One of the most difficult things every parent has to face is how to impart traditional moral norms to their children about human sexuality, thus safeguarding them from the deceptive language of secular values and the lures of sensuality. I hear it from parents all the time. They know they should teach their children. But they don’t know when to begin, or what to say, or how to introduce the topic in such a way that will lead their children towards, rather than away from, a life of virtue.
Teaching children to have reverence for the gift of sex, as God created it, has never been easy. But holy things require special treatment. People cannot do whatever they want with sacred items, like physical intimacy and the conjugal gift. Children need morality, and they need to understand that God has a plan for their lives. It is up to parents, therefore, to ensure their children understand that intimacy outside of marriage defiles God’s unitive and procreative plan for the sacred gift of physical love. As the first teachers, parents should never compromise advancing this understanding or this virtue, always articulating “right” from “wrong” so their children can live righteously.
It’s fair to say, however, that never in history has it been more difficult to advance this view. On the topic of human sexuality, it sometimes seems as if our culture has completely lost its mind. A few decades ago, one rightly worried that one’s child might come across a pornographic magazine, or be subjected to indecent conversations from their peers, or worst of all, be sexually abused by an adult or friend.
Now, however, hardcore, high definition, streaming pornography is available to every child on every internet-connected device, often in the very pockets of most of their schoolmates, whose parents are so clueless as to give them often-unfiltered smartphones. Meanwhile, the sexual abuse of minors has become a social institution, with bizarre drag queen performances targeting children sweeping the nation, and graphic, morally repugnant sex education being taught to children at younger and younger ages, often without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
Now, more than ever, it is crucial that Christian parents proactively educate themselves with the very best resources, seek out like-minded fellow parents for advice and fellowship, and ensure that when it comes to imparting the truth and meaning of human sexuality, they are the first and most-trusted authorities in their children’s lives.
Fortunately, the Vatican and different Catholic bishops’ conferences and other apostolates have produced various resources to help parents navigate these turbulent and confusing times. One such resource is a document published in 1995 by the Pontifical Council for the Family (PCF), at the time presided over by Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo and Bishop Sgreccia, both known for their strong defense of the Catholic Church’s teaching on life and family.
I encourage parents to take the time to read the whole document, which both diagnoses the sexual pathologies affecting our age with prophetic keenness, and proposes a rich roadmap for parents to follow in guiding their children towards sexual sanity in a world gone mad.
Parents, Take Charge
In beginning of The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, the PCF notes that parents today face unique challenges. In the past, they note, “the general culture was permeated by respect for fundamental values and hence served to protect and maintain them.” Nowadays, however, there has been “an eclipse of the truth about man which, among other things, exerts pressure to reduce sex to something commonplace.” In society and the mass media, sex is presented in a “depersonalized” way, infused with a “distorted individualistic concept of freedom” that treats sex as merely “recreational” and in a way that does not consider the various developmental stages of children (no. 1).
In the midst of this seismic shift in values, the schools have increasingly stepped into the picture as the locus of sex education, with the result that the primacy of the family and the parents has been eclipsed. All too often, the document notes, parents have been all too happy to hand this duty over to the schools, relieved not to have to deal with this most delicate and difficult of tasks.
This is, the PCF notes, completely unacceptable. Parents are the first educators of their children, and there is no guarantee that schools and individual teachers will adhere to or transmit positive sexual values to their children. It is the family, not the school, that is “the normal and usual place for forming children and young people to consolidate and exercise the virtues of charity, temperance, fortitude and chastity” (no. 48).
As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio:
The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others. (no. 36, emphasis added)
Sex education, the PCF emphasizes, does not begin with the conveyance of explicit information about sex to the children. Rather, it begins much earlier, in the modeling of a healthy “affective atmosphere” within the home, with the existence of a “serene relationship between husband and wife,” and an emphasis on both of the parents’ “positive presence” in the home (no. 50).
It is, after all, the parents’ modeling of a marital relationship rooted in mutual respect and self-giving love that will convey far more to their children about the meaning of sex and marriage than any number of “talks” about the topic. Indeed, the PCF heavily emphasizes the central importance of example over words. The further the wider culture strays from the truth about sexuality, the more necessary it is for the parents to set a strong example that will anchor the children in a joyful, virtuous family culture that exemplifies the truths that parents wish to convey to their children.
For instance, the “practice of decency and modesty in speech, action and dress is very important for creating an atmosphere suitable to the growth of chastity” (no. 56). Indeed, it is crucial for parents themselves not to speak or act in ways that are immodest or otherwise undermine the virtues they hope their children will live. If children hear their parents speaking about sex in a frivolous way, or watching indecent movies, then how likely are they to listen to their parents when they tell them to avoid these behaviors themselves?
