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Voices Online Edition
Winter 1997-Spring 1998
Volume XIII, No. 1-2
Vatican's May 1997 letter to the President of National Conference of Catholic
Bishops on "sex education" revealed in November
"Those responsible for sex education in Catholic schools must not surrender to the temptation to conform to the permissive mentality which is prevalent today. On the contrary, they must strive to follow faithfully the Church's teaching on sexuality, according to the school's educational project, which consists in the explicit reference to the values of Christianity and the Christian concept of man".
-- From letter from Cardinal Pio Laghi to Bishop Pilla
In May 1997 Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, wrote to several episcopal conferences to acknowledge that complaints in regard to the teaching of sex education in Catholic schools were being received "with some frequency". He referred to an earlier document published by the Congregation in 1983, Educational Guidance in Human Love, which had "drawn attention to the necessity of offering a positive and prudent sex education to children and youth" and noted that criteria which that text had set out "in order adequately to implement sex education in a school setting are not always fully assimilated and duly applied".
Cardinal Laghi stated that the ongoing need for sex education is recognized, but the problem concerns the content of such education, as well as who carries it out. He noted also that,
"The law of subsidiarity which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education has been repeatedly affirmed by the Holy Father in documents such as Familiaris Consortio, in which he says that, since it is a basic right and duty of parents, such education 'must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centres chosen and controlled by them'. The school, therefore, must enter into the same spirit that animates the parents".
In addition, he referred to the document, Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, issued recently (December 8 1995) by the Pontifical Council for the Family, which further developed principles set forth in Educational Guidelines.
He called upon the bishops to ensure that sex education programs and relative materials conform to the principles that have been set forth, in " an atmosphere of peaceful understanding with families".
In the United States, the May 1997 letter from Cardinal Laghi was received by the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, and in November 1997 he disseminated that letter to his brother bishops at their semi-annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
Bishop Pilla noted that Cardinal Laghi's correspondence was received as "a letter and not an instruction", and that the missive was meant "just to be helpful" and had been "written as an aid to the bishops".
Cardinal Laghi, in conversation with Bishop Pilla, had also told him that the "letter had originally been drafted in response to direct requests that came from episcopal conferences other than that of the United States.
He had waited until November to share Cardinal Laghi's letter, Bishop Pilla said, in order to put it in the "appropriate context" and "respond to questions" that might arise, he said.
The letter is printed in full below.
Letter from the Congregation on Catholic Education to Bishop Anthony Pilla
Dated: Rome May 2, 1997
Prot N. 484/96
Signed by Cardinal Laghi
In the Plenary Assembly of this Congregation for Catholic Education, in November 1995, the Member Cardinals and Bishops took note of the concern which has been evinced in various parts with regard to the teaching of sex education in Catholic schools. With some frequency, the Dicastery receives letters of complaint and protest on the subject.
The Congregation had already addressed the question of sex education in its document Educational Guidance in Human Love, published in 1983, with which it intended to make its own contribution for the application of the Conciliar Declaration Gravissimum educationis, which had drawn attention to the necessity of offering "a positive and prudent sex education to children and youth" (cf. n. 1). In the document, the Congregation set out to examine the pedagogical aspect of sex education, indicating appropriate guidelines for its implementation, particularly in Catholic schools.
Almost fifteen years have gone by since that document was published, but the information reaching this Dicastery indicates t;hat the criteria which it suggests, in order adequately to implement sex education in a school setting are not always fully assimilated and duly applied.
Sex education, like every other aspect of education, takes place in a setting which is local and specific. Because it is not possible to foresee all such specific circumstances at a national or universal level, the Code of Canon Law wisely places responsibility for the choice of the most appropriate texts and other materials on the diocesan Ordinary (cf. canons 775 §1, 803 §2, 804 §2, 806). The responsibility which Bishops have in this respect is also emphasized in nn. 55 and 72 of Educational Guiidance in Human Love.
