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Voices Online Edition
Pentecost 2002
Volume XVII, No. 2

The Perfect Storm
The Catholic Church and the Problem of Teaching and Living Sexual Morality in Today's World

by Margaret M. Whitehead

In a recent movie, "The Perfect Storm", a crew of fishermen lose their boat and their lives when several major storms converge on them in the North Atlantic. They would have been able to survive any one of the weather systems, but the combination of all of them proved overwhelming. At present the Catholic Church seems to be in a comparable situation with the many sex scandals and cover-ups with which we have been inundated over the past few months.

Most Catholic families have not been directly touched by the abuses and scandals that have been made public, and most priests do not fail to live lives of generous service and prayer. However, there are other "weather systems" out there that have also affected us all, and that have unfortunately made their contribution to the current "perfect storm".

One thing that we have all had to deal with for many years now has been the inadequate teaching of the faith, or catechetics. Even more pertinently, there are the supposedly "Catholic" sex education programs that have been developed from secular models, and that do not teach morality and virtue, but that do, unhappily, invade the modesty and privacy of children and their families. Just as it has been usually very difficult to get through to many bishops about the reality of the problems connected with clerical sex abuse, so it has been very difficult for a very long time now for parents to get through to them about how children should be taught Catholic sexual morality and virtue.

The latest Catholic sex education program, Growing in Love, continues to be part of the problem and not part of the solution. It is a grammar-school program that is not based on the Catholic understanding of the human person; it does not mention the Fall of Man and therefore is not based on a true understanding of sin and temptation. It is not age-appropriate; it imparts way too much too soon; and it is also excessively graphic; it presents heterosexuality and homosexuality as mere "tendencies", which seem to be almost on the same level. And, finally - not the least objection to be made against it - the series frankly eroticizes almost all relationships.

Not surprisingly, the GIL program is stirring up controversy wherever it surfaces around the country. [See related story by Sheila Liaugminas in this issue. - Ed.]

As parents, pastors, and teachers, Catholics today cannot put our young people in storage until all these controversies get resolved. Where can we begin to work our way out of this morass?

First of all, there are no sound K through 8 formal classroom sex education programs, Catholic or otherwise - at least none that I know of, or that can be recommended. Some have some useful aspects or elements, but I know of none that are without serious and harmful flaws. We would be better off without any program, but few seem to grasp this: sex education is thought to be an idea whose time has come.

There are some programs for the upper grades that could perhaps be used, and there are actually some very good people working to develop helpful programs. There are also some books that can aid parents in forming and teaching their own children. Meanwhile, however, in the present climate, there is no one and nothing that can take the place of the parents - certainly not schools that have uncritically adopted secular models.

Parents (as well as pastors and teachers) have to ground themselves in Catholic teaching, and here two documents from the Holy See will help: the Pontifical Council for the Family's 1995 document titled The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality; and Pope John Paul II's 1981 Apostolic Exhortation on the Role of the Family in the Modern World, Familiaris Consortio. Another 1983 document from the Congregation for Catholic Education, Educational Guidance in Human Love, is also helpful.

Any truly Catholic program has to start with the parents and help them to understand their role and what they should be doing for their children.

Young children need to be taught about the nature and importance of families and of virtue - especially the virtue of obedience to God's Law. They should be learning of their role and roots in their family. They need to know how much they are loved and valued by their family. They need to be told about their personal history: the family's pre-birth expectations; how their name was chosen; their birth; how they have grown and will continue to grow; their special qualities and contributions to the family; God's plan for each person.

Questions that come up can be answered simply and in the context of love and family. Children should be expected to contribute to the common good of the family in age-appropriate ways and to be kind and helpful to siblings.

Young children need to be taught simple safety rules about their bodies and about dealing with strangers - just as they are taught rules about not crossing the street without help or without looking. They need to learn rules such as not to let people touch or play with their private body areas (although medical and cleaning exceptions exist); not to go with strangers; to tell their parents if anyone at all touches them in this way and tells them to keep it a secret.

