Published Online:

Catholic Schools Try To Balance Sex Ed With Church Doctrine

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Two years ago, when the Rev. Matthew Kawiak, a parish priest, published Parents Talk Love, it seemed as if he had solved an age-old dilemma for Roman Catholics: how to integrate responsible sex education with church teachings.

The book, a parents' guide written by Father Kawiak with a Catholic high-school teacher, was published by a major Catholic publishing house, gained a favorable review from a national Catholic news service, and bore the imprimatur of the Bishop of Rochester, N.Y.

But last December, the book's fortunes began to turn. And that turning, for some, provides a subtle indication of the new dilemmas Catholic educators face as they try to formulate an AIDS-education program for their schools.

After receiving a critical letter from the Vatican, Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester removed his imprimatur from Parents Talk Love. The imprimatur--Latin for "let it be printed''--designates that the contents of the book do not conflict with church doctrine.

But Father Kawiak, an associate pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church in Greece, N.Y., maintains that the book "never disagreed with the Church.''

It simply states facts, he said in an interview last week: "This is what birth control is. These are different methods of birth control, and this is what the statement of the church is as to why birth control should not be used.''

More conservative interpretations of Catholic thinking, he concluded, "do not reflect the feelings and attitudes of the 52 million Catholics in the United States.''

The conflict between such "feelings and attitudes'' and the Church's official position on matters of sexuality may be drawn more sharply in the coming months, he and other Catholic educators predict, as church school officials weigh the mandates of faith in light of a deadly sexually transmitted disease.

Already, Father Kawiak said, Catholic school districts "seem to be struggling'' with the question of what to include in an AIDS curriculum.

"We know very well what we need to share is abstinence,'' he said. "At the same time, there are people in our society who do not believe what the church teaches. What do we talk about for them? How do they prevent the disease?''

In particular, the question of condom use--one means of prevention cited by federal health officials--has produced discordant notes in some dioceses.

In Los Angeles, for example, Archbishop Roger Mahony canceled a series of AIDS forums scheduled to inform the Hispanic community, after the Los Angeles Herald Examiner featured a story on the forums headlined, "To Fight AIDS, Church Sanctions Condoms.''

"We knew that wasn't the case, and the Archbishop knew that wasn't the case,'' said Andrew Weisser, a spokesman for the Los Angeles AIDS project, which was to have conducted the forums in church facilities.

The presentation, he said, included "one segment where discussions of condoms sometimes come up as a viable means of preventing the disease.''

'Safe Sex?'

According to some of the most influential leaders of the Catholic Church in this country, the church's message on condom use has been loud and clear.

Teaching children that using condoms reduces the risk of contracting AIDS implicitly condones artificial means of birth control, and thus violates church doctrine, according to officials from the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Catholic Educational Association. The only "safe sex,'' they said, is abstinence.

"We have to stand clear on our basic philosophy,'' said the Rev. Thomas Gallagher, education secretary for the conference.

At the same time, he added, Catholic schoolchildren do not live in a vacuum. "When you get in the subway and see an advertisement for condoms, that little boy next to you also sees it, and his powers of discrimination are not that developed yet; so I think you have the responsibility to explain it to him,'' he said.

In response to such questions from children, Father Gallagher said, educators should point out that condoms are not totally effective, failing at least 10 percent of the time to prevent pregnancies.

Sister Anne Leonard, director of education for the more than 600 parochial schools in Chicago, said that Catholic AIDS education in that city "would certainly be in conformity with Church doctrine.''

But although the archdiocese is currently preparing an AIDS program for its schools, such questions as when it will be completed, how much it will include, and whether the archdiocese will draw up guidelines or simply provide informational materials remain unanswered.

According to Patricia Feistritzer, a spokesman for the N.C.E.A., Catholic schools in other cities are also expected to base their AIDS programs on church teachings.

But, as in Chicago, she said, the content and timing of such programs are largely undetermined.

"They have been dealing with basic policies, but in terms of putting together educational programs, that's probably just getting started,'' Ms. Feistritzer said.

Officials from several large Catholic-school districts, such as Boston's, said that, even though they are drawing up guidelines for AIDS education, they have not yet dealt with those "more difficult questions.''

Toughened Moral Stance

The theological climate in which such "difficult questions'' will be addressed is one of increasingly strict adherence to the church's traditional prohibitions in areas of sexuality.

A Vatican document issued in October, for example, seemed to toughen the church's stance against homosexuality, calling it an "objective disorder.'' In previous years, the Vatican had described it as "morally neutral.''

This and subsequent church actions--most recently, this month's Vatican pronouncement condemning in vitro fertilization, genetic counseling, surrogate motherhood, and other "high-tech'' developments in human conception and childbirth--form a context for AIDS education that members of the Catholic laity and clergy describe as a toughening moral stance among the church hierarchy.

Dissenting voices have been most vocal in their criticism of the church's refusal to deal with the condom issue--and what some say they fear is a less compassionate view of homosexuality.

"The church needs to bend a little on this because people's lives are at stake,'' said Paul Albergo, president of the Washington chapter of Dignity, a support group for homosexual Catholics. "It would be irresponsible for them to stick with this archaic birth-control thing.''

There is also concern, he said, over how homosexuals, a high-risk group for the disease, may be portrayed in church-sanctioned AIDS courses.

"I think there is a tendency in the church to view this as some sort of divine retribution,'' said Mr. Albergo. "But I have faith that educators will consider the complexities.''

In fact, although there have been isolated incidents of homosexuals being refused the sacraments, many Catholic leaders, most notably Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, have called publicly for compassion for AIDS victims.

Confusion in Schools

But the structure of the parochial-school system, some Catholic educators say, may add to the confusion some school officials feel in dealing with the AIDS crisis.

More autonomous than their public-school counterparts, parochial schools, at either the parish or diocesan level, must make their own decisions about when and how to teach children about AIDs. They receive no guidelines or curricula from higher authorities.

As a result, while officials in Catholic schools in Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other major cities say they are now discussing AIDS education, few have actually begun to teach about the disease in the classroom.

In contrast, a majority of the public schools in these major cities have already begun AIDS instruction, according to a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. (See Education Week, Feb. 4, 1987.)

Last month, the N.C.E.A. issued a statement on AIDS, saying that "it seems important that students be taught that this is a very serious, usually fatal disease.''

In addition, it said, "the Catholic school should also make a special effort to witness Gospel values in order to counter the prejudice arising with the AIDS epidemic and encourage both students and parents to exercise Christian compassion towards victims of the disease and their families.''

'On a Tightrope'

But Father Kawiak's co-author for Parents Talk Love, Susan Sullivan, is facing the difficulties that mandate implies, as she prepares to teach her sophomore biology classes about the disease.

"Whether I can mention condoms as a way that some people use to prevent the disease is still up in the air,'' she said. She has scheduled a meeting with her assistant principal at Cardinal Mooney High School and the head of the school's theology department to take up the question.

Though she personally favors providing all the facts on the disease, including condom use, Ms. Sullivan also acknowledged that she had "to be very careful around here.''

"I'm kind of on a tightrope,'' she said, "and I'm being more or less censored by the Catholic church.''

"Ultimately,'' she added, "All of this could mean my job.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented