ISSUE: What are the rights and duties of parents when it comes to chastity education? How can they effectively resolve their concerns regarding chastity education programs at a parish or school in a constructive manner?
RESPONSE: The Church has consistently taught that parents are the principal and first educators of their children (Catechism, no. 1653). According to natural law and the Church’s moral teachings, schools must be subservient to parents, particularly in the area of sex education. School programs must not violate a child’s innocence. Even with adolescents, classroom programs must not include the more intimate aspects of sexual information, whether biological or affective, which belong to individual formation within the family.
DISCUSSION: As the Church has traditionally taught, chastity education can be provided in the context of the Sixth and Ninth Commandments within existing religion classes at appropriate ages. Such a catechesis on the Church’s moral teachings is especially needed today, and countless religious educators are meeting this need, often without the full support—in word and action—of the students’ families.
Even so, such classes should not provide “sex education,” but “chastity education.” Always in close collaboration with parents, classes should separate boys and girls for basic, non-intimate discussions regarding modesty, avoiding occasions of sin, respecting others, and similar topics. Many Catholic educators are sincere in their desire to promote chastity, but this must be done in a way consistent with the mind of the Church and in a way that treats the parents as the “primary educators” and not as outsiders.
It should be emphasized that a chastity education program does not have to legitimize immoral sexual conduct, such as masturbation, fornication, or contraception, to lead astray impressionable Catholic children. Not only is content important, but so is pedagogy—the way the material is presented to children. The Church’s norms in this area are violated whenever a student’s chastity and modesty are offended. Further, parents are typically in the best position to assess their particular child’s needs and sensibilities in this regard.
Parents have the right to remove their children from any program that they find objectionable. The Church also provides that parents can expect assistance from Church authorities to remove or correct programs that objectively violate the Church’s principles and guidelines. These principles and guidelines have been most recently articulated in The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (TMHS), which the Pontifical Council for the Family published in 1995.
Truth and Meaning
TMHS is the definitive Church document when it comes to contemporary chastity education. Despite the Church’s clear, consistent teaching regarding chastity education, the Vatican saw the need to issue TMHS because of pervasive sex education problems in both public and Catholic schools. Unfortunately, since its publication, TMHS’ authoritative weight has been misunderstood by some Catholic educators and Church officials. Some even claim that it is merely an advisory document because it was promulgated by a “pontifical council” and not a “congregation” or the Holy Father himself.
Yet, TMHS is founded on, cites, and draws out such authoritative Church documents as the Holy See’s Charter of the Rights of the Family (1983), Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio (1981), his Letter to Families (1991), and several Vatican II documents. TMHS cannot be read in isolation from these authoritative Church documents which provide its doctrinal and pedagogical foundation.
TMHS also has authority in its own right. Chastity education falls squarely within the purview of the Pontifical Council for the Family. In preparing TMHS, this pontifical council worked in consultation with the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, and other Church leaders. In addition, Pope John Paul II approved its publication.
In Church law, TMHS is known as an instruction. According to canon 34 of the Code of Canon Law, instructions “set out the provisions of a law and develop the manner in which it is to be put into effect, and they bind them in executing the law.” In other words, while not providing new law, instructions provide guidelines that must be followed in the implementation of existing law. The laws, in this instance, are the natural rights and obligations of parents as the primary educators of their children and the authoritative, binding principles of the Church on the delicate subject of chastity education.
According to TMHS, the “normal and fundamental method” of providing chastity education is “personal dialogue between parents and their children, that is, individual formation within the family circle” (no. 129). TMHS adds that “there is no substitute for a dialogue of trust and openness between parents and their children” (ibid.). This dialogue respects the child’s individuality and his or her stage of development.
At the same time, in fulfilling their mission to educate their children in chastity, parents may seek the assistance of teachers, catechists, and other experts. In seeking such collaborative assistance, parents do not forfeit their role as the primary educators of their children. What this specifically means is set forth in the Charter of the Rights of the Family:
Parents have the right to ensure that their children are not compelled to attend classes which are not in agreement with their own moral and religious convictions. In particular, sex education is a basic right of the parent and must always be carried out under their close supervision, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them (Article 5c).
Pope John Paul II adds that when it comes to upholding the parents’ right to closely supervise their children’s chastity education, “the Church reaffirms 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, no. 37). By subsidiarity is meant the principle that larger communities (e.g., schools, Church or governmental bodies, etc.) must not usurp the family’s prerogatives or unnecessarily interfere in its life (cf. Catechism, no. 2209).
The family as the “domestic Church” and basic building block of human society has a fundamental competency when it comes to education within the home. Echoing the words of Pope Pius XI, TMHS affirms the indispensability of parents notwithstanding the involvement of third parties: “Other educators can assist in this task [of educating children in chastity], but they can only take the place of parents for serious reasons of physical or moral incapacity” (no. 23).
