We are rightly concerned about secular attempts to lay down how we should teach our beliefs about the proper use of sexuality. The threatened Bill on children, schools and families would, on first reading, appear to do just that.
But we will be relieved to read that we will remain entirely free to teach full Catholic doctrine. And if you think that to be of no significance, take a look at the steam rising out of the ears of the secularists at what they see as a flagrant betrayal of the principle of non-discrimination.
No, the difficulty lies with the obligation to give children a fair and balanced view of the issue being discussed and to recognise that there are alternative views which others hold, and are entitled to hold, even though we may believe them to be mistaken. That is no more than straightforward Catholic teaching on the sovereignty of conscience.
But I want to go beyond that and argue that a new educational approach will bring its own advantage. Not that it is a big challenge to get better results than the traditional spoon-feeding approach. Spoon-feeding has not worked because young people on the verge of adulthood are unwilling to accept authority blindly. They may profess to do so in the classroom, but they are aware that real life is different and, when temptation looms, defences fall. It is true of them, as it is true of us, that “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still”.
There is no formula guaranteed to send our young out into the world as perfect models of Christian chastity and virtue. But it is possible to help many to understand for themselves and live out their understanding. If some of these then make mistakes, at least they have a solid background to which they can return.
The principle is straightforward. The school is rightly obliged to give the teaching of the Church. It is a Catholic school and that’s what it says on the tin. In doing so it must give the full reasons why it holds a doctrine. But it must also evaluate, with scrupulous fairness, the opposing arguments. It is only then that the pupils are truly free to accept and internalise the Church’s teaching.
What has been lost? Those who do not accept would not have accepted the spoonfeeding approach at any useful level. What has been gained? Those who accept are able to make a free, internalised commitment. All whose previous knowledge of the debate was scanty or misinformed are now fully briefed, and ready to defend their beliefs against all comers. Let me illustrate this approach with some examples.
The Church teaches that sexual congress is such an invaluable gift of oneself that it belongs only within the unconditional commitment of marriage. We all know the general arguments for this, and the competent teacher will be able to display the strong sociological evidence in support. Everyone will be aware of the powerful temptations which draw many into a betrayal of this gift. The only reward for pretending otherwise is loss of credibility. It would be more useful to ask pupils to compare Catholic teaching with the proposition that sex is appropriate in casual relationships, or as a form of entertainment. Do we really put such little trust in our ability to present the Church’s good or in our young’s ability to recognise it? And, if so, what have we been doing as parents?
Contraception involves the problem that if teachers, clerical or lay, follow the pattern of surveys then the majority will not, in practice, accept the Church’s blanket condemnation of artificial forms. But here the orthodox teaching must also be given, accompanied by the best evidence, both theological and sociological. The choice here is simple: either leave the children with their half-baked erroneous ideas or teach them the facts on contraception – from which methods are abortifacient to the level of safety they give against conception and disease. This is general knowledge, not advocacy of a way of life. But every parent must face the question: What would I do if I knew that my child was involved sexually, against my wishes, and I didn’t know whether they were protected? Bear in mind that the Church’s teaching on contraception applies only to marriage.
I hardly dare enter the subject of homosexuality for the thunder of red rags and bulls charging over the horizon. So I will confine myself to saying that bullying a gay person on the grounds of orientation or lifestyle is a sin against love far greater than any which might be imputed against homosexual acts.
For me, strength of feeling makes the question of abortion the test case. Unsurprisingly, our pupils are aware that abortions take place, and that we condemn this as the taking of innocent life. What the pupils need is a proper understanding of the wonderful work of God in how the baby grows and flowers from the foetus to their newborn brother or sister. The duty of balance requires that ultrasound scans should be used, since the emotional factor is normally inhibited by the invisibility of the baby. And full information on the practical provision available for the prospective mother is necessary information.
But pupils should also understand how fear, family pressure or plain ignorance leads some women to have abortions. We must be clear about the objective wrong of abortion but we are in no position to judge the mother. Rather, she should be the object of our prayers, and our practical help – particularly if she chooses abortion. Needless to say, our practical help does not include colluding with the abortion.
I am sure that some readers will think that I have sold the pass. I would say to them: take consolation from the fact that the credibility among the young towards the Church’s sexual teachings could scarcely be lower than it is today. There is nothing to lose. And bear in mind that secular schools must provide similar objective information about our views. I don’t think this is what the champions of the Bill had in mind – but, if they provided the noose, they too must be prepared to hang in it.
Quentin de la Bedoyere was a marriage counsellor under Catholic auspices for 20 years, working with schools, with engaged couples and in remedial counselling. His major work on counselling, Managing People and Problems, was published by Gower Press in 1988, later in paperback. It has appeared in several European languages. He has five children and 14 grandchildren