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Sex ed has failed Catholics. Here’s how it can be better.

Catholic schools should not only teach the birds and bees, but also the sanctity of all living bodies.
In the Pews

“The analogy I was taught in my Catholic parish and at Christian camp was that sexuality was like a rose. Every time you have sex with someone, you pull a petal off the rose. And then what are you left with?”

Stacy Henning, like many who came of age at the height of “purity culture” in the 1990s and early 2000s, was given images like this to promote abstinence by well-meaning youth ministers or teachers. Other images promoting sexual activity only within sacramental marriage included a piece of sticky tape (the bonding that is intended between spouses isn’t effective if you’ve already stuck that tape somewhere else) and a piece of chewing gum (who wants to chew gum that someone else has already chewed?).

“Our entire value as women is in our virginity,” she says. “Purity is the most important thing and once you’ve defiled it, where is your worth? You think, ‘Who am I now that I don’t have this thing I was always supposed to protect?’ ”

Rachel Alba, a clinical sexologist who also holds a master’s degree in theology and ministry, sees similar dynamics in the clients with whom she works. Alba speaks of the “baggage of purity culture” among her clients and says that many struggle with shame, having “been taught to repress sexual desire, thinking it’s bad.”

Yet Alba says that she herself was powerfully, positively influenced in her Catholic upbringing by the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of chastity, which has become an important guiding principle in her ministry: “Chastity is the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.”

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If comparing a person who has sex outside of marriage to a rose with all its petals picked off, a piece of tape that is no longer sticky, or a piece of chewed-up gum leads to guilt, shame, and anxiety, then what Catholic educational approach supports young adults in moving toward “successful integration of sexuality within the person”?

At its best, sexuality education is lifting up the value of who we are and what we are worthy of.
—Christy Tobin

It’s a tall order, but a developmentally appropriate, values-based (rather than behavior-based), wholistic approach to teaching chastity offered by trusted adults who have a healthy understanding of sexuality and level of comfort with the topic can help provide a framework for making healthy and holy decisions about bodies and relationships. Despite the very real pitfalls to avoid and complexities to navigate in teaching sexuality, Catholic institutions and families have rich resources to draw on in guiding young people’s development of an integrated and healthy approach to the physical, social, emotional, and ethical aspects of human sexuality.

Church teachings on sexuality

Henning, who now serves as a theology teacher and the dean of academics at Villa Duchesne in St. Louis, speaks with passion and excitement about teaching sexuality in a Catholic context. She finds Catholic teaching, particularly the concept of human dignity, to be of key importance in framing questions of sexuality for her students.

Henning talks about the “transformational moment” when students really connect personally to that principle of Catholic social teaching. “What I recommend to teachers is that they always start and end the discussion with the idea that every single person is loved by God and created by God,” she says. “I have a [PowerPoint] slide I use in teaching that reads, ‘You are worthy of love and respect. You have infinite worth and value.’ What a response I get! It’s brought tears to their eyes.”

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Henning grounds her teaching of sex within the commitment of marriage to the idea of God’s unconditional love—agape. This focus on agape reflects the intention that each baptized person “reflect upon and cherish his or her dignity and that of other persons as made in the image and likeness of God,” as stated in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2008 document “Catechetical Formation in Chaste Living.”

Christy Toben, who has taught at Catholic K-12 schools since 2008, says her approach as an educator also grounds conversations about sexuality through a positive Catholic frame. For her, focusing on the goodness of God’s gift of sexuality and of our bodies is key. “If we start with harm and risk mitigation, then we aren’t acknowledging that sex is good and God-pleasing. We aren’t helping students recognize the beauty and the sanctity of it. At its best, sexuality education is lifting up the value of who we are and what we are worthy of,” she says.

“Catechetical Formation in Chaste Living” also states that “moral formation involves a journey of interior transformation that deepens one’s personal conversion to Christ,” thus recognizing that formation is an ongoing process through various stages of human development, “according to each child’s age and maturity.” All of the educators to whom I spoke echoed the necessity of ongoing education around sexuality—broadly defined—throughout various ages and stages of development.

Theresa O’Keefe, associate professor of the practice of youth and young adult faith at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, speaks of the riches within the Catholic tradition, based on 2,000 years of prayer and reflection, around weighty questions: “What are the practices that bring about a virtuous life?” she says. “What are the practices that encourage respectful relating? What is the highest good of the human person?”

A missing piece

For her doctoral dissertation, Emily Kahm interviewed young adult women who were raised Catholic about their experiences with sexuality education and how it has impacted their decision-making as young adults.

Wherever the young women Kahm interviewed identified themselves on a liberal/progressive to conservative/traditional spectrum, every one of them reported that they felt like there was something missing.

“None of them felt like the sexuality education they received was adequate. That was tough to hear. It was distressing for me to realize a lot of them were making very big decisions about who they wanted to be as a sexual person feeling like they didn’t have guidance,” Kahm says.

