Who's Ready for Some Catholic Sex Education?

I have, on a couple of occasions, told war stories about sex ed in a Catholic high school in the South in the middle 90s.  What is interesting to me about that program, looking back with the benefit of adulthood and hindsight, is the way in which it balanced (or, really, attempted to balance) two entirely different sets of objectives.  On the one hand, you had what you might call the "Catholic objectives"--don't have pre-marital sex, don't use birth control, abortion is the worst thing ever, maybe if we don't talk about gay people they will just go away, etc.  But, at the same time, it was also trying to communicate what you might call "ambitious middle class objectives," which focused on the message "if you have to raise a child before you are financially secure/fully educated, your life will be over."

To that end, the big senior year religion project was that you partnered up with a classmate (of the opposite gender, natch) and had to take care of an ersatz baby in the form of a doll.  So, if teachers caught you leaving the baby on the floor or in your locker, you would get written up and your grade would be reduced.  But the really ingenious/insidious part was you also had to put together a budget and your income was determined entirely by your GPA.  And that income was intentionally pegged in such a way that two students in the bottom half of the class (keep in mind, this was a school where most everyone went to college after graduation), would be at or near the poverty line.  By contrast, if you were in the top ten or so in the class of 250, you made a pretty decent living and the budget was mostly a tedious exercise in writing it all up.  Which was why I was approached by several girls who had never talked to me in the previous three and a half years of high school who all of the sudden were interested being partners with me on the project.  As a result, I learned a valuable life lesson from that project, though perhaps not one that the school was intending.

My own experiences aside, it doesn't take a genius to realize that slamming students over the head with the message that raising a child is a potential catastrophe does not necessarily support the rest of the moral agenda of the Church.  Perhaps this message would scare students into not having sex--or perhaps it will just reinforce the notion that they have to do everything possible to avoid having to raise a child, such as use birth control and/or get an abortion.  Based on my own sense of my fellow students (keeping always in mind the phenomenon of "pluralistic ignorance"), the results were a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B.  The take away from all of this for me is that any sort of sex education program (whether religiously oriented or not) brings with it certain "riders"--messages and communications of value that are not "up front," but more encoded in the way the material is presented.

It is with these ideas in mind that I took a look at the Vatican's newest sex education effort, "The Meeting Point: project for affective and sexual formation."  This is an official product of the Pontifical Council on the Family, and was developed by a Catholic university in Spain.  How is it?  Well, I need to start out with something that is perhaps a collateral issue, but was the first thing I noticed when I looked at the page.  Headlining each of the six units are pictures of a group of what appear to be if not teenagers at least young adults, who for some reason are camping.  What is striking to me is that these images look like re-purposed Tommy Hilfiger or Ralph Lauren ads--sporty people of an array of (always cheerfully attractive) looks, posing casually in some outdoor scene.  I'm no photographer, but even the way the natural lighting is used makes it look like one of those ads.  They even do the classic advertising move of including someone who may or may not be a person of color, such that people who like diversity in ads will be affirmed, while people who don't can reassure themselves that he is actually white.

It would be wrong to say that the ad copy bothers me, in the sense that I have some coherent, principled objection to it.  But there is something about it that seems off.  It seems manipulative in a way that I can't put my finger on.  Perhaps I am reading too much into the pictures, but the notion might be that if you just avoid sex in high school, you can have fun, relaxed, problem-free friendships with mixed gendered groups (while camping, apparently).  Somehow this image seems to be promising something they can't deliver, almost like they are trying to prove too much.  Maybe this is another manifestation of the divide between "solar" and "lunar" visions of sexuality.  While this image is almost self-consciously solar in presentation, I cannot think of anything more lunar than teenage sexuality as I experienced it, and as everyone whom I have talked to about the topic have experienced.

In any event, the second thing that immediately jumps out at me, and here we see the "riders" in full force, is a very specific vision of the body and embodiedness.  The First Unit is about the body, and includes a discussion of "[t]he body as expression of my person: the discovery of the meaning of one’s own life through the body," and "[t]he discovery of the objective language inherent in the human body."  While there is some language about how this embodied expression is unique and idiosyncratic, there is a clear thread that pushes the notion that the fundamental category with which to approached embodiedness is binary gender.  For example, in Unit 1.3, there is one exercise dedicated to trying to get the students to recognize/acknowledge that men and women communicate differently.

