Can the new sex ed in Catholic schools please both bishops and liberals?

By Iman Sheikh and Cara Stern - Published on August 31, 2015
a young couple on a bench
Ontario’s new sex ed curriculum poses a unique challenge for the Catholic school system and its faith-based family education program.

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On a Friday in July, John and Christine Dixon wrote a letter to the principal of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Elementary School. Their three children would not return to the Elmira, Ont. school on Sept. 8, they informed him, if the province’s new health and physical education curriculum was accepted, and would enroll in a private school instead.

“What makes this different than a poor math tool or a poor science tool, for example,” they wrote, “is that this [sexual education] curriculum touches a piece of their soul.”

The Dixons are just two of thousands of parents protesting the revised syllabus, with complaints that sexually explicit material is presented at too young an age for many children and would stir their interest in activities they wouldn’t otherwise have considered at these ages.  On a May 4 protest, almost 35,000 students in Toronto stayed home from school. In York Region, around 2,000 elementary school students stayed home. Some schools missed as many 250 students.

As schools across the province prepare to welcome students back to class in a matter of days, the curriculum controversy shows no signs of tapering off. For Catholic schools, this controversy includes the added complication of reconciling that curriculum with its Grades 1 to 8 family life education program known as Fully Alive—something critics insist is incompatible with the school’s faith base.

However, according to the curriculum consultant and lead writer of the Fully Alive program, some opponents don’t even understand the document.

“The public is reading a policy document that is written for a group of professionals,” says Katharine Stevenson. “People are reading it and not understanding how it’s meant to be read.”

For example, she says, not everything listed out in the curriculum may necessarily be discussed in the classroom. Topics teachers are required to explain in a curriculum are called expectations; in supporting material for those expectation topics, there may also be examples in parenthesis—or prompts. Stevenson stresses that some of the more controversial elements of the curriculum, such as the risks of anal sex, are prompts and not compulsory to touch upon if a teacher chooses not to.

Jack Fonseca, project manager at advocacy group Campaign Life Coalition, still sees prompts as problematic. “Even when an item is a teacher prompt, it still carries a lot of weight,” he says. “The government is sending a signal that says, ‘Hey, this is what we believe you should be discussing.’ That’s a problem.”

He refers a particular passage in the 2015 curriculum:

C1.3 explain the importance of having a shared understanding with a partner about the following: delaying sexual activity until they are older (e.g., choosing to abstain from any genital contact; choosing to abstain from having vaginal or anal intercourse; choosing to abstain from having oral-genital contact); the reasons for not engaging in sexual activity; the concept of consent and how consent is communicated; and, in general, the need to communicate clearly with each other when making decisions about sexual activity in the relationship.

Fonseca also warns that mentioning sexual activities could introduce ideas into children’s heads that weren’t there before.

Another criticism of the curriculum by Fonseca is that it only tells students to consider delaying sexual activity, without specifying that the delay should be until marriage, he says.

But Stevenson says the Fully Alive program does, in fact, place sexuality in a Catholic context. Students are taught that although sexual feelings are natural, they must learn to grow in mastery with their bodies, and acknowledge the feelings and know how to temper and control them.

Until now, sexual education in both Ontario school systems was taught using a curriculum from 1998. Education Minister Liz Sandals deemed it outdated because it arrived before the omnipresence of sexting and social media. An interim document was released in 2010, but proved unpopular with some groups.

Stevenson further states that very little has changed between the old and the new curriculum in the Catholic schools. The Fully Alive program, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Bishops of Ontario in collaboration with Ontario’s Catholic educators, has been refreshed within the last six years, she says.

“It didn’t cause any angst at all,” she says. “Those who have taught the Fully Alive program know this well.”

But Fonseca disagrees, saying that the changes are very significant, and include fundamentally anti-Christian theories.

“It’s a ludicrous statement to say it hasn’t been changed much,” he says. “By Grade 3, when a child is eight years old, the curriculum requires all schools to teach the disputed theory of gender identity, which absolutely contradicts Christian anthropology of the human person.”

This aspect of the curriculum, however, is still unclear: it’s one of the components of the curriculum that is still being written and has yet to be approved by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops during a mid-September education council.

“But gender identity and gender expression will be dealt with in the same way as homosexuality. At the Grade 7 and 8 level we’re just providing a definition and not getting into all the nuances of sexuality,” says Stevenson.

One of the other points that sparked outrage, the mention of masturbation, has been part of the Fully Alive curriculum for a long time, Stevenson says.

In the program, masturbation is approached through a Catholic lens by first introducing students to what it means to be created in the image of God, and what it means to live in relationships. Under the new curriculum, it is made clear that being sexual is part of God’s plan for males and females to be co-creators. Therefore, the feelings are explained as ‘natural’ but also that students should practice self-discipline, explains Stevenson.

“We explain that when we give into the pleasure of masturbation, it’s something that could make us too self-centred,” she says. “We say it’s something we probably don’t want to engage in because it’s turning people the wrong way.”

The Dixons, however, believe that only a curriculum that discusses reproductive biology rather than promotes sexual liberty could fit within a Catholic lens. And that’s what they’d like to see.

“It is possible for a Catholic school to teach a ministry-approved curriculum, but not this ministry-approved curriculum,” Christine Dixon says. “A curriculum that includes parents in the discussion, and upholds generally accepted ideals like respect, commitment, love and marriage in the discussion may fit within a Catholic system.  These are notably absent.”

Image credit: Jeffrey/flickr

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