Kate Ott, author of Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence (Westminster John Knox Press) and the creator of the “Thoughtful Christian” curriculum, says that too often religious education takes a “one-off” approach to sexuality. Instead, she encourages educators to weave those themes throughout their teaching rather than addressing sexuality in “just one weekend retreat or lesson.”

It was distressing for me to realize a lot of them were making very big decisions about who they wanted to be as a sexual person feeling like they didn’t have guidance.
—Emily Kahm

O’Keefe teaches many graduate students who are working in Catholic parishes or schools with tweens and teens. According to O’Keefe, what Ott describes as the “one-off” approach to sexuality education is rooted in educators, administrators, or ministers’ discomfort with the topic.

“People say, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this.’ So they bring in an outside speaker to talk about theology of the body, and then that speaker walks off,” O’Keefe says, echoing what she’s heard from her graduate students serving in ministry.

Toben and Henning echo O’Keefe’s observation of how common it is to bring in outside speakers on sexuality. According to Toben, this choice is sometimes motivated by administrators availing themselves of speakers from federally funded programs. Henning is cautious about this approach, saying that “it can be damaging if they bring in shame messages” and stressing that students are less likely to engage honestly with an outside speaker they don’t know or trust.

Kahm agrees with O’Keefe that often outside speakers are brought in because of educators’ discomfort with the topic. Educators “are aware this is a tender age, and these kids are vulnerable. They are aware that there are risks that come with sexual behavior . . . so they focus on their risks, fears, anxieties,” Kahm says. Choosing to bring in an outside speaker to do a “one-off” lesson or presentation can reinforce “that this is something that we don’t like talking about and are uncomfortable talking about.”

The role of parents

Of course, educators and youth ministers are ideally not the first or the most important adults guiding and mentoring tweens and teens in navigating questions about sexuality, bodies, and relationships.

“It’s extremely important to not replace parents as primary sex educators,” says Ott. “When kids are asked who they want their information from, it is parents first.”

Nicole Lavoie is a homeschooling Catholic mother of five who lives in San Antonio. She says she has a hard time imagining how these complex questions of sexuality can be engaged effectively in a group setting when tweens and teens have different experiences, maturity levels, and backgrounds.

“We don’t have a curriculum, we have conversations,” Lavoie says of her approach to sexuality education with her children. “It’s just built into daily life.”

Samantha Parker, a mother of six with an undergraduate degree in education who lives in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, agrees with Lavoie. She speaks of the “organic” nature of conversations about sexuality that emerge naturally in the flow of family life and homeschooling instead of being based in a formal curricular approach. For example, Parker celebrates a one-on-one special “woman’s day” outing with each of her daughters when they begin menstruating. Marking the milestone with a celebration reinforces the message that the changes of puberty are not shameful or scary but positive.

When kids are asked who they want their information from, it is parents first.
—Kate Ott

Parker’s 16-year-old daughter, Bev, has special needs, so while Bev attends school Parker has made the choice to opt out of the school’s sexuality education program in favor of engaging in those conversations at home.

“Bev is super vulnerable at school, so I have to be aware as a mom,” Parker says. “Special needs kids need a particular approach.”

For children who aren’t homeschooled but are in parish or school programs, Henning and Toben agree that partnering with parents is the ideal.

“It’s great we do this at school, but what you are hearing at home can make all the difference,” Henning says.

“I always try to engage parents and give the students the assignment to interview your mom or to do a mother/daughter retreat. Parents are the most powerful teachers,” Toben says. One practical tool she has used as an educator to help bridge learning in the classroom with learning at home is a texting app to send parents a weekly message with a prompt for parents to begin a conversation with their daughters.

A wholistic approach to education

Henning has created a curriculum entitled “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Relationships” for seventh- through 12th-grade girls. Henning considers the “shame free” curriculum the greatest accomplishment of her ministry.

For Henning, effective Catholic sexuality education must broadly address “how we love and how we connect to one another” and not be limited to biological information about genital acts, she says.

Drawing on The Sexual Person by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler (Georgetown University Press) and the catechism’s definition of chastity, Henning defines sexuality as “your integrated relatedness to self, others, and God” and sees it as a “sacred, God-given gift.” Her “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Relationships” curriculum covers a wide range of topics, including developing good friendships, learning about body image and eating disorders, managing stress and anxiety, practicing healthy communication and setting boundaries in relationships, and developing a cultural critical lens to sift through media messages. “It’s about our entire personhood and relationships,” Henning says.

Similar to Henning, Ott says that faith-based sexuality education must embrace “our entire personhood and relationships.” Ott defines sexuality as an “embodied human capacity to know and to communicate or express our self-understanding,” offering five elements within her expansive dimension of sexuality: intimacy, health, gender identity and sexual orientation, sensuality, and behaviors. For Ott, it is key for educators to both “provide accurate information and hold an invitational stance that is open to questions” as well as to more broadly make space to talk about values and relationships that “come up in everyday life for teens.”

Alba says that educators and ministers should be supported in deepening their own understanding and comfort level with sexuality and assesses their own biases and experiences. Similarly, Kahm encourages educators to reflect on what is stirred in them by engaging these topics in the classroom with tweens and teens, similar to the way practicing spiritual directors have a supervisor to reflect upon what is stirred within them in their ministry of spiritual accompaniment.