No Place Like Home
In its 1983 document Educational Guidance in Human Love, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education emphasized the crucial role that families should play regarding the more intimate aspects of chastity formation: “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. . . .
“From what has been said above . . . the fact remains ever valid that with regard to the more intimate aspects, whether biological or affective, an individual education should be bestowed, preferably within the sphere of the family” (nos. 48, 58; cf. TMHS, nos. 65-67).
The Church strongly warns against classroom sex education programs that in any way violate what Pope John Paul II has called “the years of innocence”:”[T]he Church is firmly opposed to an often widespread form of imparting sex information dissociated from moral principles. This would merely be an introduction to the experience of pleasure and a stimulus leading to the loss of serenity—while still in the years of innocence—by opening the way to vice” (Familiaris Consortio, no. 37.)
The latency period, as this duration of time in a child’s life is also known, “begins about five years of age until puberty–the beginning of which can be set at the first signs of changes in the boy or girl’s body (the visible effect of an increased production of sexual hormones). This period of tranquility and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex” (TMHS, no. 78).
The Church teaches that, even as the child reaches puberty, intimate chastity formation belongs in the home:
Catechesis on morality may be provided by other trustworthy persons, with particular emphasis on sexual ethics at puberty and adolescence. Parents should take an interest in the moral catechesis which is given to their children outside the home and use it as a support for their own educational work. Such catechesis must not include the more intimate aspects of sexual information, whether biological or affective, which belong to individual formation within the family (TMHS, no. 133, original emphasis).
Educational Guidance in Human Love warns about programs that violate both the latency period of young children and the modesty of adolescents, presenting intimate sexual information in classrooms that are typically co-ed:
Some school textbooks on sexuality, by reason of their naturalist character, are harmful to the child and adolescent. Graphic and audio-visual materials are more harmful when they crudely present realities for which the child is not prepared, and thus create traumatic impressions or raise an unhealthy curiosity which leads to evil. Let teachers think seriously of the grave harm that an irresponsible attitude in such matters can cause in pupils (no. 76).
Objecting to the Objectionable
Everyone who is involved in educating young people in chastity must take to heart these sobering words of Christ: “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone was hung round his neck and he was cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk. 17:1-2).
Since the stakes are so high, TMHS recommends that “parents associate with other parents, not only in order to protect, maintain, or fill out their own role as the primary educator of their children, especially in the area of education for love, but also to fight against damaging forms of sex education and to ensure that their children will be educated according to Christian principles and in a way that is consonant with their personal development” (no. 114).
Parents can find support not only among each other, but are also encouraged to turn to Church officials to ensure that programs conform to Catholic doctrine and principles:
Parents will also welcome the assistance and supervision of the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities in promoting suitable material and in removing or correcting what does not conform to the principles set out in this guide, concerning doctrine, timing, and the content and method of such education (no. 147).
Lay apostolates like CUF also provide significant assistance to parents who are faced with objectionable sex education programs. As TMHS provides, “Frequently parents are not lacking in awareness and effort, but they are quite alone, defenseless, and often made to feel they are wrong. They need understanding, but also support and help by groups, associations, and institutions” (no. 113). Such support should not be understood as fostering division or unhealthy adversarial relationships with ecclesial or educational bodies, but actually as a service to the local Church in fidelity to the Holy See.
Consistent with natural law and magisterial teaching, TMHS affirms that parents should always have at their disposal the ability to remove their children from any program that they believe is offensive or inappropriate (nos. 117, 127, 146). As Vatican II teaches, “the rights of parents are violated if their children are compelled to attend classes which are not in agreement with the religious beliefs of the parents” (Declaration on Religious Liberty, no. 5).
In practice, however, “opt-out” and even “opt-in” programs at schools and parishes are unacceptable when the issue is the imparting of intimate sexual information that requires individual formation. Given the Church’s clear principles on these matters, parents and their children should not feel the pressure of opting in or suffer ridicule if they opt out. There are many horror stories of families that have been harassed simply for exercising their basic rights in this area.
The best approach to this issue is to focus more time and energy on equipping parents to effectively fulfill their role as primary educators. School and parish programs or presentations should be offered to help parents learn to better address the more intimate matters of chastity education within the home. TMHS advocates such an approach:
Everyone must observe the right order of cooperation and collaboration between parents and those who can help them in their task. It is clear that the assistance of others must be given first and foremost to parents rather than to their children (no. 145).
Even the best of programs are limited. The most critical element of a child’s spiritual formation, including chastity education, takes place at home, in the “domestic Church.” This is the place where the child not only receives instruction, but experiences firsthand how Christian love manifests itself in the family. Therefore, the primary focus must be on the formation and education of parents. That way, parents can take a proactive role in their children’s education and are not marginalized or left with the role of “critic” or “censor” of a school program. This empowerment of parents is not only best for their children, but it will frequently lead to a deepening of their own chaste commitment to Jesus Christ and His Church.
