On Monday October 17th 2016, my daughter arrived home from her day at an elementary school, which is part of the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO), Canada. She handed me a letter based on the Fully Alive program of sexual education, espoused by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario (ACBO; http://acbo.on.ca/fully-alive/). Figure 1 provides an illustration of the original family letter (ACBO, 2011, pp. 1–2), freely available (as at 2016, October 18) from the ACBO web site, or if it has been removed since then, I keep an archived copy here. I refer to the text as it appears on this copy of the letter, which was identical to the one I received from my daughter’s school. For brevity, I’ll use the terms family letter, or simply the letter throughout, to refer to the same document. It’s worth noting at this point, that there is not any clear publication date for the online resources, of which this letter is only a part. As a result, I have attributed 2011 as the year of publication, since this is the year that the document properties themselves list as the date the document was first created.
What follows is my response, as an atheist, a doctoral student in the final stages of a PhD in education (specializing in curriculum and science education), coincidentally focusing on biological sciences in Ontario schools, and as a parent. The ACBO letter opens as follows:
We are ready to begin Theme Three of Fully Alive, our Family Life program. Because the partnership of home, church, and school is so important, this letter is written to let you know what we talk about in class and to offer some ideas for your involvement. For more information, please go to http://www.acbo.on.ca.
Even the opening paragraph presumes too much. I may send my child to a faith-based school, my reasons for doing so are many, personal, and shall remain so, but ultimately I respect the individual teachers, their motivations, their practice, and those of the school Principal. I shall state quite clearly, I expect no issues with teaching practice at the school. But to presume that I consider our family in a partnership with an organization that has historically led to the global continuation with impunity of child rape by its members (Gallen, 2016; Terry, 2015; UNCRC, 2014), is utterly abhorrent. And let me be equally clear, I have known a number of priests of various faiths over the years, and they were all simply human beings; some wonderful, sharply intelligent, human beings, full of humor, wit, honesty and passion, others not so much. When I talk about the catholic church in this article, I refer to an organization, with a corporate mindset similar to a global company with millions of employees worldwide. Some employees will be wonderful, others not so much.
Now that I’ve established that premise, and established the foundations in evidence for stating that the catholic church is an organization which has been culpable in the systematic sexual abuse of some of the most vulnerable members of societies around the world, I will continue to lay out my objections to this organization teaching any child about sexuality and morals…
About Theme Three
Theme Three of Fully Alive is called “Created Sexual: Male and Female.” God made us male and female, and all of God’s creation is good. In earlier grades, this theme was presented through a continuing story, which emphasized God’s plan for new life as the result of the love of mothers and fathers. In later grades, the message is unchanged but the approach is more direct. As students enter puberty, they need to know about the changes they will experience and about the responsibilities of being created male and female and following God’s plan for them.
Ignoring the issue of God created for now, except to say, “No, God didn’t create anything. There is no God. Homo sapiens evolved.” Beyond that, I’m going to ignore creation vs. evolution, because the argument is in, and nobody should be recommending the teaching of God created anything in 2016. They should not have been doing that in the late 1700s, but I digress, and I did say that I was going to ignore the topic. I shall instead look at God created male and female. Some people would think that was fairly simple, it’s a matter of chromosomes; or rather, it isn’t. Gender is not an either or situation. In a purely biological sense, once again, momentarily putting aside the critically important arena of self-identification (something nobody should do of course, in this—as in so much else—I believe the catholic church to be horrifically past its use-by date). Gender is more a spectrum than simply human male, or human female. Quite simply, H. sapiens is born in a variety of forms (Bremer, 2012; Douglas et al., 2012), and any education system dealing with young children and adolescents really must support families where that is the case:
General societal acceptance of variations of sex development must be promoted by [Disorders of Sex Development] DSDs teams with the assistance of qualified peer groups in order to advance medical progress where needed and to reduce discrimination against individuals with DSDs. Integrating additional peer support into the model of care is of the utmost importance… This inclusion will strengthen the acceptance of DSDs and facilitate the sharing of experiences, thereby reducing the stress and isolation felt by patients and their families… Only if all these issues are resolved will real improvements in the management of patients with DSDs be achieved. (Hiort et al., 2014, p. 520)
In this program, the catholic church not only completely ignores the issues of self-identification, but also of biology and medical science. Documentation on the ACBO web site, deals entirely with the false dichotomy of either/or male or female. They discuss what they believe students need to know, whilst paying no heed to gaps in their own material. In this program, you’re either male, female or you don’t really exist. This isn’t science or education, it’s indoctrination. The family letter continues…
In Theme Three we will:
reflect on the gift of sexuality and God’s plan for us to be loving and life-giving persons.
explore the role of sexuality within marriage and for those who are single.
