Sexual education

Several years ago, after I had retired from full time work, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon a week with a young relative and her best friend. We did all sorts of things: poetry, philosophy, debates and so on. We were focussed on the higher aspects of culture which were missing from their convent education.

Being in their mid teens I asked them to write a joint paper on sexuality. I pointed them towards useful sources, and off they went. It was clear to me that they would be better prepared for the next stage of their life through finding the facts in this way than through the mistakes which accompany ignorance. When I asked them how what they had learnt meshed with their convent information they said “We were taught what the Church teaches, but now we know more about real life.”

The memory came back to me this week because of a recent article in Scientific American (September 2018). The author (Michel Shermer) was looking at several studies over the last decade on the relationship between sexual education and likelihood of abortion. I just give you a quote which convey the sense of the article.

“(Among American adolescents ages 15 to 19) abstinence-only education did not reduce the likelihood of engaging in vaginal intercourse…adolescents who received comprehensive sex education had a lower risk of pregnancy than adolescents who received abstinence only or no sex education.” Other studies from a variety of countries showed complementary results.

The information from the studies was insufficient to allow me to question the quality of the quoted studies so I have to rely on the reputation of the magazine for its broad accuracy.

The conclusion and indeed the point of the article is that we should not rely on the law alone to control abortions. Rather, we should work to increase the practical knowledge of sexuality among the young. And particularly on contraception.

My immediate reaction, and perhaps yours, was that the advent of artificial contraception – and particularly from the pill in the ‘60s when women got personal control – has altered society’s views on sexual intercourse. From broadly considering it as belonging to marriage alone, and only used outside by default, it seems now to be considered as a proper expression for any couple who share a serious wish for intimacy.

But we are where we are. This clock will not be turned back. And occasional remarks on this Blog suggest that the young of many Catholic families are no different from their peers. What are the choices? Sniff and take no notice? Ensure a broad realistic sexual education combined with orthodox Catholic teaching? Simply teach orthodoxy and leave it at that? And I would want to take into account which approach affects the likelihood of abortion. I hope you share my view that artificial contraception is small beer compared with that.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Sexual education

  1. John Candido says:

    This issue is a difficult matter to comment on comprehensively or authoritatively.

    I am all for sex education for our youth from qualified teachers who are competent in this subject area.

    Everything should start with the evidence that youth who have learnt about healthy relationships through sex education, that emphasises self-respect and care given to others, and especially a knowledge of contraceptive methods, are less likely to have children at a very young age, as the evidence suggests in Quintin’s opening post.

    To ‘ensure a broad, realistic sexual education combined with orthodox Catholic teaching,’ is problematic for some and not a problem for others.

    The church’s teaching on sexual morals can be a litmus test of fidelity to the church, and I wonder if sexual morality has far too much emphasis in some contexts, and a better balance needs to be struck by some of the church’s teachings.

    The entire area of sexual morals is very clear if you abide by the Catholic Church’s teaching.

    Many Catholics and people who are not Catholics have some issue with the church’s teaching on masturbation, artificial contraception, and any sexuality other than heterosexuality is wrong.

    I believe that some parts of the Orthodox Catholic teaching on sexual morality are a problem for both some adherents of the Catholic Church and contemporary society.

    Especially the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, masturbation, sex being the exclusive preserve of marriage, pornography, and the teaching on homosexuality.

    Artificial contraception has forever changed the way men and women perceive themselves.

    Wishing online pornography to go away, or other matters such as torture, terrorism, racism, nuclear or chemical weapons or Donald Trump to go away, isn’t sensible.

    There is some need to instruct all children and even their parents about the dangers of chat rooms on the internet, stranger-danger in general, grooming, paedophilia, and to have some background information informing them about online pornography and how commercial imperatives rule it completely.

    I certainly respect anyone who seeks to follow all of the edicts of the Catholic Church trusting that those very edicts come from God and are in a sense, off-limits to any questioners.

    Theologians who may also have other qualifications in medicine or psychology may offer a way out of these matters as I feel almost completely out of my depth on these issues.

  2. John Nolan says:

    School sex education was once described as ‘the blind leading the groping’. By all means teach the mechanics of sex and procreation, and the dangers of promiscuity (and certain sexual practices) with regard to STIs, the incidence of which is rising among those aged 15 to 24. But leave it at that.

    Otherwise you get to the stage where even primary school children are exposed to homosexualist and transgender propaganda under the pretext of ‘diversity’.

  3. Iona says:

    Quentin – this is not a “comment” but a plea: I seem to have stopped receiving your weekly emails nudging me to look at the newest blog post. Maybe I’ve omitted to tick a box somewhere. Could you reinstate them please?

    • Quentin says:

      Iona, thank you for writing. Your name is now back on the list. Here is the story. There has been, for some time now, increasing steps to check the number of bcc copies on an email. Consequently I have had to change my methods of notifications. This has involved much juggling of addresses. At some point in all of this I must have missed out your name. Sorry.

      Would anyone else who had been omitted please let me know, either by my email address of you have it, or directly to the Blog.

  4. Geordie says:

    Me too. I don’t get emails any more.