CUF has an “Effective Lay Witness Protocol” that sets forth general guidelines for addressing controversies in the Church constructively, virtuously, and in keeping with the mind of the Church. CUF also offers a toll-free Catholic hotline (800-MY-FAITH) where callers receive personalized advice regarding their particular situation from CUF’s Information Services staff.
Without attempting to provide an exhaustive checklist here, CUF does recommend that parents who have concerns about the chastity formation their children are receiving should take the following steps:
Pray always. This point cannot be emphasized enough. The Catechism says that “[i]f our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name, even more than any particular thing: the Holy Spirit himself, who contains all gifts” (no. 2741). Draw upon the grace of the sacraments and the intercession of the saints.
Examination of Conscience. Are we living lives worthy of our Christian dignity? Are we in any way compromised when it comes to marital chastity? Do we frequently and humbly seek reconciliation with others and with the Lord through sacramental Confession?
Know what the Church teaches. In particular, read TMHS and Catechism, nos. 2221-33, 2331-59. Know the rights and responsibilities of Catholic parents. Call CUF or other sound Catholic organizations for additional materials and answers to specific questions.
Review the chastity education materials the school or parish is using. TMHS recommends that parents “keep themselves precisely informed on the content and methodology with which such supplemental education is imparted” (no. 115). Only then can parents make wise, informed judgments about their child’s program free from hearsay or speculation.
Parental involvement. Effective parent-child communication goes a long way toward filtering and assessing questionable or worse messages that are given to our children.
Assume good faith. School and parish administrators are often trying to meet the needs of children who may have negligent or ill-informed parents. Approach them with sensitivity to their situation and indicate a willingness to work with them. The Catechism says that “[t]o avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (no. 2478). Assuming the good faith of those who are in any way involved in problematic chastity education programs isn’t naivete, nor does it mean ignoring the problems. It’s a challenging call to virtuous Christian living.
Act, but don’t react. We usually live to regret immediate responses to those who oppose or upset us. A good rule of thumb is to wait at least 24 hours to cool down before responding to a disturbing situation. This will also allow for prayerful discernment and the counsel of others (cf. Tob. 4:18).
Keep written records. A “paper trail” of correspondence and conversations may be necessary down the road. But even more, careful documentation helps to ensure an objective “record” so that the chronological sequence of events may be truthfully and fairly recalled.
Go through appropriate channels. The principle of subsidiarity also applies to dispute resolution in the Church (cf. Mt. 18:15-17). It’s very easy “mid-battle” to lose sight of this requirement, and then we involve people—perhaps even the general public—who are not part of the solution. This could create scandal (cf. Catechism, no. 2284) or lead to the sin of detraction (cf. Catechism, no. 2477).
Charity in all things. The Church warns that even Catholics who believe every single teaching of the Church will not be saved if they do not persevere in charity (cf. Catechism, no. 837). We must resist facile recourse to tactics that tear down the very institutions we are bound to uphold and rebuild. If we conduct ourselves with Christian charity toward all, Our Lord will undoubtedly say “Well done, good servant!” (Lk. 19:17). Indeed, this commitment to “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) is what will in the end distinguish us as loyal sons and daughters of the Church.
Holy Bible (Catholic Edition)
Catechism of the Catholic Church (Hardcover and paperback available)
The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality; Pontifical Council for the Family
Educational Guidance in Human Love; Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education
Veritatis Splendor; Pope John Paul II
Familiaris Consortio; Pope John Paul II
Evangelium Vitae; Pope John Paul II
Letter to Families; Pope John Paul II
Building on Solid Ground; Rev. Thomas Williams, L.C.
Why Humanae Vitae was Right: A Reader; Janet E. Smith, ed.
Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family is Built; William E. May
Catholic Education: Homeward Bound; Kimberly Hahn and Mary Hasson
Becoming a Catholic Family; Scott and Kimberly Hahn; audiotape series
Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions; Suprenant and Gray
Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God; Hahn, Scott, et al.
Courageous Love: A Bible Study on Holiness for Women; Mitch, Stacy
Mission of the Messiah: On the Gospel of Luke; Gray, Timothy
To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free: (800) 398-5470 or visit http://www.emmausroad.org/
Other Available FAITH FACTS:
• Pure Biology? Effective Chasity Education • Canonical Misconceptions: Pope Pius IX & the Church’s Teaching on Abortion • Chose Life That You and Your Children May Live: The Truth About Birth Control • Marriage in God’s Plan • Male and Female He Created Them: The Church and “Same-Sex Marriages”
Call 1-800-MY-FAITH (693-2484).
FAITH FACTS are a free membership service of Catholics United for the Faith.
Catholics United for the Faith
827 N. Fourth St., Steubenville, OH 43952
© 2003 Catholics United for the Faith, Inc.
Last edited 1/28/03
Associated PDF File:
You may need to obtain a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to use this PDF file