This subtext becomes text in the Second Unit.  At the top of page two of the educator notes, we have this assertion:

By getting to know my own identity (Me), I discover the difference between myself and the other (You). This difference speaks to me about sexuality. Man and woman are different in every aspect of the person: body, affections, intelligence, sociality and spirituality; this difference makes us complementary.

Men and women are different in every aspect of the person?  They are different in intelligence?  In spirituality?  Flat out, that's nonsense.  Men and women are not different species that happen to be able to breed together.  This totalizing and essentialist vision of gender completely marginalizes and pathologizes anyone outside of the socially accepted norms, treats cultural constructions as unchangeable givens, and does nothing to actually help young people negotiate the differences between genders that do exist ("how can I possibly understand girls, if being a girl makes her 'different in every aspect of her person'?").

Further on down the page, we get similar assertions like "[b]ut this totality [of body and soul] necessarily exists in the form of a man or of a woman. There is no other possibility than this for the existence of the human person."--except of course for hermaphrodites and women with CAIS, let alone transgendered folks.  Or how about "[t]he sexed dimension, namely masculinity or femininity, is inseparable from the person," a statement to which St. Gregory of Nyssa would strenuously object.  But perhaps the clearest articulation of this vision comes a few sentences later.

Our very anatomical traits, as an objective expression of this masculinity or femininity, are endowed with an objectively transcendent significance: they are called to be a visible manifestation of the person.

We need to be clear about the core message here, a message that the authors choose to lead with in their discussion of sexuality--my penis has an "objectively transcendent significance," such that it is the most important element of who I am as an embodied, sexual being.  No good can come from anything associated with my sexuality if I do not first recognize and act in accordance with the "objectively transcendent significance" of my penis.  I'll let Amy Poehler sum up my thoughts on this one:

No doubt because most of modern Western society, outside of the Men's Rights community, would reject the "objectively transcendent significance" of my penis, the overriding theme of the middle units is that you shouldn't listen to anything society has to say about sexuality because all of it is crap.  This is not a new theme in Catholic sex ed, and moderate cautions about unthinking acceptance of cultural values are necessary and appropriate.  But the emphasis here is far more pointed and one note, to the point that I think it would be fair to call it crypto-Benedict Option.  [As an aside, I found this complaint interesting, in light of my experience of Catholic sex ed--"[t]he birth of a child is seen as a social problem, as a financial burden that gives rise to a series of future difficulties, especially regarding education. Children are no longer viewed as a hope for the rejuvenation of society or as a precious gift for the family."]  All of this speaks to the entirely binary nature of the presentation--there is the way we do things, and the way everyone else does things which is completely wrong and incapable of generating any positive goods.  There is something deeply pessimistic and world-denying about this version of Catholic sex ed, far more so than what I remember.

Among all the changes in focus, there is one thing that remains the same--the hope that if we don't talk about gay people, maybe they will go away.  It is stunning to me that, in 2016, you could have a sex education curriculum that never mentions homosexuality.  Not positively, not negatively, not at all, as if gay people are a figment of our collective imagination--like Ewoks or something.  I cannot fathom how a current high school student in North America or Europe would greet this awkward silence on the topic--it must be like it comes from Mars, or otherwise from a generation or two ago.

So, it's bad.  But it is bad in a particular way that all of us, especially those of us on the left hand side of the Catholic aisle need to acknowledge--it is bad on these issues in precisely the same way that Pope Francis is bad on these issues.  I do not think you can in good faith say that this product does not reflect the attitudes and priorities of Pope Francis.  In particular, the almost monomaniacal focus on gender and complementarity is characteristic of Pope Francis's constant drum beating on "ideological colonization" and gender theory.  Moreover, the guy who spearheaded this project just got a promotion, so it is not like this is a rogue operation of #neverFrancis hardliners.  This program is a product of the Pope Francis pontificate, and we need to acknowledge and accept that.

To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we don't have Josef Ratzinger to kick around anymore.  This is where we are in 2016, under the liberal Pope Francis--the objectively transcendent significance of my penis and gender theory as the great bugaboo and gay people being like Ewoks.  Some things will change in the Church.  But, especially as regard to sex, I think it is reasonable to conclude that some things never will.


Anonymous said…
"By contrast, if you were in the top ten or so in the class of 250, you made a pretty decent living and the budget was mostly a tedious exercise in writing it all up. Which was why I was approached by several girls who had never talked to me in the previous three and a half years of high school who all of the sudden were interested being partners with me on the project."

I have to be honest, I would pay good money to go back in time and see that.

Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Two Christianities

Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea