This is a good question and an important one. Should catechists in parishes, particularly those who are working with middle school and high school aged youth be talking about sex?
Yes, but not in the way you may be thinking. Since there are so many misconceptions and not-so-helpful approaches when it comes to teaching about sex, let me start with a list of what not to do …
1. Do not make your central message about sin, diseases, and teen pregnancy. Don’t make your main message abstinence either. (Of course, abstinence is important—and of course our goal is to lead souls away from sin—but we also need to dig deeper.)
Going back to my increasingly distant teen experience, I remember seeing lots of slideshows of STIs and hearing horror stories about lives ruined by teen pregnancy. I also remember that in spite of the abstinence card in my pocket, I was looking for ways to get as close to the line as I could without getting a disease, getting somebody pregnant, or going to hell. Teens should be avoiding all of these things, and there is such a thing as a healthy fear; however, this hardly seems like the fullness of truth that will lead to thriving relationships in families in the future.
I want to be careful here. Teen abstinence is absolutely important. The problem is that is isn’t the central goal, it is an effect that will be met if we keep our eye on the central goal. The central goal is John 10:10 style abundant life. When we talk about sex, we need to do so in a context that promotes human thriving—a psychological, physical, and spiritual balance that adolescents can grow into.
A technically abstinent teen who is convinced to be so by fear of disease, teen pregnancy, or hell may be a porn addict or a fearful and repressive rule follower who will absolutely crumble given the opportunity. An abstinent teen is part of the way there, but they are not necessarily learning to love in a way that will form them for future healthy relationships. This is why we favor an education in virtue rather than an education in avoidance. The virtue needed here is chastity.
What is chastity? It is an interior virtue of integrated sexuality that is formed over time, a virtue cultivated through a proper understanding of the purpose and nature of sexuality, a virtue of speaking the truth about relationships with the body. It is also a virtue whereby which I treat people as people and never as objects. Chastity will lead to abstinence, but abstinence will not necessarily lead to chastity.
(By now you may detect that this post is really about the Theology of the Body. It kind of is … )
2. Do not teach a string of 1990’s style abstinence clichés and call it Theology of the Body.
I sometimes run into teens who cringe when they hear the term “Theology of the Body”. When I probe a bit into why, it is often because the message that they have heard branded as “Theology of the Body” was more of a string of abstinence clichés (like “Save your special flower”). Or, to be fair, perhaps they were so conditioned to expect a string of non-compelling clichés that they tuned out the actual message and mentally reduced it to a string of preconceived platitudes anyway.
The term “Theology of the Body” refers to the vision of human life, love, sexuality, and vocation delivered by St. John Paul II over 129 Wednesday audiences early during his pontificate. This potent and relevant teaching has been largely popularized in the past decade. This is a good thing and it was the intention of St. John Paul II that this teaching would be a powerful tool for human formation for the whole Church.
It is important to distinguish this deeply rooted wisdom from the shallow and legalistic view of sexuality that the culture tends to associate with the Church. The straw-man version of Catholic sexual ethics, sometimes wrongly conflated with the term “Theology of the Body” begins with a line that cannot be crossed and ends with teens asking questions that begin with, “Am I going to go to hell if I … ” or, “So is it OK if I … ”
These questions portray a largely pharisaical or legalistic way of thinking. Rewiring the conversation requires backing up several steps into the actual method and teaching of the Theology of the Body. How do we know if we are presenting that vision faithfully?
Here is a checklist.
- Is your teaching causing teens to ask deeper questions about identity and desire?
- Is your teaching appealing to real and relevant experiences?
- Is it rooted in salvation history, our human story, as a way to understand sexuality, identity, and vocation?
- Is it loaded with an understanding of the complementarity of men and women?
- Does it connect sexuality with gift, love, and sacrifice?
- Does it get teens thinking about vocation?
If you answer yes to all of the above … then your teaching is rooted in the Theology of the Body. You are off to a good start.
3. Do not leave parents out of the loop. What you can do in an hour or two a week can’t take the place of ongoing parental formation.
OK, so you are enlightened. The Theology of the Body clicked for you and you rightly understand that the Church’s teachings on human sexuality are powerful, relevant, genius, and that your students need to hear about the liberating truth. So you just go for it. (Maybe you have a great program with which you can teach this.) Maybe you are successful in speaking effective truth and turning some minds and hearts toward a vision of life and love that will lead to liberty.
But that’s sixty to ninety minutes a week and your students will go home to their parents who are their first teachers in everything, especially in this. The Theology of the Body itself is about a bigger picture and a longer view. If we want to actually affect the big picture of adolescent formation, we must start thinking about ways to reach out to parents. We need to share with them a message of hope that they can experience for themselves and then share with their children.
We can’t expect parents to be well formed and equipped in a vision of human sexuality. To be effective we must do more than give teens a random talk, and even more than lead teens through a comprehensive program (even a great one like this).
We must sit down with parents and bring the good news to them and empower them to enter into an ongoing dialogue at home. (Believe me, I’m not saying that this is easy or simple. I happen to think we developed some really good tools to help with this, but this one will take training, prayers, and practice on the part of your parish ministry team.)
Further Discussion & Resources
So … should we be talking to teens about sex in parish religious education? Yes! We should do so in a well formulated cohesive way that connects with the larger vision of catechesis and we should do so in partnership with parents who are the primary educators and mentors of their children.
Have you struggled or had success teaching the Theology of the Body to pre-teens and teens? What are your thoughts on teaching about sex in the religious education classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
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Colin MacIver teaches theology and has served as the religion department chair and campus ministry coordinator at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington, Louisiana. He is the author of the guide to Quick Catholic Lessons with Fr. Mike. He and his wife, Aimee, are co-authors and presenters of Theology of the Body for Teens Middle School Edition. They are also co-authors of the Power and Grace Guidebook, and the Chosen Parent’s and Sponsor’s Guides.