Dom Antony Sutch OSB of Downside School argues that sex education should be just that an 'education', underpinned by a sound set of Christian values, not mere 'instruction'.
ON A PILGRIMAGE TO Lourdes recently the spiritual director held a panel of questions on the Church's sexual teaching, especially on all issues raised by Humanae Vitae, whose Silver Jubilee was being much discussed in the press.
The panel included a cleric, a doctor, a journalist and a married couple. The discussion was lively, open and intelligent.
One post-discussion Comment startled me. A girl of 19 said that she had always presumed Hurnanae Vitae was "all about sex with the concomitant large `No'." She went on: "I've now discovered it's about people and relationships. It sounds impressive and I'll definitely read it." It raised in my mind the fundamentals of our attitude towards sex education.
Even among the young there is much adverse speculation as to Pope John Paul II's impending encyclical. The atmosphere is pessimistic and contrasts vividly with the optimistic atmosphere which awaited Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae.
The 25 years in between have seen many changes in Catholic attitudes to papal pronouncements "on sex", certainly among the laity. Indeed, the comments of the laity on Catholic schools' sex education are often that it is derisory.
Dom Sebastian Moore recently wrote: "the present situation regarding sex-education is a serious comedy of errors."
Categorising the argument one finds one set of people who volubly urge sex-education. These are the purveyors of a culture that has systematically rendered sex trivial and meaningless.
They are opposed by those who claim to represent traditional moral values. These people fail to see that sex education is essential to redress the very privatisation of sex that drives its promoters to clamour for more sex education.
What we have to consider is the recovery of sex from its present cultural diminishment. This will mean a less frequent use of the word "sex" whose present lexicographical status as a thing in itself is symptomatic of the whole troubled situation.
Sex education must not be separated from the wider context of human and Christian education. It must not be removed from the orbit of relationship and commitment. It must not be seen as a subject isolated from others.
A vast amount of background work on human life, its value and purpose, its spirituality and its understanding, must be a part of this education.
One can no longer assume that the vast majority of young people have the experience of a secure home, a happy and stable parental marriage or a Christian ethos.
One must assume on the other hand that they have been exposed to bombardment by the media and by a high profile display in a variety of forms of what one would consider lax sexual moral standards.
Within these assumptions one must also be aware that young people are in need of information. They have little vision of life, little set purpose that is beyond the immediate and material, except in a few cases, and their levels of awareness need fostering. St Paul's words that for people to hear, someone must preach, are a clarion call to teachers today.
The methods and practical terms of "sex education" are often in debate. There is no doubt that the Church's teaching is seen as oppressive and legalistic. The theme must be that of Thomas Aquinas who espoused an education of the natural virtues. For these to be put into practice, we need the supplement of God's grace.
Yet behind any "sex education" must also be the desire to bring the young into the practice of good habits. Humanae Vitae was hailed by many as prophetic at its Silver Jubilee. Perspective and wisdom are vital.
An educational establishment cannot be divorced from a puritanical environment. The responsibility of each is difficult to categorise but both must be sensitive to the individual.
The remarkable difficulty of this can be understood if one simply considers the vastly divergent experience and awareness of contemporary young persons.
Whatever the difficulties, it is essential that in "sex education" certain absolutes are noted.
So many of the modern
methods thrust upon youth deal with the actions and consequences of the sexual act alone. Too often they are seen as complete in themselves.
So "responsible" sex in the eyes of many is connected with artificial means of
Thus the "educated" person becomes, in the eyes of the campaigners and advertisers, the person who connects AIDS with condoms, casual sex with the Pill, pre-marital sex with sexual satisfaction in marriage.
"Sex education", to them, is knowing the diseases, consequences and methods of sex without any idea of commitment, or purposeful relationship. These campaigners fail too often to consider the psychological, physical, spiritual and human traumas of sexual indulgence.
A young girl of 14 who had had much sex instruction recently told her aunt: "I've made a firm resolution because of all the problems that I'm not going to have sex until I'm 16." No education, just instruction. An understanding of the human person, a search for wisdom, and a seeking of God will put the sexuality of the individual into the correct context.
An educational establishment based on faith and the beliefs of the Roman Catholic tradition is an environment where teaching is consistent. It is a teaching based on the belief of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
It is a teaching which allows the individual, in a protected environment, to come to terms with sexuality before facing a society where the unsuspecting, unknowing and easily influenced will be bombarded by a myriad of suggestions, pressures, philosophies and commendations. It is about teaching seeking the truth and growth in the truth.
It should not be, nor is it in most cases, an indoctrination. St Paul can be used again: a child should he given a child's diet and a man a man's diet. So as maturity, intellectual, spiritual and physical, develops, so there is an opening up to the multifarious ideas of others.
If a Catholic youth is not convinced of his or her own position on sexual ethics and practice there is no chance of an integrated and whole person. Openness to others, openness to listening, thinking and praying is essential.
Recently a friend commented that there was an analogy between sex educedon and breeding rare species for the wild. The young need to be nurtured and prepared for the wild. If no nurturing Or fostering occurs, the species dies.
If it does happen and is incomplete, the nurtured species will be devoured. If it is carried out successfully, the species will be able to flourish and regenerate itself. So too, sexual education in a promiscuous and licentious world.
The old question "how far can I go?" must become "what sort of person do I want to be?"
Fr Sutch is a housemaster at Downside, the Catholic independent school for boys near Bath.