School leaders have primary responsibility to oversee instruction in a Catholic school, while striving to serve and cooperate with parents. But schools should always defer to the family on teaching human sexuality.
Education, in the first place, is the duty of the family, which ‘is the school of richest humanity.’ It 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. (Educational Guidance in Human Love, 48)
According to Church documents, human sexuality includes all the delicate and sensitive topics involved in how a person lives out their sexuality in the world, and the best place for securing this education is within the family.
Many teachers and administrators are unaware of the Church’s teaching recognizing this preference and the parents’ right to refuse their child’s attendance in sex education classes. They assume that since parents have placed their children in the school, the parents have agreed to all the curriculum presented. But parents have the first right to teach human sexuality to their children or, if they delegate this education to the school, to know when and what is being taught.
Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them. In this regard, the Church affirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents. (Familiaris Consortio, 37)
Anything that discusses human reproductive physiology constitutes human sexuality, even when presented within Church teaching. Parents need to provide consent, and most of them do gratefully if they are unsure how to approach this topic with their children from a Catholic perspective.
Regardless of parents’ choices to opt in or out, teachers can take this opportunity to speak with parents about how the Church presents human sexuality within a Christian anthropological framework and moral grounding. Doing so is an act of charity and helps fortify the family against false teachings and errant ideologies abounding in society.
The Church sees her instruction in human love as part of the integral formation of the student and advises multiple ways for its presentation. Bishops and pastors of schools decide whether human sexuality programs are offered. Schools incorporating these programs sometimes offer parent classes in tandem with student coursework. Schools not incorporating a sexuality program might offer families curated materials to use with children at home. Schools that include classes on human sexuality maintain student modesty by separating boys and girls during discussions of reproductive physiology.
Teachers for these classes should be chosen for their affective maturity and their own peaceful integration of sexuality. These teachers must have a positive and constructive concept of life and “suitable and serious psycho-pedagogic training.” Teachers should work with parents, students, and other professionals if more severe issues needing psychological assistance is required. Parents, as primary educators of their children, are not to be left out of this communication at any time.
In keeping with the guidance from Church documents, here are four principles to assist educators teaching courses on human sexuality:
1. Teach courses in human sexuality within a clear and convincing Christian anthropology. It’s important to situate a discussion about sexuality within God’s design for humanity and the beauty of the human race. Leverage the fact that this type of discussion often begins in the home, where children witness the birth of a sibling and their parents give thanks to God for the gift of a new life.
Teachers can instruct students in how God gives each of us talents that make us unique and how humanity has a special relationship with God, far greater than that of the animals. They can teach that we are made for communion and possess dignity simply through our humanity. St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a good resource for teachers to learn more about the richness and complexity of the human person as a body/soul unity. The Standards for Christian Anthropology, co-authored by The Cardinal Newman Society and Ruah Woods Press, can also be incorporated beginning in kindergarten to properly situate any succeeding discussion of human reproduction within an already laid Christian foundation.
2. Teach courses in human sexuality from a Catholic worldview and moral perspective. Humanity, created in original unity with God, lost its way through sin and was redeemed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He guides us on the path to eternal life through His teaching and the Sacraments. Teachers should teach virtue and the avoidance of vice, the understanding of sacrifice, and supplication to God’s grace in tandem with any presentation of human sexuality.
3. Ensure that program and materials on human sexuality are at the child’s appropriate intellectual, moral, emotional, physical, and spiritual level. While an understanding of one’s sexuality begins when children are young, education in the mechanics of sexuality (or the misappropriation on one’s sexuality) should not be taught until after the “years of innocence” when the child reaches puberty. St. John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, calls these early years the “period of tranquility and serenity” (78).
This presentation is drastically different from what we see happening in public education, where young children are confronted — even ‘introduced to’ — drag queens and questioned as to whether they feel like a boy or a girl. In Catholic education, teachers are ever mindful of a child’s sensibilities, introducing discussion of the beauty of the human body in a manner of “sacramentality” – as an outward sign of an inner spirit, a body/soul unity. Avoid materials that could lead students to an unhealthy curiosity about sexual behavior.
4. Teach in collaboration with parents. Remember that parents are the first educators in this area. Assisting and working with them will have a positive and lasting influence on the sexual integrity and maturation of youth.
Key Church documents on this topic include The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (Pontifical Council for the Family, 1995), Educational Guidance in Human Love (Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, 1983), and Catechetical Formation in Chaste Living (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2008).
For Catholic school standards derived from Church teachings, see The Cardinal Newman Society’s Policy Standards on Sexuality Programs in Catholic Education and Policy Standards on Human Sexuality in Catholic Education at our website.