Whilst I cannot be certain of exactly what is to be taught in class, I interpret the phrase life-giving persons to indicate that abortion is unlikely to be treated in a positive manner, and sex for the sheer joy of sex, will probably not be encouraged—at least not in elementary school. The unwritten curriculum emanating from this family unit, will most certainly contain the message that abortion is both a choice, and the right of choice belongs ultimately to the woman who has become pregnant, and making a woman carry a child she does not want, is—from this perspective—a greater immorality than terminating a potential human life, before it has even begun to experience life outside the womb. The critical point here I feel, is that the student—my daughter—be equipped to make such a value-laden decision in her own way; without imposed guilt from the overt or the hidden curriculum.
I also wonder how the role of sexuality will be explored within marriage and for those who are single. I shall be following my daughter’s education closely in this area, and encouraging her to freely explore the topics of same-sex relationships in and outside of marriage within the classroom.
The next two bullet-points of the letter go on to state that students will:
reflect on the virtue of chastity, which helps us to honour the gift of sexuality and live according to God’s plan.
review some aspects of adolescence – changing appearance, moods, stress, and sexual attraction. We will also reflect on homosexuality from the perspective of God’s plan for sexuality.
The value of chastity? What is that exactly? To be flippant, I can see that in some circumstances it might save money on condoms, but I suspect that this is not what the catholic church means. My personal perspective, which I am willing to wager differs somewhat from that of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, is that if an individual is not yet mature enough—mentally or physically—for a sexual relationship, then they should not enter into one, nor allow themselves to be coerced into having one.
The statutory age of consent is there to help guide that decision, it is set with both the physical and mental maturity of young people in mind. Some will mature earlier or later than others. Talking to supportive parents, counsellors, or medical practitioners would be a great place to learn more. The catholic church however, with its history of child rape across the globe; its well-documented failure to deal with such crimes in even a remotely appropriate manner (Gallen, 2016; Terry, 2015; UNCRC, 2014); its position on abortion and contraception as “a very serious sin” (Vatican, 2014d, para. 129), and an objection “to the natural law” (Vatican, 2014d, para. 17) respectively, leads me to the conclusion that it should play no part in sex education at any age, much less grades K–12.
The statement that students will also reflect on homosexuality from the perspective of God’s plan for sexuality worries me deeply, and this area of the teachings of the catholic church deserves a more detailed consideration.
The letter states that students will also:
examine some of the pressures on young people to become involved in exclusive male-female relationships at an early age and discuss some serious abuses of sexuality.
review basic information on sexually transmitted infections and their potential impact on fertility and introduce the topic of family planning from the perspective of living in harmony with the gift of fertility.
complete Theme Three with a reflection on the meaning of true love as it is expressed in the enduring commitment of marriage.
These are interesting points, the first one is heavy on the irony in terms of discussing, some serious abuses of sexuality. In the United States alone—and I have already established the global nature of this crisis—one researcher has identified that “between 1950 and 2002, 963 cases of child sexual abuse by priests were investigated by police, 379 priests were criminally charged, and 259 were convicted” (Terry, 2015, p. 143). Across Canada, hundreds of young boys have been abused by the Christian Brothers religious order during the 1970s and 1980s, with cases routinely covered up or ignored by church investigators (Terry, 2015). In fact, church leaders were found to have “made concerted efforts to prevent reports of sexual abuse by priests from reaching law enforcement” (Terry et al., 2011, p. 197).
The next bullet point deals with sexually transmitted infections, and introduces family planning from the perspective of living in harmony with the gift of fertility. Given that we have established the position of the catholic church with reference to contraception, and given the long-standing advice of health professionals to use condoms as a method of restricting the spread of harmful sexually transmitted infections (Health Canada, 2006), once again I question the wisdom of adopting a sex education curriculum developed by the catholic church.
The third bullet point reflects on the notion on true love, which I can personally recommend, but I question the term as it is expressed in the enduring commitment of marriage. The implication is that a person must marry if they are in love, and that marriage is a strictly male and female arrangement. Why cannot two people in love simply live together? Will classroom instruction include marriage for same-sex couples? What about same-sex relationships in places where their marriage is not allowed? Of course, I am extremely proud to note that Canada became the first country outside of Europe to legally recognize same-sex marriage, with the enactment of the Civil Marriage Act on 20th July 2005, so I am wondering, what stance catholic education will take on this Canadian statute as part of the ACBO-recommended curriculum?