“Is there fear . . . or I am thinking in terms of sexuality as a life-giving and joyful gift? That undercurrent of fear and shame may run through so much more than we expect it to. We aren’t going to be able to focus on sex and sexuality as joyful and life-giving unless we [as adult educators] pay attention to how many of us have broken relationships with sex,” Kahm says.

Toben agrees. If the point of departure for educators teaching sexuality is “harm and risk mitigation, then it isn’t about the beauty and sanctity and that this is good and God-pleasing,” she says.

O’Keefe stresses that teens and tweens’ questions and concerns, rather than adults’ anxieties, should be at the center of sexuality education for this age group. “What is the typical 13-year-old worrying about, and how can we address it?” she says. O’Keefe advises it is most developmentally appropriate to focus on the decisions teens and tweens face.

“It’s not ‘let’s talk about what you’re going to be at 35,’ but who you will be on Saturday, and then maybe next year. Who will you be when you pick up your phone and start texting people?’ ” she says.

From behaviors to values

“It’s not enough to teach the biblical rules of behavior as so many ‘dos and don’ts,’ ” writes Nancy R. Pearcey in Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Baker Books).

Alba agrees: “Teaching people how to integrate their body and soul is the key building block. Focusing on that as your sexual ethic allows growth more adequately than telling them ‘don’t do this, don’t do that,’ ” she says.

Echoing Pearcey and Alba, O’Keefe speaks of the need for a values-based rather than behavior-based approach with teen and tweens. She points out that in no other area of ethics are Catholics and other Christians as focused on specific behaviors rather than values.

“A lot of Christians get caught up in acts-centered morality versus values-centered morality [when thinking about sexuality],” she says. “When we’re talking about social justice and how people with material resources are supposed to support those with less, there’s no list of rules. Rather we say, here are the values, here’s what undergirds Catholic beliefs about economic justice, and then prayerfully discern. But when we get to sexual morality, it’s a list of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ ”

We aren’t going to be able to focus on sex and sexuality as joyful and life-giving unless we [as adult educators] pay attention to how many of us have broken relationships with sex.
—Emily Kahm

The problem of assuming that a concrete action is good as long as certain ethical boxes are checked (two spouses in a sacramental marriage who are open to the possibility of conception) is that we can “concretize the values into forms of relating, presuming those forms of relating are always going to be virtuous, but it isn’t so,” O’Keefe says.

Offering an example, she says, “In reality, a married relationship between husband and wife can check off all the boxes, but the sexual relationship can be damaging, brutal, nonconsensual. To say, ‘They’re married, it’s good!’ Well, no.”

This conviction that promoting chastity must be built around teaching values rather than prescribing behavior is a guiding principle in both Henning’s “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Relationships” curriculum and Ott’s “Thoughtful Christian” curriculum.

“I want to move away from thinking only about behaviors to really thinking about having a healthy relationship,” Ott says. Her curriculum includes an activity where young people look at St. Paul’s description of love in First Corinthians 13:4–7—patient, kind, truthful, etc.—and then think of examples where each of those descriptors for love are lived out in relationships.

Henning’s curriculum includes a unit for seventh-grade girls to explore values and decision-making. “We talk about, ‘Is this choice in line with who I want to be? What are the values of my faith, my family, my friend group?’ ” she says.

Focusing on values first and then walking through how those values are expressed in different settings and relationships, rather than focusing on behaviors that aren’t allowed, helps tweens and teens affirm the beauty of sexuality and grow in maturity.

Sexuality and discernment

O’Keefe believes an area for needed development in sexuality education is the creation of a curriculum that supports “using our bodies as a way of knowing” and takes seriously our embodiment in the formation of conscience.

Drawing on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s discernment practice of finding God in the midst of daily life through tracing consolation and desolation, she says that “adolescence is a great time to start paying attention. The culture is full of practices that will have them silencing the voices interior to themselves.”

“If God made these bodies, God also implanted a wisdom in them. How can we teach students to ask, ‘What’s my bodily sense about this moment? How do we learn to pay attention and respond?’ ” O’Keefe says.

A wholistic sexuality education approach that strengthens young people’s ability to listen for the voice of God and the many other voices that surround them offers a tool not just for making decisions about sexual behavior and relationships, but the many other vocational and educational choices they will face as they continue to grow and mature.

In reflecting on the challenges that parents, educators, ministers, and administrators face and the support they need in guiding and teaching teens and tweens in today’s world, Ott says, “What you really need is the unwavering faith that helping young people connect their sexuality and faith will set them on a foundation that will last them a lifetime. Isn’t that what we are called to do?” 


This article also appears in the April 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 4, pages 31-35). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Neonbrand

About the author

Rhonda Miska

Rhonda Miska is a preacher, writer, spiritual director, and lay ecclesial minister currently based in Minneapolis. Read more of her work at rhondamiskaop.com.

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