Parents Teach God's Plan
for Human Love in a Sexualized Culture
by Onalee McGraw
History is driven, over the long haul, by culture -- by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good, and by the expressions they give to those convictions.
George Weigel: First Things; February 2004
Although the mantra of the sexual revolution that began decades ago -- that what is right and wrong in sexual relationships is merely a matter of mutual consent -- is now losing ground, we are still facing an uphill battle as we struggle to build a civilization of love in a sexualized, utilitarian and consumer-oriented society. The cultural prevalence of sexual norms oriented to personal autonomy presents four great challenges for today's parents:
1. Today's parents of children and teens have no cultural memory of a time when norms placing sex within marriage were generally supported.
2. Many parents have not been given an adequate catechesis in the basics of the faith in their formative years.
3. If parents were also sexually active before marriage, they are more likely to be uncomfortable teaching their children in-depth on a topic that relates so strongly to their own sexual history.
4. Parents must impart the truth and meaning of human sexuality by teaching and modeling in depth -- with confidence and assurance.
Priests and lay parish leaders have a special obligation to help today's parents fulfill their God-ordained vocation. Recently Pope John Paul II spoke of the overwhelming importance of helping "young people to reflect on these delicate and essential questions, through catechesis and vigorous and suitable talks, making the depth and beauty of human love shine". (Zenit, Feb. 17, 2004)
The Pontifical Council for the Family document, "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality", published in November 1995, clearly and unequivocally affirms the primacy of the parental role. Now, almost a decade after the document's publication and especially since the eruption of the sexual abuse scandals, there is a much greater recognition of the importance of empowering parents to fully live their God-given vocation as their children's primary teachers. But how do we best equip parents to perform this daunting task? We have to come up with practical ways to help parents engage the culture with confidence as they carry out their mission.
Teaching the Story of How Love, Sexuality, Marriage and Family Work According to God's Plan
By His Grace, God gives us the light to see His Plan for love, sexuality, marriage and family. Our job is to help this light to shine more brightly in a culture that devalues moral reflection. Exposure to the Church's teachings on the natural law was the key factor in my conversion to Catholicism in the early years of the sexual revolution (the late 1960s). Studying under the great natural law theorist Heinrich Rommen, I came to understand how God has written the truths of His law in all our hearts.
As the Holy Father says, we must work together to make the "depth and beauty of human love shine". In 50 Questions on the Natural Law, Charles Rice reminds us that the natural law is the "story of how things work". Some years ago, I realized that the "story of how things work" -- when the subject is love, marriage and sexuality -- can be effectively taught through visually powerful classic films that appeal to the heart as they model the moral norm of sex within marriage. Educational Guidance Institute's Love and Life at the Movies curriculum series has been piloted in Catholic and public schools as well as detention homes and after-school programs. God Himself inspired the creation of these film stories, and their messages of self-giving love and virtue go right to the hearts of young people hungry for truth, goodness and beauty.
By observing the behavior of the characters in classic films, learners gain an awareness of their own capacity to give and receive love. Classic films bridge the cultural gulf between the generations and provide a common ground for honest communication about love and marriage. The natural law story of "how things work" told in the classic films resonates wherever and whenever it is taught.
The curriculum's learning objectives are based on the "whole person" perspective on human nature that is familiar to students of the Theology of the Body. I have synthesized research from the human sciences to develop five principles of "Whole Person Learning Theory". These five principles, not surprisingly, reflect the teachings of the Church as contained in such documents as Educational Guidance in Human Love, Familiaris Consortio and "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality".
How do classic films reveal the truth, beauty and goodness of the Church's teachings on love, marriage and sexuality? Below are two examples from our curriculum: John Huston's "The African Queen" and Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life".
"The African Queen" and the Concept of Complementarity
Consider the concept of complementarity between a man and a woman that the Holy Father teaches through the Theology of the Body. Section 13 of the "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality" quotes from the earlier (1983) document, "Educational Guidance in Human Love", on the topic of complementarity:
Sexuality characterizes man and woman not only on the physical
level, but also on the psychological and spiritual, making its mark on each of their expressions. Such diversity, linked to the complementarity of the two sexes, allows thorough response to the design of God according to the vocation to which each one is called.
This text describing man and woman's God-given complementarity is rich in meaning, but the philosophical language may be difficult to understand for parents who have not closely studied Church documents. However, the concept of complementarity becomes vivid and memorable when we see it modeled by Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in "The African Queen". He is a hard-drinking boat captain and she is a psalm-singing missionary. When they fall in love, they depict the beauty of self-giving, sacrificing love between a man and a woman. The passage from the Truth and Meaning document comes to life through Bogart and Hepburn in the authentic complementarity of their relationship. Their mutual self-giving love makes them greater as a united couple than either one of them could possibly be as individuals.
