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Children Need Morality
LISA MARIE CONTINI
In his 1929 encyclical Christian Education of Youth, Pope Pius XI cautioned us about the "naturalism which nowadays invades the field of education in that most delicate matter of purity of morals" (no. 65). He taught that, "particularly in young people, evil practices are the effect not so much of ignorance of intellect as of weakness of a will exposed to dangerous occasions . . ." (ibid., no. 66). His Holiness is reminding us of the dangers of providing children with information on human sexuality at a time when they do not have the maturity to use this information properly.
In these few words, his Holiness reminded us of a very important reality. Our youth do not fall into immorality because of ignorance about illicit acts or their consequences. Rather, from the time they are very young, our children are bombarded with sex information that rouses unhealthy curiosity and then tempts them to act out their fixations. They know too much, not too little.
Even in school, where our young people should be thinking about their studies and their friends, their attention is often diverted to sensuality. Pope Pius XI wisely warned us: "Far too common is the error of those who with dangerous assurance and under an ugly term propagate a so-called sex-education, falsely imagining they can forearm youths against the dangers of sensuality by means purely natural, such as a foolhardy initiation and precautionary instruction for all indiscriminately, even in public; and, worse still, by exposing them at an early age to the occasions, in order to accustom them, so it is argued, and as it were to harden them against such dangers" (ibid., no. 65).
I must admit that for most of my adult life I agreed that some types of classroom sex education would arm youth against impurity. As a pro-life leader in my community, I had amassed much information about the unhealthy side effects and abortifacient consequences of contraceptives. I was convinced that if young people knew this information, they would choose to avoid contraceptives and, without birth control, they would also avoid premarital sex.
I was so certain of my convictions that I was about to write a school sex education program that would disseminate accurate biological facts coupled with realistic warnings about teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Little did I know that dozens of similar classroom sex education programs already existed — he so-called "abstinence," "chastity," and "Catholic human sexuality" programs.
Despite my great enthusiasm to begin writing, I hesitated long enough to consult an expert on sex education, certain of affirmation. To my great disappointment, she told me I was wrong. She told me that if I could stand in front of a classroom of teenagers and comfortably impart sex information, then I was badly desensitized.
It took several days for her message to sink in, but it finally did. Almost immediately, my ears began to burn whenever I used a term that was clinical or perhaps just a bit off color. With God's grace, I regained a measure of my lost sensitivity.
Do classroom sex education programs really harden children against the dangerous lures of sensuality? The effects of sex information on children cannot be realistically evaluated without considering human nature. Our Heavenly Father endows all children with an inborn sense of modesty. This innate sensitivity produces feelings of shock, confusion, and embarrassment in innocent children exposed to explicit sexual material or conversations.
In addition, each child possesses the unique mystery of femininity or masculinity; the mystery of a secret gift meant to be given exclusively to the beloved in marriage or to God in celibate service of His Church. By preserving modesty in private dialogues with their children, parents also protect the mystery of each child's sexual secret. "Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden" (Catechism, no. 2521). By publicly discussing intimate matters, school sex ed programs replace mystery with familiarity.
Parents safeguard children's modesty and the mystery of their sexual secret when they gradually impart small bits of delicate information in private, personal dialogue, carefully selecting sensitive terminology as questions or special circumstances arise. "Since parents know, understand, and love each of their children in their uniqueness, they are in the best position to decide what the appropriate time is for providing a variety of information, according to their children's physical and spiritual growth" (Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality "TMHS," 1995, no. 65). In contrast, school sex ed programs often provide an overabundance of "age appropriate" material, far more than youth will ever need in order to be responsible spouses and parents. Since students are unable to respond to their God-given modesty by leaving the classroom, they cannot escape the barrage of sex information. They soon learn to overcome thei r uncomfortable feelings. Their modesty is destroyed.
Schools teach skills that students use in everyday life. Does it make sense to tell youth the details of physical love and then expect them not to use them? Instead, children need morality. They need to understand that God has a plan for their lives, leading to eternal happiness with Him in heaven. But rather than teach traditional moral norms that call for proper behavior, many sex education teachers offer students choices. This teaching method, called values clarification, encourages students to gather opposing viewpoints and ultimately to choose their own personally fashioned code of ethics in pursuit of their own happiness and success.
By eliminating moral parameters established by "right" and "wrong," values clarification prompts children to alter their behavior, allowing them to engage in immoral acts with clear consciences and with no reason for sorrow or repentance. Excluding moral absolutes, values clarification communicates, perhaps unintentionally, that if youth are unafraid, or if they believe they can elude consequences, they are free to choose illicit behavior.
Jesus did not confuse His flock with value-free alternatives. Rather, He very specifically taught how to be obedient to His loving Father in heaven, who wants to share eternal happiness with all His children. Like Jesus, parents should never compromise virtues; they should firmly articulate "right" and "wrong" so their children can live righteously in hope of their heavenly reward.
