Chastity Formation in the Home and School: A Parent’s Guide

Catholics United for the Faith
From the Sep/Oct 2011 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:27

Sexuality, the gift of imaging God as a man or woman, is written into the story of man’s creation. Of all the gifts God has bestowed on the human person, it is, in a certain sense, the most fundamental. It is who we are: a man or a woman. It shapes how we live and love. Above all, it reveals that for which we were made— that we are creatures created for union, for communion, in this life with another human being and, in eternity, with God Himself.

Unfortunately, the meaning of this gift has been grossly distorted by the culture in which we live, which means young people are exposed far too often and far too early to lies about love and sexuality. Such exposure can warp their understanding of this fundamental gift. It also can make them more susceptible to behaviors that wound both their body and their soul.

For those reasons, both parents and Catholic educators have a responsibility to actively form young people’s understanding of who they are as men and women and what it means to love according to God’s plan.

The roles for parents and educators, however, are not the same, nor are the duties. How are parents to understand their unique role in this important process of chastity formation? And how can they ensure that educators carry out their own unique role in the right and best of ways?

Chastity Formation: A Parent’s Duty

The Church teaches that parents are the primary educators of their children (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1653). That doesn’t, however, only apply to reading and writing. It also applies to chastity formation.

No matter how difficult talking to children about the gift of sexuality may seem, it is imperative that parents not neglect this responsibility. First, because parents understand the emotional and spiritual development of their child far better than any teacher does.

More importantly, even when young people act otherwise, they care deeply about what their parents think. They also are close observers of what their parents do. As both witnesses and teachers, parents are critical in the process of chastity formation. No one else can teach young people about the gift of sexuality quite so effectively or help them live God’s plan for human love quite so fruitfully.

In order for parents to carry out their task effectively, however, chastity formation must be more than an explanation of the biological dimensions of masculinity, femininity, and marital intimacy. More fundamentally, it should be an introduction to who the human person is—a gift created in and destined for love—and an education in the virtues that make chastity and true married love possible.

Beyond the Birds and the Bees

The most important introduction parents can give their children to the gift of sexuality is the way they live out their own vocation and state in life, modeling the Church’s teachings on love, self-sacrifice, fidelity, chastity, and openness to new life.

Likewise, beginning with the toddler years, they can begin laying the building blocks for clear moral instruction in God’s plan for human love.

Chastity Formation Ages 2-9

  • Guard against premature sexual information, closely observing and strictly limiting the media they see and use;
  • Speak positively about babies and new life, referring to them as “gifts”;
  • Always speak about the children themselves as “gifts”;
  • Teach them how to make right choices, develop impulse control, attain self-mastery, and make sacrifices.

Chastity Formation Ages 9-12

  • Talk to children about how the changes in their bodies are preparing them for motherhood or fatherhood and encourage them to value their masculinity or femininity;
  • Introduce them to the concept of modesty in a positive way—as something that helps people see how beautiful they truly are and as an expression of their dignity as men and women;
  • Answer any questions they have honestly but without using graphic or age-inappropriate language; Talk positively about the different primary Christian vocations (marriage, holy orders, consecrated life);
  • Keep moral instruction clear and firm.

Chastity Formation Ages 13-18

  • Introduce them to John Paul II’s theology of the body using age appropriate resources;
  • Watch media with them and talk to them about the behaviors and relationships of characters in their favorite television shows and movies, asking them if they think the behavior is right or wrong, having them explain why, then discussing what the Church says on the topic;
  • Talk about chastity in a positive sense, as a way of saying “yes” to God, their own great dignity, and their future spouse, not simply as a “no” to certain behaviors;
  • Explain God’s plan for married love, the sacredness of the body, and the great responsibility that comes with being co-creators with God of new human life;
  • Focus on how as men or as women they image God, and how the Church’s understanding of masculinity and femininity differs from the culture’s understanding;
  • Continue to help them grow in virtue, in prayer, and in their participation in the sacramental life of the Church;
  • If you’re concerned about what they may be doing, ask them what their friends think about certain behaviors or whether their friends are engaging in them. This is often the best indicator of what they’re doing or thinking about doing.

Empowering Parents: Chastity Formation in the Schools

In the process of chastity formation, schools have the potential to be parents’ greatest ally, helping parents better understand their own role, reinforcing what is taught in the home, and leading children to a deeper, fuller understanding of the gift of their masculinity and femininity.

The Church recognizes this, and has long taught that education in sexual ethics and Christian vocations is an important part of students’ moral and theological formation and, therefore, appropriate in curricula for adolescents and teenagers.