"It's A Wonderful Life": Marriage and Family are Connected to the Common Good of Community and Society
Watching the lives of George and Mary Bailey unfold in Frank Capra's masterpiece, we see what self-giving love in marriage and family looks like. We also learn the intrinsic connection between committed marriages and stable families and the common good of community and society. George and Mary (James Stewart and Donna Reed) are about to go on their honeymoon when a "run on the bank", precipitated by the greedy Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), occurs at the Bailey Building and Loan. When George and Mary give up their honeymoon money to save the Building and Loan they teach the people of Bedford Falls (and us) a memorable lesson in elevating the common good over individual self-interest.
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has identified the three big problems created by our present culture. Our "inability to reason", our "inability to remember", and our "inability to imagine and hope". (In "World, Work and Family: The role of women in building a culture of life", Voices, Christmastide 2003)
In spite of a culture that elevates a self-oriented individualism above the common good, today's parents and their youngsters can rediscover the truths of the natural law. Together, they can overcome the cultural eclipse of moral reason, the loss of cultural memory and, using their God-given moral imagination, they can rebuild the culture of life in the "domestic Church" of the family. Classic films can become powerful antidotes to "autonomous self"--oriented TV sitcoms like NBC's "Friends".
The Importance of the Mystical Body of Christ: Working together to Transform the Culture
We also need to take a sobering look at how the culture has robbed us of the authentic community life that was experienced by generations that came of age in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Social critics have described our society since the 1960s as a culture that elevates personal autonomy over virtue. Consider again George Weigel's description of culture: "what men and women honor, cherish, and worship...what societies deem to be true and good, and...the expressions they give to those convictions".
We all suffer from the negative effects of a culture that elevates competition over collaboration and a sense of entitlement over duty and self-sacrifice for the common good. Additionally, what is often not noted is that many of us are so busy that we move from day to day in a state of chronic anxiety. Our lives are fragmented and overloaded with tasks. In this stress-laden environment, parents of teenagers are faced with guiding their children -- who are also dealing with a sense of fragmentation and overloading -- through a highly-sexualized culture.
Unless we face up to this cultural problem in our parishes and communities where we live and raise our children, more treatises on the theology of the body or lectures on the "thought of John Paul II", for example, will have little lasting impact. What we must do is recall that we are in a Mystical Body headed by our Lord Jesus Christ. In this Mystical Body, we are not autonomous; we are connected to and responsible for one another.
This responsibility for one another's well-being is particularly important in spiritual matters. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are called to the spiritual works of mercy, which include counseling the doubtful and instructing the ignorant. Those who are informed and committed Catholics can respond to this call by joining the effort to counsel, instruct and encourage today's parents to effectively teach their children the meaning of God's plan for human sexuality.
To overcome the culture of death, we need to teach and model to the next generation what the culture of life looks like. To be effective in the necessary rebuilding task, we must, in the words of the old Johnny Mercer song, "Accentuate the Positive!"
Too often, many promising programs never get off the ground because faithful Catholic parents do not see the need to become involved in them, confident that they are "doing fine". They fail to see that they have a duty to help other parents who have not been so blessed to fulfill their vocations.
I have seen parents very anxious to stop classroom sex education, but unwilling to work hard to create parent-oriented programs in their own parishes. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers in a cultural and moral sense, whether we realize it or not.
A practical first step is for priests and laity to promote parent education that is inclusive for all parents, whether they send their children to Catholic schools, public schools or home-school. We need to be united in elevating and sharing with one another the standards and principles of God's Plan that it is our privilege to have as Catholics.
Whether we are dealing with affirming and defending moral standards in our communities, strengthening the institutions of marriage and family in our society, or providing a "safe environment" to prevent sexual abuse in our dioceses, the solution is the same: confident parents who cultivate in their young an in-depth understanding of God's plan for human love.
Parents need each other to truly live out their vocation as the primary educators of their children. God made us as social beings living together in parishes and communities. The spiritual and social ties that bind us one to another in the Church are the key to elevating our own families and helping others to rebuild the culture of life.
As aspiring angel Clarence told George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, "One man's life touches so many others, when he's not there it leaves an awfully big hole".
Onalee McGraw, who has just joined the Voices board as Contributing Editor, is director of the Educational Guidance Institute (EGI), which she co-founded with Margaret Whitehead in 1986.
Dr. McGraw conducts "Teaching the Whole Person" seminars for parents, catechists and teachers, utilizing EGI's five principles of "Whole Person Learning Theory", synthesized in the seminar participant manual, "Teaching the Whole Person about Love, Sex and Marriage".
EGI's "Love and Life at the Movies" features lesson plans for teaching in-depth with classic films such as "It's a Wonderful Life", "The African Queen", "A Raisin in the Sun", "Key Largo" and "High Noon". For more information on Dr. McGraw's seminars, parent workshops and the Love and Life at the Movies curriculum, call 540-635-4420.
This is her first contribution to Voices.
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