Catholic attitude to sex education

Joint Pastoral Letter of the Hierarchy of England and Wales, 1944 (slightly condensed)

The Archbishops and Bishops of England and Wales to the clergy and faithful of the said countries health and benediction in the Lord!

Dearly Beloved Brethren and Dear Children in Jesus Christ,

The publication of the Board of Education's pamphlet on sex education in schools and youth organisations has brought the subject into prominence and calls for some statement concerning the Catholic attitude towards the problem. The remedy is to be found not so much in the imparting in public of fuller and more systematic knowledge of sex from the physiological or biological standpoint as by the removal of external temptations and by the general and determined inculcation of the practice of Christian virtue and our dependence on divine grace. Pope Pius XI said:

Far too common is the error of those who, with dangerous assurance and under an ugly term, propagate a so-called sex education, falsely imagining they can forearm youths against the dangers of sensuality by means purely natural, such as a foolhardy initiation and precautionary instruction for all indiscriminately, even in public; and worse still, exposing them, at an early age to the occasions in order to accustom them, so it is argued, and as it were to harden them against such dangers. Such persons grievously err in refusing to recognise the inborn weakness of human nature and the law of which the Apostle speaks, fighting against the law of the mind and also in ignoring the experience of facts, from which it is clear that, particularly in young people, evil practices are the effect not so much of ignorance of intellect as of weakness of a will exposed to dangerous occasions and unsupported by the means of grace.” (Encyclical Divini illius magistri, 31 Dec 1929)

Instruction by the parents

If the problem with which we are concerned is accentuated in these days it is due, apart from wartime conditions:

  1. to certain general influences which are responsible for placing before young people lower moral standards of life and conduct;

  2. to the failure on the part of many parents to fulfil the obligation which is theirs of instructing their children in the things which concern the welfare of body and soul.

The proposed instruction in the schools would be largely unnecessary if the causes of the evils which it is intended to remedy were, first of all, removed—bad literature, bad pictures, bad theatre displays, shocking housing conditions.

As regards the parental instruction of children in the matters concerned, we are convinced that herein lies the chief cause and the remedy which is being sought. There is today a lamentable decline in family education due largely to an ever-increasing tendency on the part of parents deliberately to shirk their obvious duty.

Parents should remember that the obligation to see to the religious and moral education of their children rests primarily on themselves and that there are certain aspects of this education which cannot satisfactorily be delegated to others. The omission of parental instruction and parental discipline is undoubtedly responsible for many of the moral and social evils which we regret today.

The mysteries of life

The Catholic Church does not favour a policy of complete secrecy between parents and children concerning the mysteries of life. Nevertheless, in treating of these delicate matters, “every precaution must be taken” even by parents. “Such is our misery and inclination to sin,” says a well-known Christian writer quoted by Pope Pius XI, “that often in the very things considered to be remedies against sin, we find occasions for and inducements to sin itself. Hence it is of the highest importance that a good father, while discussing with his son a matter so delicate, should be well on his guard and not descend to details, nor refer to the various ways in which this deadly hydra destroys with its poison so large a portion of the world; otherwise it may happen that, instead of extinguishing this fire, he unwittingly stirs or kindles it in the simple and tender heart of the child. Speaking generally,” concludes the same writer, “during the period of childhood it suffices to employ those remedies which produce the double effect of opening the door to the virtue of purity and closing the door upon vice.”

The position of teachers

Unfortunately, until parents are better equipped for their task, and do in fact carry out their obligations, there will always be some children lacking in the knowledge of those things intended by God for their own progress in virtue and for the fulfilment of God’s designs. But we do not admit that, therefore, the duty of imparting this knowledge necessarily falls upon the school teachers. Teachers have no strict right to arrogate to themselves parental duties; if called upon by the parents to deputise for them in this delicate matter they may very properly do so.

Accordingly, a teacher must always respect the rights and wishes of the parents concerning the education of children, and rather than taking over parental duties should regard it as their task to help parents towards the proper fulfilment of obligations.

Method recommended by the Church

To the question whether the method called “sexual education” or even “sexual initiation” could be approved, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, on 21 March, 1931, replied “in the negative”, and directed that “the method of educating youth employed by the Church and holy men in the past, and commended by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical on the Christian education of youth, 31 December 1929, must be preserved.”

The method commended by the Pope, in the encyclical referred to, is clear. In this extremely delicate matter,” says the Holy Father, “if, all things considered, some individual instruction is found necessary and opportune from those who hold from God the commission to educate and who have the grace of state, every precaution must be taken. Such precautions are well known in traditional Christian education.” These words, taken in conjunction with the decree of the Holy Office, leave no room to doubt that the Church is opposed to collective or public sex education with or without supposed “safeguards”. She teaches that, in place of such methods of sex education, “care must be taken, in the first place, to give a full, firm, and uninterrupted religious instruction to youth of both sexes; that an esteem and desire for and love of the angelic virtue be instilled into them; that they shall be urged, especially, to be instant in prayer, assiduous in the reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist; that they shall cultivate a filial devotion to the Blessed Virgin, Mother of holy purity, and place themselves under her protection; and that they shall carefully avoid dangerous reading, immodest shows, bad company, and all occasions of sin.”

Religious & moral training

This attitude of the Church is not obscurantist, as some may suggest, but is based on her two thousand years’ experience and upon her unrivalled knowledge of human nature.

The reason for the recent agitation in certain quarters for more general sex instruction is not altogether clear to us. If its main purpose is a social one, namely, to safeguard the physical welfare of the nation, then the advocates of sex instruction on the lines suggested are doomed to disappointment, since the evils concerned are the effect not so much of ignorance as of a weakness of will unsupported by the means of grace.

Information alone will not produce a healthy and sound nation; much less will it be sufficient to prepare souls for their eternal destiny in the next life. It is not so much information as formation which is required—formation of character, the training of the mind, the heart, and the will with the necessary assistance of religion.

Every other form of education is false and unsound and will lead neither to spiritual nor temporal wellbeing. We exhort our Catholic teachers and youth leaders, therefore, to continue in their holy vocation and to be instant in helping to form those in their charge in the ways of Christian virtue. We regard our Catholic schools as sanctuaries wherein our children are mightily strengthened in the faith and its practice. Nevertheless, the school or the youth centre must always remain complementary to the home and must not supplant it. The State should rather take steps to see that parents themselves are belter equipped for their parental tasks.

Parental responsibility

This encouragement of the fulfilment of parental responsibility will, indeed, be the first endeavour of the Church. With this in view we endorse the appeal of Pius XI to all pastors of souls “to use every means, by catechisms and instruction, by word of mouth and in widely published writings, to ensure that Christian parents are well instructed both in general and in particular regarding their duties in the religious, moral, and civic education of their children, and regarding the best methods—apart from their own example—of attaining that end.’’

In carrying out this commission, the clergy will, no doubt, find helpful those gatherings, organisations, and confraternities of Catholic parents, mothers, and adolescents which the Holy Father refers to as “worthy of all praise and encouragement”. We appeal to all Catholic parents to respond to the general effort which will be made on their behalf and to co-operate wholeheartedly in trying to equip themselves adequately for their noble task. We feel sure that with generous co-operation on the part of parents we shall not only go far to remove the present grave social and moral evils but that we shall help to build up a generation whose delight it will be to “seek the things that are above” and whose purity and integrity of life will be a joy both to God and man.

Given at Westminster on the Feast of St. Anselm in the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-four, and appointed to be read in all the churches and chapels of England and Wales on the third Sunday after Easter.

(Signed by all the members of the Hierarchy)

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