Reverence is the key to chastity. Holy things require special treatment. People cannot do whatever they want with sacred items. The special treatment of holy things is a valuable first lesson in reverence even for small children. By demanding reverent behavior in church at all times, parents accustom their children to respond to holy things in a special way. They inculcate in them an understanding that reverence is a moral obligation, never a "choice."
To embrace chastity, adolescents must understand that physical intimacy is holy. They must respond to their knowledge of the conjugal gift with reverence. It is up to parents to make sure that their children understand that because physical love is holy, it requires special treatment. Intimacy out of marriage defiles God's unitive and procreative plan for His sacred gift of physical love, and the participants are stained with grievous sin.
I am frequently asked, "Aren't school sex education programs necessary to compensate for parents who are embarrassed to speak to their children about sex?" In His infinite wisdom, Our Heavenly Father placed a thin veil, an emotional barrier, between parents and offspring regarding sexuality. This veil has a twofold purpose. First, it discourages incest between parents and their children. Second, the veil causes parents to feel awkward when discussing intimate matters with their children.
Yes, this parental embarrassment is normal and, in fact, beneficial for children. Parents who respond to the urging of their awkwardness try to avoid explicit language. They struggle for the most sensitive words, communicating just as much information as the child needs at the time, and no more. Parents' special treatment of delicate information, as well as their obvious embarrassment and sensitivity, demonstrates to their children that human sexuality is not commonplace, like doing the laundry or going to a sports event. Thus, parents impart a very valuable lesson in reverence for God's holy gift of nuptial love. Parents should remember to reinforce the holiness of physical love, a unique gift from God exclusively for husband and wife not only to lovingly express their total commitment to one another but to take part in God's work of creating and nurturing new life.
In September 1995, when I visited the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome, I asked Bishop Elio Sgreccia if Pope Pius XI's encyclical prohibiting classroom sex education was still in effect. He responded with an emphatic "Certo!" ("Certainly!"), and explained that all papal encyclicals pronounce unchangeable truths about faith and morals. Just a few months later, the Council released TMHS, which emphasizes that "[p]arents are the first and most important educators of their children" (no. 23) and that their rights and duties "in the area of sex education . . . [are] incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others" (no. 41). TMHS also condemns the use of explicit material, stating "No material of an erotic nature should be presented to children or young people of any age, individually or in a group" (no. 126). It calls values clarification an "unacceptable method" that gives young people "the idea that a moral code is something which they create themselves" (no. 140), and warns that the privacy of children must be protected (no. 127).
TMHS strongly recommends "that parents attentively follow every form of sex education that is given to their children outside the home, removing their children whenever this education does not correspond to their own principles" (no. 117). No matter how good a school's reputation may seem to parents, they should never assume that it imparts only benevolent teachings. Rather, parents should specifically inquire what type of instruction the school provides regarding "human sexuality." Parents should then bring the materials, including the teacher's manual, home to review. In addition to inappropriate textbooks and videos, class discussions, brainstorming, and role-playing can expose children to explicit information and to a different moral code from the one they learn at home.
Since our Father in heaven requires parents to safeguard children's purity, surely He will bless and strengthen those parents who strive to protect children from the moral danger imposed by classroom sex education. If parents wish to have their children removed from sex education in Catholic, private and public schools, parents must state their request in writing. To make sure that a solitary letter does not sit on somebody's desk unnoticed, parents would be wise to send a copy of their letter to the pertinent school officials, including the school principal, the teacher, the superintendent of schools, and, in the case of Catholic schools, the parish priest and the bishop. The letter should respectfully insist that the child be removed from all instruction in human sexuality and instead be given a free period to do homework, read, or write letters. The school should not penalize children withdrawn from sex instruction by assigning extra work (cf. TMHS, nos. 117, 120). By sharing their concerns with other parents and by advocating the teachings of the Church regarding classroom sex education, parents help safeguard the purity of other children as well.
Some schools invite parents to an introductory session to answer questions regarding the human sexuality program. Parents should keep in mind that many educators, blind to the moral danger of classroom sex instruction, sincerely believe that sex education is beneficial and necessary for all children. These sessions are intended to quell a parent's misgivings, even though they may be valid, and to actually "sell" them the program.
While some schools readily comply with a parent's wish to withdraw a child, others are reluctant. In any case, parents should always approach this endeavor with prayer, charity, persistence, and hope, all the while creating a home environment where virtuous Christian living is taught and modeled (cf. Catechism, nos. 2221-29).
Contini, Lisa. "Children Need Morality." Lay Witness (March 2000).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Mrs. Lisa Marie Contini operates Aletheia Press, which features pamphlets designed for youth about morality. She can be contacted by writing to Aletheia Press, P.O. Box 577, Massena, NY 13662, or by calling (315) 769-1090.
Copyright © 2000 Lay Witness