  5. Quodvultdeus says:

    I would share with you two thoughts from the many that come to my mind. I think it’s Saint Augustine, whom we commemorate in the liturgy today, brought me back to your blog after quite a long break.

    First, It’s worth noting that neither saintly Christian mother Monica, nor pagan, cultured teachers were able to make him start his adult life in the intimate area of sexuallity in a balanced, responsible, and fruitful, i.e. not selfish way. In the end, it was only the grace of God at his conversion in Cassiciacum that made him set on a luminous journey of celibacy. Abstaining of all sexual life, in case of Augustine, did not have anything to do with Manichean disdain of the bodily pleasures, as some would like to interpret it. It was caused by the insight of the Kingdom of God, where men and women in their resurrected bodies “do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven.” (cf. Mt 19:12) That is something what, perhaps, is missing in our young people’s sexual education: the reality of the world to come, which gives a special, meaning to all we do in our temporary life. This world to come is, of course, our Christian secret or, if you prefer, our mystery of faith. Our arcana.

    The second thought is that in order to lead young adults to human and, indeed, Christian maturity in the area of intimate sexual life is not enough to give them the knowledge. Even if it is a true knowledge of human anthropology, revealed to us in Jesus Christ himself. Knowledge is not enough to manage one’s own sexual dynamics with love. Obviously, it is important to know the truth. For instance, it is important to know, of what the Council’s “Gaudium et spes” reminds us, that we have been created according to the image of God to live the life of a gift. “This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself (cf. Lk 17:33).” (GS 24) In case of sexual intercourse we speak of the mutual gift… It is important to know that contraceptives oppose not only the conception of a new baby (new person) but also oppose the dynamics of love: a self gift.

    This knowledge does not suffice, as our nature is wounded by the primordial sin of our first parents. Knowledge cannot succeed in overcoming the legacy of death in each one of us if only by the grace of the One who has saved us by his blood shed on the cross and his resurrection and by the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf Rm 7:24-25). That’s what John Paul II taught very clearly in his catecheses on marriage and on the role of the body in it. He spoke of the Pauline conflict: flesh, “the three-fold concupiscence that ‘comes from the world’.” (cf 1Jn 2:16) — and spirit, living wisely according to the Holy Spirit (cf Rm 8:5-6). The holy pope explained that “in the first case we are dealing with the man abandoned to the threefold concupiscence, about which John says that it comes ‘from the world,’ in the second case we are faced with… the ethos of redemption.” (“Man and Woman He created them” 51, Boston 2006, Michael Waldstein /trans./, p. 329-334)

    We need to initiate young people into “the ethos of redemption”, i.e. the hope of eternal life made flesh in us by accepting with faith the life giving event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, made present to us in the sacraments and in the preaching (kerygma).

    “The word of the cross is stupidity for those who are on the way to ruin, but for those of us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God.” (1 Co 1:18)

    • Quodvultdeus says:

      I would add one more reflection on why “we are where we are”. And if “This clock will not be turned back”. It will be about the impact of the school education (not necessary sexual). It may have the same effect as the one received by young Augustine in 4th c. B.C. Sorry, it will be more symbolic and Scriptural than scientific.

      Saint Augustine, as new bishop, wrote in the first chapters of his Confessions how “in God’s presence… he could now with security recall” his education that led him to promiscuous life: “You river of hell, into you are cast the sons of men, with rewards for learning these things (i.e. rethorics).” In Augsutine’s reference to the river of hell (Lat. flumen Tartareum), one can hear an echo of the Book of Revelation speaking of the Mary as the figure of the Church threatened by the waters vomited by the devil: “So the serpent vomited water from his mouth, like a river, after the woman, to sweep her away in the current.” (Ap 12:15)

      Describing his education, Augustine makes a comment on Homer, whom he loved to study at school to master his skills as a future rhethor. It may shed light on how, possibly, our children and young adults are put on the similar track away from God’s commandments. As a good rethor he plays with words, which in the old translation from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers available to me does not appear so well, so I will correct it a bit. Augustine speaks of Homer deceiving the readers by calling divine what is infamous: He “attributed divine attributes to infamous men, that infamous things might not be accounted as infamous things, and that whosoever committed any might appear to imitate the celestial gods and not morally depraved men.” (Confessions I,16.25)

      “This clock will not be turned back.” Augustine would say: “But woe to you, you river of human custom! Who shall stay course course? How long shall it be before you are dried up?” In the Scripture it says that the Church was saved by the help by the miraculous intervention of God, similar to the one which destroyed the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram in the desert (cf. Numbers 16,31-32): “the earth came to her rescue; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river spewed from the dragon’s mouth.” (Ap 12:16) True, the clock cannot be reverted unless there is a strong divine earthquake…

  6. Horace says:

    1) Sniff and take no notice?
    2) Ensure a broad realistic sexual education combined with orthodox Catholic teaching?
    3) Simply teach orthodoxy and leave it at that?
    Fairly obviously (2) is the best approach. I myself encountered (3) but being a medical student helped me fill in the details. My wife encountered (1)! Our children are both faithful Catholics and, as far as I know, would not even consider abortion.

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