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Sexuality education – where to now for Catholic schools?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to make their curricula available online. Mark Potterton, who worked with the Southern African Bishops’ Conference to draft sexuality education guidelines, discusses why it is very difficult to teach children about human sexuality on an online forum.

In 2019, a national debate erupted in response to the government’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education programme which was to be adopted in 2020. The programme seeks to address growing numbers of teen pregnancy, abuse and sexually transmitted diseases and provides scripted lessons to help teachers speak openly about human sexuality.

The ongoing lockdown and the disrupted educational curriculum for 2020 has thrown many programmes into disarray. For its part, Sacred Heart College has been debating whether to offer its sexuality education programme online. Our course relies on a lot of discussion and interaction. As a teacher, you watch and listen to student response and read their body language. This allows you to adjust your pitch and pace, and to know how best to approach a topic. In this context, we doubt whether we will go online with our course.

Sexuality education in the South African context

In the South African reality, sexuality education is vital. The Department of Basic Education released statistics in 2019, showing that in the 2018-2019 financial year, more than 124,000 school girls between the ages of 10 and 19 gave birth.  These figures do not include miscarriages and abortions. Added to this, South Africa’s statistics on rape and sexual (and other forms of abuse) remain high with 52,420 sexual offenses reported to the police in 2018-2019. One can only imagine how many more cases are never reported.

It is imperative that sexuality education programs cultivate a different attitude to sexuality that allows young people to respect themselves and their partners. Sexuality education is a process through which children and young people acquire understanding and skills, and develop beliefs, attitudes and values about sexuality and relationships. This process happens best within a moral and ethical framework.

In the school setting, sexuality education adds relevant and accurate information about the physical and emotional changes that children experience throughout life.

Sexuality education should start in the informal setting of the home with parents and carers using appropriate moments to educate their children. In the school setting, sexuality education adds relevant and accurate information about the physical and emotional changes that children experience throughout life. Sexuality education should encourage interpersonal skills that enable young people to have good relationships later in life. It also highlights the value of family life and the responsibilities of parenthood.

Good sexuality education programmes promote self-esteem and allow young people to reflect on attitudes toward gender, sexuality and sexual orientation. These programmes point young people to agencies and services which provide support and advice when required.

Church-based sexuality programmes should complement other educational programmes

The Second Vatican Council introduced a new understanding of sexual ethics. A new vocabulary for speaking about marriage was adopted by referring to marriage in terms of a covenant or relationship rather than contract. The expression and deepening of love through sexual intercourse is caught up in divine love. The lifelong character of marriage is based on the couple’s relationship rather than on the need to conceive children, where children are the supreme gift of marriage rather than the primary purpose of marriage.

The Catholic Church’s approach to human sexuality is, therefore, framed within the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, which bring together tradition, natural law and the Scriptures. Sexuality education in Catholic schools must therefore be guided by the Magisterium of the Church. Vatican Council II in the ‘Declaration on Christian Education (1965)’ sets the context in which sex education must be set, affirming the right of young people to receive an education adequate to their personal requirements. The Council states:

“With the help of advances in psychology and in the art and science of teaching, children and young people should be assisted in the harmonious development of their physical, moral and intellectual endowments …  As they advance in years, they should be given positive and prudent sex education.”

In a later document on “Educational Guidance on Human Love  — Outlines for sex education” (1983), the Church counsels that sex education should provided “an adequate knowledge of the nature and importance of sexuality and of the harmonious and integral development of the person towards psychological maturity, with full spiritual maturity in view, to which all believers are called.”  It urges Christian educators to uphold the principle of the faith and educational methods to assess current sex education programmes.

It cautions, however, that “true ‘formation” is not limited to the informing of the intellect, but must pay particular attention to the will, to feelings and emotions.” Sex education must “consider the totality of the person and insist therefore on the integration of the biological, psycho-affective, social and spiritual elements,” but also needs to acknowledge the “consequences of sin.”

Such education must thus promote a “maturation in affective-sexual life” in which self-control is necessary, which presupposes such virtues as modesty, temperance, respect for self and for others, openness to one’s neighbor.  All this is not possible if not in the power of the salvation which comes from Jesus Christ.”

Young people care about more than just sexuality

Young people often feel frustrated about the sexuality education they receive. In many places, communities and schools do not speak to young people about human sexuality at all. In environments with a greater openness to conversations about sexuality, children express that they are always being talked at about sex.

Young people often feel frustrated about the sexuality education they receive.

It is important to remember that sexuality is not the only issue facing young people. Any conversation about sexuality needs to recognise the realities that people face in their daily lives. It is also important to not focus only on the negative consequences of risky sexual behaviour but also to highlight positive messages about sexual health, pleasure, and the joys of pregnancy and childbirth.

It is also clear that abstinence-only programmes do not take the reality of teenage sexual activity into account; and knowledge and the means to protect the youth from HIV needs to form part of education programmes.

One-time exposure to information is less successful than interventions that teach skills and reinforce positive behaviour repeatedly. Education programmes should be tailored to fit the ethnicity, culture and sexual norms of a given population.

Several years ago, I led the team, which included top theologians, that resulted in the 2010 publication of the Bishops pastoral guidelines on sexuality education called “Life to the Full”. The guidelines note that children begin to learn about their sexuality from an early age and their ideas about what it means to be sexual are formed in formal and informal contexts long before they come to our Catholic schools.

The Bishops argued, therefore, that “it is not realistic, therefore, to set out Catholic Sexuality Education Programmes that are exclusive and separate from all other forms of exposure that children would have had to sexuality. Our role is not to compete with a sexually-charged media and culture, nor to replace the sexuality education programmes on offer, but rather to offer a critical perspective on them”.

Our role is not to compete with a sexually-charged media and culture, nor to replace the sexuality education programmes on offer, but rather to offer a critical perspective on them.

Life to the Full

Teachers are therefore called to provide spiritual values and perspectives to the debates around sexuality. They can do this by drawing attention to the primacy of conscience and promoting the fullness of life. Teachers should overcome their silence around sexuality and engage students in explicit moral discussions that empower them to make the best possible life choices.

Parents are called to play a greater part in sexuality education

In a highly sexualised world, Catholic schools can play a key role in getting children and young people to think about human sexuality. Teachers need to go beyond the scripted lesson plans and talk to children and young people not only about the risks around sexual engagement, but also about the ultimate purpose and joy of sex. Teachers cannot ignore that sexuality is part of life, and that the desire for intimacy is part of the human condition.

In a situation where schools are unable to engage children in sexuality education programmes the onus falls back to parents as the first educators. Parents must equip themselves to play a more prominent role in talking to their children about sex.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.