Middle school children need continuing emphasis on virtue and character development. They need to be immersed in stories of saints and heroes.

Vocations should be discussed, especially the call to holiness addressed to everybody, and also ultimate life goals.

Family and personal prayer should be encouraged. Virtues of honesty, fairness, self-discipline, and chastity should be discussed and encouraged.

Older children need to start to realize that the things they learn now, and the decisions they make now, will help to prepare them for future vocations and careers and also help them to get to heaven.

Family prayer, attendance at Mass and regular use of the Sacrament of Penance should become an integral part of the child's life.

Friendship also needs to be discussed; and how good friends help us to be good. Children need to know early that some people abuse friendship and are not good friends. They need to be taught to say "no" when someone is doing something wrong and to tell an adult.

They will be learning about the human reproductive system and general human developmental issues in science classes; but parents should also be discussing some of these issues at home.

Parents need to notice what stage of development their children are in, and they need to be alert to the specific questions they have. Parents can take the lead in preparing their children for the future development their children will be undergoing, and can discuss with them some of the issues connected with maturation. They can connect maturation and development with the capacity of human persons to have children; they can also connect this with possible future vocations.

Similarly, parents can and should discuss dating guidelines for the future. Their main focus, however, should be on age-appropriate goals in school, sports, hobbies, friendships, etc., as these things unfold in the life of the child.

Media exposure needs to be strictly limited and supervised. Media supervision and parental discussions about what appear in the media are very important. Parents need to help children analyze media messages and relate them to religious and family values, in particular, to an authentic understanding of the nature and goals of the human person and of human sexuality. Children should begin to understand how and why these media messages and portrayals relate or do not relate to the real world. Parents need to supervise and limit the amount of time children spend in today's "virtual reality".

In pre-adolescence, parents need to talk about what is coming and to place sexual development within the context of vocations, of virtues (the virtue of modesty, in particular, needs to be explained and encouraged at these ages), true love, and long-term life goals. Conversations along these lines can come up naturally in many situations, including watching television news; and parents should not fail to take advantage of openings provided by their children or by current events.

It is important, also, to listen and to observe, not just talk. Children need to be offered help in dealing with risky situations and told how to handle peer pressure. Prayer and the Sacraments should continue to be part of family and personal life.

Many young people today find themselves in situations where alcohol, drugs and sex are being pushed by their peers. They need to be reminded how to say "no"; and also how to say, "I don't want to do that; let's do this instead". They need to be taught how to call home and get help if needed.

In adolescence, information, guidance and supervision are still important, but the young person is not always going to be happy about receiving it. Adolescents need boundaries and parents need to continue to help form their children in virtues, especially the virtues of modesty, chastity, self-control and courage. Peer pressure can be intense in these years.

Colleen Kelly Mast's book, Love and Life, has some helpful approaches for parents and young people at the junior-high level. Adolescents need to know that single dating is not advisable and steady dating is proven high-risk behavior; steady dating should be strongly discouraged in the teen years when children are not in a position to marry.

Parents need to be clear and consistent about their expectations concerning pre-marital abstinence and about their long-term goals for their children. This can often be done within the normal rhythms of family life. Family meals, family rituals and celebrations and family activities can provide natural opportunities to teach and to form children.

We all find ourselves in a cultural and ecclesiastical situation that makes it very difficult to raise moral, virtuous, and holy children; but parents and families still have many graces they can depend on; they have resources and strengths to help them weather today's storm: it doesn't have to be the "perfect storm" that sweeps all before it!

Margaret M. Whitehead is Director of Religious Education at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, Virginia. For a number of years she conducted morality-based, family-centered, age-appropriate chastity programs in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia. She is married to Kenneth D. Whitehead, and the mother of grown children as well as a lifelong teacher. She is also a member of the editorial board of Voices.

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