Just Do It

Catholic Sex Education

For a meeting about sex education, the turnout was curiously small. Then again, none of the parents of the kids in my parish’s religious education program had been told why we’d been summoned in the first place. The woman who runs the Sunday-morning programs seemed so nervous, and she was choosing her words with extra care. I was not taking notes, but the gist of her opening statement was that, well, she hoped we wouldn’t take it too hard, but, well—and this wouldn’t be happening right away or anything, not at all, quite the contrary in fact—but eventually, well, the thing was, our kids were eventually going to be learning what the Catholic Church teaches about sex!

She seemed to be waiting for a collective gasp, or howls of protest—only there was none. Now, to be fair, I’ve seen this kind and hard-working woman verbally pummeled for such outrages as trying to keep the families of first communicants from inviting their seven hundred closest friends to Mass, so it’s not hard to see why she might approach everything with caution. High-end parents can be scary these days, as I’m reminded every time I attend a parent meeting at school. (“Will I be notified the very instant my little twelve-year-old Descartes secures his rightful spot in the top reading group? What do you mean, you’ll try?”) Still, it was an absurdly funny but also rather telling moment as the religious-education director struggled to calm our nonexistent fears—and we grew ever more insistent that teaching them Catholic sex ed was actually more than fine with us!

She seemed to persist in thinking this was a trick: No worries at all, she said, because our kids probably wouldn’t even be affected by the new curriculum. They were starting with the little ones—“God is love, and so on”—and would simply be teaching those children a little more every year, so that students who were in the upper grades now wouldn’t ever have to hear a word about it. She also intimated that no religious-ed teacher in his or her right mind would be eager to convey this information—they apparently steer clear of discussions about abortion when students raise the subject in class, for instance—because they’re all volunteers and they aren’t necessarily trained for such hard duty, and what if someone disagreed?

Now, I attend a very Commonweal parish—and it’s also perfectly orthodox, no matter what anybody says—but the sight of my fellow liberals squirming in their chairs, as I was, and fairly shouting “For God’s sake, teach it, and can we start yesterday?” was unexpected, and a little “Who’s on First?” The religious-ed director continued reassuring us that though a lot of us may have felt we were perhaps too well-informed about church teaching on sex—yes, in a way that was even guilt-inducing, though that was never the intent, or the church’s fault—it was possible to do this in a balanced way, a way that communicated that “nobody’s hand ever actually did fall off.”

Finally, the woman sitting in front of me raised her hand and said, to much head-nodding, that even people who don’t believe every word of what the church teaches about sex darn well do want their kids to believe it! Somebody else asked how our children could even reject church teaching if they don’t know what it is. And I did my best Bill Bennett imitation (he of The Book of Virtues and that slight but very Catholic gambling addiction), pointing out that for “balance” we have the rest of the culture and the rest of the world. We’re not trying to keep church teaching some kind of a secret, are we? At which point, the poor woman seemed to begin to take us for the conservatives we sounded like; she reassured us that they would not be teaching the mechanics of sex, heaven forfend, as if anybody gave a hoot about that. In the end, though, we did get through, and everybody in the room seemed to agree: Full speed ahead!

Only, after I stopped laughing, it occurred to me that I was really all pepped up because I want somebody to clue my kids in, but how much of what the church teaches about sex have I taught my kids? Let’s see, all told? Nothing: Blah, blah, respect, blah blah, love. (My son just walked in, and when I asked him how much I’d conveyed, he replied, “Only have sex when you’re married.’’ And that’s it? Uh-huh. Brava, right?) I have to wonder if we weren’t at that religious-ed director’s throat because we’ve all swung so far from the days of “your hand will fall off”—and for the record, nobody ever told me that—that we no longer even know where to begin. For that, maybe we should feel guilty. As one woman cried out in the meeting, now that we’re the parents guilt is good.

Published in the 2008-06-06 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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