The Vatican Endorses Sex Education in Schools
The Vatican's recent policy statement on sex education probably will reduce opposition among American Catholics to programs that both parochial and public schools have developed since the early 1960's, according to educators familiar with the issue.
The 36-page document released this month by the Vatican said parents alone cannot give children the "positive" sex education they need to develop healthy attitudes toward sex. For the first time, the Vatican called on schools to join in the effort to teach the subject.
The statement is expected to affect public schools as well as parochial schools because Catholics often have opposed sex-education programs in public schools. Catholics opposing such programs have argued that families should have complete control over instruction in this area.
David M. Thomas, the director of the master's program in adult Christian community development at Regis College, said the Vatican's action probably resulted from an international conference of Catholic leaders in Rome in 1980. Church leaders at that meeting asked Pope John Paul II to offer guidance on sex education.
The Vatican repeated its position that homosexuality, masturbation, and sexual intercourse outside of marriage are all morally wrong. But Catholic educators said the Vatican's statements about those sub-jects as well as sex education showed a more "realistic" attitude by the Catholic leadership.
"It seems to be a positive document, a helpful document," said Francis Kelly, director of religious education for the National Catholic Education Association. "It's sensitive to the parents' primary role in this area but also realistic about the need for parents to be supplemented."
The Church document states: "The difficulties sex education often encounters within the bosom of the family solicit a major commitment on the part of the Christian community ... In the field, the Catholic school, the parish, and other ecclesiastical institutions are called on to collaborate with the family."
The document also asserts that a "task of civil society" is to enforce a "wise physical and moral environment ... in schools" and to respond to the requests of parents.
Schools should seek "mature teachers" for sex education because the topic is sensitive to families, the statement cautioned. Sex education, the document said, "should not be entrusted to just any member of the school community."
Officials of the U.S. Catholic Conference said the document served as a "green light" for Catholic schools to institute sex-education programs. The conference in 1981 published a book of guidelines for sex education in parochial schools, but many school officials have resisted establishing programs without the endorsement of the Church.
Church officials, said Thomas Lynch of the U.S. Catholic Confer-ence, "have been moving tentatively" to establish sex education. The more conservative elements of the Church have actively campaigned against such programs, he said.
An official with a leading publisher of family life and sex-education course materials said four times as many diocese schools now offer instruction in this area than did in 1977.
Catholic parents will welcome the Church's statement, Father Lynch said. "Most parents realize today that it's a difficult undertaking," he said. "A lot of parents haven't dealt with their own sexuality and can realize the difficulty of [the subject]."
Mr. Thomas, who served on the 20-member committee that developed the Catholic Conference's sex-education guidelines, intimated that the Church had little choice in endorsing sex education. "Silence on the part of the Church would have to almost be interpreted as agreement" with many questionable societal sexual values, he said.
The Catholic Conference guidelines, said Mr. Thomas and Father Lynch, stress the teaching of all aspects of human sexuality. Father Lynch said sex education should take place as soon as a child enrolls in elementary school and should explore sexual identity, exercise, diet, and social life. Educators too often focus solely on sexual intercourse and birth control, he added.
The Vatican's document, entitled "Educational Guidance in Human Love," was prepared by the Congregation for Catholic Education, which is headed by Cardinal William W. Baum.