Today, perhaps more than ever before, that education is critical for young people who are not receiving chastity formation at home. Unfortunately, in many schools, those students represent a majority of the student body. Far too many parents have shown themselves to be either unaware of their obligation to be the primary educators of their children or uninterested in fulfilling that obligation. Their absence leaves a vacuum which peers and the culture are all too willing to fill in the worst possible ways.

Many educators recognize this and, out of a duty to Christian charity and truth, do their best to provide young people with an authentic understanding of God’s plan for human love. Others, however, have bought into a fatally flawed understanding of sexuality and only add to the problem they claim they’re attempting to solve.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

How can a parent tell the difference between faithful chastity formation programs and problematic sex education programs?

Faithful Chastity Formation Programs . . .

  • seek to involve the parents in the process of chastity formation, informing them of the curriculum, directing them to resources for the home, and providing them with any other assistance they need addressing issues of love and sexuality with their children;
  • encourage students to communicate with the parents about issues related to love and sexuality;
  • are age appropriate;
  • establish abstinence before marriage as the expected standard of behavior;
  • address the role original sin plays in creating disordered sexual desires and disordered relations between men and women;
  • explain why sexual intimacy outside of marriage is dangerous and destructive, spiritually and emotionally as well as physically;
  • focus on self-discipline, charity, prayer, and the sacraments as primary ways of attaining the virtue of chastity;
  • help students understand that masculinity and femininity are gifts that orient them to fatherhood and motherhood;
  • recognize children as gifts from God and parents as co-creators in the process of bringing new life into the world;
  • separate, if at all possible, male and female students for discussions on chastity.

Problematic Sex Education Programs . . .

  • violate children’s innocence during the “latency” (pre-pubescent) period, addressing sexual intercourse, masturbation, contraception, sterilization, homosexuality, and other such topics;
  • use graphic images or explicit language to discuss sexuality and marital love;
  • are based on the idea that abstinence until marriage is not a realistic option and sexual activity outside of marriage is acceptable;
  • endorse or promote the concept of “safe-sex”;
  • endorse or promote contraception or sterilization;
  • endorse or promote same-sex sexual acts as acceptable choices;
  • expose the children to erotic material or invite the children to participate in inappropriate role playing;
  • define abstinence as simply the avoidanceof sexual intercourse;
  • treat sex as a purely biological function and sexuality as a social construct, with no reference to morality or God;
  • teach the intimate details of intercourse or other sexual acts;
  • do not respect the parents’ role as the primary educator of their children, do not seek parental involvement, and do not respect the parents’ right to determine what their children can and cannot be exposed to.

Questions for Parents to Ask

When evaluating a chastity formation program, parents may find the following questions helpful:

1. Does the program itself call for strong parental involvement? (TMHS 113, 120, 145)

2. Is the program designed for use in a coeducational setting? If not, are there valid reasons for this and are educators sensitive to addressing such issues with both male and female students present? (TMHS 127)

3. Does the program respect the different phases of development? (TMHS 64, 65, 75, 78, 83)

4. Does the program recognize that the primary obstacle to chastity is not ignorance but sin? Does the program seek to form saints or to inform sinners? (TMHS 122-23; Catechism, no. 407)

5. Does the program include graphic illustrations or have other aspects that offend modesty and chastity? (TMHS 126, 127, 133, 139, 143)

6. Are the Church’s moral teachings believed and communicated by the teacher? (TMHS 116, 117, 120, 135, 145)

Parents who have concerns about the chastity formation their children are receiving should keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Know what the Church teaches. In particular, read “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality” and the Catechism, nos. 2221-33, 2331-59. Know the rights and responsibilities of Catholic parents.
  • Review the chastity education materials the school or parish uses. Only then can parents make wise, informed judgments about their child’s program, free from hearsay or speculation.
  • Stay involved. Effective parent-child communication goes a long way toward filtering and assessing questionable messages given to children.
  • Assume good faith. School and parish administrators are often trying to meet the needs of children who 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 “to avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (2478).
  • Act, but don’t react. 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 (see Tob. 4:18).
  • Keep written records. A “paper trail” of correspondence and conversations may be necessary down the road. Even more important, 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 (see Mt. 18:15- 17). To involve people—perhaps even the general public—who are not part of the solution could create scandal (see Catechism, no. 2284) or lead to the sin of detraction (see Catechism, no. 2477).
  • Maintain charity in all things. The Church warns that even Catholics who believe every teaching of the Church will not be saved if they do not persevere in charity (see Catechism, no. 837). Christians must resist facile recourse to tactics that tear down the very institutions they are bound to uphold and rebuild. This commitment to “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) is what will in the end distinguish parents as loyal sons and daughters of the Church.