However, neither can parents rely wholly on example, since they have a “duty to let their children know about the mysteries of human life,” and this because the family “is, in fact, the best environment to accomplish the obligation of securing a gradual education in sexual life. 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” (no. 64).
Anchor Sex Education in Love and Vocation
One of the dominant themes throughout the PCF document is the necessity for parents to situate all sex education within a broader context that emphasizes the nature of love and the call to vocation.
It’s not difficult to understand why. The modern world has artificially yanked sexuality out of any context whatsoever, treating it as an isolated, technical problem, rather than one embedded in a matrix of meaning. Our modern sex educators are very good at providing huge quantities of technical detail about the biology and technique of sex, as well the innumerable contraceptive devices and practices and the many and ever-increasing list of sexually transmitted diseases.
Where modern sex education completely fails is in providing to youth any sense of what sex is for in the first place. Not only does the question of procreation rarely appear in modern sex education, except as an unwelcome inconvenience to be “dealt with,” but even the question of the nature of authentic love and how sexuality should be integrated into the lifelong, loving union of a husband and wife are cast aside as so much antiquated puritanism. Sex, our modern educators want their eager students to believe, can and should mean as much or as little as someone decides. It doesn’t have any inherent “purpose,” other than to provide as much pleasure as someone can get from it.
Against this reductionist, desiccated, lifeless, soulless understanding of sexuality, is the rich, multi-dimensional, fully human teaching of the Catholic Church, which teaches that sexuality has two intimately connected purposes: firstly, the procreation of children, and secondly, to more deeply unite a husband and wife in a lifelong union of self-giving love. Apart from these two purposes, sexuality is always and everywhere degraded, and inevitably deteriorates into selfish use and abuse of the other. In the end it leads to outright violence, as when the unborn child, the natural fruit of sexual union, is killed in an abortion as an unwanted interloper.
As The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality notes:
It must never be forgotten that the disordered use of sex tends progressively to destroy the person’s capacity to love by making pleasure, instead of sincere self-giving, the end of sexuality and by reducing other persons to objects of one’s own gratification. In this way the meaning of true love between a man and a woman (love always open to life) is weakened as well as the family itself. Moreover, this subsequently leads to disdain for the human life which could be conceived, which, in some situations, is then regarded as an evil that threatens personal pleasure. (no. 105)
For this reason, say the authors, the framing concern of all sex education should be one of love and vocation. “Insofar as it is a way of relating and being open to others, sexuality has love as its intrinsic end,” they write, “more precisely, love as donation and acceptance, love as giving and receiving” (no. 11). As such, all sex education must also be an education for chastity, since it is only through the practice of chastity that children can be taught how to control and to channel their sexuality in such a way as to serve love: whether that be the love of a spouse in marriage, or the love of Our Lord in the total self-gift and self-denial found in the celibate religious vocation.
Four Practical Suggestions
The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality is a fairly long document, and I have only barely scratched the surface of the richness of its anthropological teachings and practical advice. My hope is that some parents (and those ministering to parents) reading this column will feel motivated to go themselves and to read the whole document.
Before I conclude, however, I will briefly summarize the four practical suggestions that the PCF gives to parents in the concluding section of the document:
Firstly, parents should “associate with other parents,” both in order to find mutual support, but also in order to “fight against damaging forms of sex education” (no. 114). In other words, parents need friends who share their ideals, and who will stand alongside them in such things as exposing and fighting damaging curricula, electing good people to school boards, etc.
Secondly, parents should “keep themselves precisely informed on the content and methodology” being used by any other sources of sex education in their children’s lives (no. 115). That is, no “outsourcing” sex ed to the school or even the parish, and then washing one’s hands.
Thirdly, parents should, if possible, “participate fully in all supplementary instruction provided outside the home.” That means, if at all possible parents should be present during sex ed classes, or at least ensure that their right to be informed of what is being taught is respected (no. 116).
Fourthly, it is the responsibility of parents to “remov[e] their children whenever this education does not correspond to their own principles” (no. 117). That is: parents, don’t be doormats. If you see or hear something happening in your children’s classroom that you don’t approve of, act. Don’t shrug your shoulders and assume that everything will turn out alright in the end. The stakes involved are too high. Remove your children, and then be sure that you provide adequate education at home.
All four of these pieces of advice can be boiled down to the following: Parents, stay involved. Which is, ultimately, the absolute best advice. The various difficulties, threats, challenges, and complexities involved in educating children in healthy sexuality are too numerous and various to catalogue. They differ from family to family, and school to school. The most important thing is that parents educate themselves, set an example, and then stay closely involved in their children’s lives, ensuring that no matter what their children might hear or see elsewhere, it is always to the parents that their children turn for advice.