It was therefore deemed opportune, in the above mentioned Plenary, for the Congregation to write to the Episcopal Conferences, asking them to draw the attention of the Bishops of their respective countries tot he current anxiety with regard to sex education in Catholic schools and solicit their cooperation in correcting those situations in which such anxiety might prove to be justified. With the present letter, therefore, the Congregation for Catholic Education, in fulfillment of the mandate it has received, wishes to put before the Bishops some considerations concerning the problems which relate to sex education and, at the same time, to call to mind once again the fundamental principles in this matter, as expressed in Educational Guidance in Human Love.
The situation in which the Catholic school must educate today is still fraught with serious difficulties. The climate of moral disorientation to which that same document refers is made worse today by the reduction of sexuality to something commonplace in the environment surrounding young people. Through the mass-media, above all, sexual realities and the most intimate aspects of genital experience are displayed without reserve, while information on the use and abuse of sexuality is offered to young people before they are capable of understanding and assimilating it. There is no doubt that sex education, conceived as formation in love and in the responsible use of one's own sexuality, is of increasing urgency.
The need for sex education is generally recognized. The problem concerns rather its content on the one hand and , on the other, who is to carry it out.
Educational Guidance in Human Love stresses the primary role of the family as "the best environment to accomplish the obligation of securing a gradual education in sexual life", since the family "has an affective dignity which is suited to making acceptable without trauma the most delicate realities and to integrating them harmoniously in a balanced and rich personality" (n. 48). Consequently, "with regard to the more intimate aspects, whether biological or affective, an individual education should be bestowed, preferably within the sphere of the family". (n. 58)
Many parents, however, feel that they are not sufficiently prepared to deal personally with this sensitive area of their children's education and therefore delegate their responsibility to other educators, readily accepting help from the school and considering the classroom a suitable setting. In so doing, parents do not intend to remain extraneous to the formation of their children and when they entrust them to the Catholic school, they expect from the later a positive sex education, faithful to the teaching of the Church and prudently adapted to the children's age and phase of development.
The law of subsidiarity which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education has been repeatedly affirmed by the Holy Father in documents such as Familiaris consortio, in which he says that since it is a basic right and duty of parents, such education "must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them". The school, therefore, must enter into the same spirit that animates the parents (cf. n. 37).
In many schools praiseworthy efforts have been made in this respect. Nevertheless, in some cases a suitable approach to sex education has not been adopted, nor has due attention been paid to the obligation of susidiarity where parents are concerned. From the point of view of doctrine and methodology, an examination of texts, teaching aids and questionnaires intended for the pupils, has revealed that they are not always faithful to the teaching of the Church and not always suited to the age of the pupils.
The law of subsidiarity is not observed when the necessary participation of all the teachers concerned has been overlooked or when the school has neglected to engage previously in dialogue with the parents, in order to inform and include them in the preparation of the program. The failure to involve families justifies the decision of parents to withdraw their children from the sex education program when they consider that it does not conform to the teachings of the Church.
In view of the concern thus expressed, we are more than ever convinced of the validity of the principles set forth in Educational Guidance in Human Love, principles which have been repeated and further developed in Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, the recent document of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Those responsible for sex education in Catholic schools must not surrender to the temptation to conform to the permissive mentality which is prevalent today. On the contrary, they must strive to follow faithfully the Church's teaching on sexuality, according to the school's educational project, which consists in the explicit reference to the values of Christianity and Christian concept of man.
We are confident that the Bishops will exercise their ministry of pastoral concern for the Catholic schools in their territory, ensuring that sex education programs and relative materials conform to the principles mentioned above, and that such education be carried out in an atmosphere of peaceful understanding with families. Only in this way will Catholic schools carry out effectively the important part they are called to play, helping young people to develop an affective maturity which will permit them one day to live their own sexuality in a manner fully human and fully Christian, discovering at the same time the value of chastity.
Thanking you in anticipation for your kindness in bringing our expectations to the attention of Members of the Episcopal Conference, we gladly avail ourselves of the opportunity to assure you of our prayerful good wishes and remain.
+Pio Cardinal Laghi
Prefect, Congregation for Catholic Education
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