to their own Christian state of life, married or single, laity, religious or priests. They must be not only prepared in the details of moral and sexual information but they must also be sensitive to the rights and role of parents and the family, as well as the needs and problems of children and young people." But parents are not bound to accept any assistance if they believe themselves "capable of providing an adequate education".

Suggestions are offered to parents about the kinds of information which might be shared with children at different stages, e.g., with small children at the time of a pregnancy and birth of a new baby. In what it calls "The Years of Innocence" the document affirms that the period "of tranquillity and serenity" from about 5 to puberty "must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex" (78). At this time "prudent formation in chaste life ... should be indirect. And where there are "planned and determined attempts" made "to impose premature sex information on children" parents should "politely but firmly exclude any attempts to violate children's innocence because such attempts compromise the spiritual, moral and emotional development of growing persons who have a right to their innocence" (83).

Christian context

The Guidelines suggest that "positive information about sexuality should always be part of a formation plan so as to create the Christian context in which all information about life, sexual activity, anatomy and hygiene is given. Therefore the spiritual and moral dimensions must always be predominant so as to have two special purposes: presenting God's commandments as a way of life and the formation of a right conscience" (94).

In short, the Pontifical Council's Guidelines make it clear that any form of classroom sex education is very difficult to justify, under whatever guise or title. The criteria it advances for acceptable approaches would disqualify most of what passes for sex education in Catholic schools today. It suggests, instead, such alternatives as father-son or mother-daughter evenings utilising suitable experts such as doctors, priests and educators (130-132).

The Church's diocesan authorities would do well to study this wise and timely document closely and where necessary, align their policies and practices with it before further harm is done to the spiritual and moral lives of young Catholics.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 9 No 2 (March 1996), p. 9

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