August 19, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Sex education must be education for love

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

“It is not easy to approach the issue of sex education in an age when sexuality tends to be trivialized and impoverished. It can only be seen within the broader framework of an education for love, for mutual self-giving” (Pope Francis, “The Joy of Love,” #280).

It’s not easy to talk about sex, or to teach children what sexuality means, in a culture that is inundated with erotic images and innuendos.

In “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis reminds us that genuine sex education is not simply about bodily functions or reproductive processes. It is about God’s plan for men and women who are made in God’s image and likeness, and who are called to give themselves to one another as God has given himself to us.

Sex education must be education for love and for mutual self-giving. Only then does the mystery of human sexuality—its pleasures and its pain—make sense. Only within the broader framework of participation in God’s creative love does the language of sexuality take on the beauty and depth so often lost in contemporary sex education. Far from the trivialization and impoverishment of sexuality, what’s needed today more than anything else is illumination and enrichment.

From our Catholic perspective, the joy of sex is inseparable from the joy of love and, therefore, from the responsibilities and commitments that real love demands.

As the pope says, “The sexual urge can be directed through a process of growth in self-knowledge and self-control capable of nurturing valuable capacities for joy and loving encounter” “(#280).

The joyful and loving encounter Pope Francis speaks of here is infinitely more than the mutual self-gratification of casual or uncommitted sex. The key phrases here are “a process of growth” that leads to “self-knowledge and self-control.” Self-awareness and self-mastery do not happen overnight. That’s why it’s so important to help young people—and people of all ages—recognize and resist the bombardment of erotic images that surround us all day long. Pope Francis urges us to help young people “seek out positive influences, while shunning the things that cripple their capacity for love” (#281).

We don’t hear much about modesty or chastity these days, but the pope reminds us that these virtues are essential to a healthy and joy-filled sexuality. “Without a sense of modesty, affection and sexuality can be reduced to an obsession with genitality and unhealthy behaviors that distort our capacity for love, and with forms of sexual violence that lead to inhuman treatment or cause hurt to others” (#282). Modesty and chastity are virtues that help us moderate our sexual desires and direct them away from self-destructive, hurtful behaviors to loving encounters that are mutually enriching and life-giving.

“Frequently, sex education deals primarily with ‘protection’ through the practice of ‘safe sex.’ Such expressions convey a negative attitude toward that natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against” (#283). Christian realism recognizes that sex leads naturally to the conception of new life. Efforts to separate sexual intercourse from procreation are misguided.

This doesn’t mean that every sexual encounter is meant to result in the conception of a child, but it does mean that the fullness of human sexuality includes its radical openness to life. Without this ultimate, outward expression of self-giving, sex too often turns inward and, as Pope Francis says, promotes narcissism in place of deeply personal communication.

Sex education should not be about experimentation. “It is always irresponsible to invite adolescents to toy with their bodies and their desires, as if they possessed the maturity, values, mutual commitment and goals proper to marriage. They end up being blithely encouraged to use other persons as means of fulfilling their needs or limitations” (#283). Properly understood, sex education takes young people very seriously, and it helps them “to prepare seriously for a great and generous love.”

God made us, male and female, in his own image and likeness. True sex education encourages a profound understanding and appreciation for what it means to be a woman or a man. This means helping young people see that “masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories,” but different dimensions of our common humanity. Respect for both the differences between and the equality of women and men should be an important goal of sex education.

Real love requires commitment and deeply personal communication. It also demands self-control and self-giving. May God help us teach this truth to our children—through our words and our example. †

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