New Topics Introduced in Theme Three
The subject of sexual orientation and homosexuality was introduced in Grade 7. In Grade 8, some of this information is reviewed and the moral teaching of our Church on homosexuality is presented.
I think, as I have amply justified, the catholic church is most definitely not a suitable organization to design or recommend a sex education curriculum. The question occurs to me, as an educator and a curriculum theorist, if any other organization were to have the record of child rape attributable to the catholic church, would the suitability of that organization not be questioned more publicly?
Family planning is also introduced in this grade. Both natural family planning methods and some methods of artificial contraception are described and the moral teaching of our Church on contraception is presented.
Natural and artificial methods of contraception are discussed… hopefully in a fair and balanced manner. That would be decided by the approach of the teacher of course, and I have some faith in the staff at my daughter’s elementary school, but I am still concerned. The teaching of the catholic church is clear, and there is a strong argument—based on decades of evidence—that the influence of the catholic church is entirely reprehensible in the areas of contraception, and sexual ethics (Keenan, 2013).
Working together at school and at home
Most parents find their children less open at this stage of life to talking about issues related to sexuality. Many young adolescents consider this topic very personal and prefer not to discuss it. Often, an indirect approach works best. Some natural openings might be a television show you both watched; an incident involving a friend that your child tells you about; or an item in the newspaper or on television news.
In the interests of fairness, I should also point out when I have agreed with the ACBO letter, especially when that happens so infrequently. However:
The essential message of this theme is the Christian understanding of sexuality: that male and female persons are called to build loving relationships with each other and that together they have been given the power to co-operate with God and bring new life into the world.
The recurrent there is only male and female theme is repeated here, and has been shown to be simply false (Bremer, 2012; Douglas et al., 2012; Hiort et al., 2014, Nagoshi, Nagoshi & Brzuzy, 2014). I would argue that if a curriculum ignores sectors of society, simply because people within those sectors do not fit comfortably within the ideology of the originating organization, then that organization is unfit to be educating students of any age, much less elementary school children.
If an opportunity arises, you might ask your child about the virtue of chastity, which is highlighted in this theme. It is the virtue that helps us to control our desire for sexual pleasure. At school, the students will discuss the need to be thoughtful consumers of media, ignore gossip or rumours about sexual matters, and to avoid situations that may lead to pressure for sexual intimacy. Reinforcing these values at home can make a big difference.
I believe that I have shown sufficient evidence that the catholic church is not suitable to impart their views on the relative virtue of chastity, especially given that so many supposedly chaste catholic priests are proven child-rapists (Burkett, 1993; Carroll et al., 2002; Gallen, 2016; Keenan, 2013; Terry et al., 2011; Terry, 2015; UNCRC, 2014). Once again, I am compelled to wonder why this is not more widely queried?
We will also discuss pornography, which is widely available on the internet and is particularly damaging for young people who are forming their ideas and values about sexuality. Many experts, including the police, strongly advise that children and young adolescents should not have access to an internet connection in a private space, like a bedroom. There are simply too many temptations.
This paragraph contains one of those statements that is intuitively appealing, but is actually supported by very little empirical evidence. Its strongest argument is based on authority figures say X, so X must be right. I would argue that it is always advisable to ask to see an experts’ data, and to always question the argument from authority. If a parent does not know how to effectively filter the internet access of a personal computing device in their home—and there are many ways—then it is wise to keep the device where it is used openly. Nevertheless, any child with a little imagination, or technical acumen, can bypass such restrictions. It is not possible to filter the internet access on the smartphones and other devices of a child’s network of friends. In my family, I would prefer to educate my children to make intelligent, ethically-driven choices of their own, and to instill the confidence to ask for advice when they meet uncertain situations, rather than try to exercise a control that conveys a lack of trust and respect, and that can never be wholly adequate.
Lastly, the ACBO letter closed with a final bullet-pointed paragraph:
There are many pressures for young people to become involved at an early age in exclusive male-female relationships and to engage in sexual activity.
Once again, the irony of the catholic church warning against child sexual abuse is inescapable (Burkett, 1993; Carroll et al., 2002; Gallen, 2016; Keenan, 2013; Terry et al., 2011; Terry, 2015; UNCRC, 2014), and once again, it should be discussed that sexual relations may not be exclusively male-female. The paragraph concludes:
These pressures include media, the influence of peers, and unmet personal needs that drive some young people to seek attention and love in a relationship. The best defence against these pressures on young people is the self-confidence that comes from knowing that they have the love, support, and shelter of their families.
And that is one of the few sections of this document that I could fully agree with, and actually use to support my child.