Writing in 1981 in Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the trusted role of parents as first educators when he stated: "Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centres chosen and controlled by them."
It is from this principle of subsidiarity that the new Sexuality Directives for the Archdiocese of Melbourne were published in January 2002.
The document was a collaborative effort between the Catholic Education Office, Vicar for Religious Education and members of the archdiocesan Council for Marriage and Family, who together formed an advisory committee. This committee drew upon the suggestions of primary and secondary teachers, parents and educational experts.
The final document was brought before Archbishop Denis Hart, who wrote the preface, setting down clearly the importance and usefulness of the Directives.
In his preface Archbishop Hart reaffirms the Church's teaching on matters of education in the area of sexuality, stating that "assisting children to understand and appreciate themselves as emerging men and women, loved and capable of loving, is in accordance with God's plan and teachings of Jesus."
The Archbishop, clarifying the Church's role in teaching on matters of faith and morals, reminds parents and educators that it is a "task first and foremost to parents" and that "the role of the school is to facilitate parents" in their task. This principle is frequently referred to in the Directives. It was also enunciated in the 1995 Vatican Guidelines, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, which states that parents have the right, to "educate their children in conformity with their moral and religious convictions."
Yet the role of parents as first educators, and of teachers as faciliatators of the parents' role, has at times occasioned problems. Archbishop Hart, aware of these, emphasises the sense of delicacy needed especially in the area of Christian education in sexuality.
In the past, many parents, while feeling unhappy about certain programs involving their children, were uncomfortable about having to challenge a principal or educator regarding objectionable or inappropriate content - and some who dared to were at times treated patronisingly or even with hostility.
These Directives have addressed this vexed problem area, with clear guidelines for parents and teachers on what can and cannot be taught in Catholic schools in the area of human sexuality.
It will be a demanding and challenging task to implement this document, but it represents the only way forward, besides being integral to the wider picture of evangelisation and renewal in the Church.
To begin with, schools are being asked to "review all areas of the curriculum" related to education in sexuality. Programs must now ensure that "all elements of education in sexuality are formative of chastity and respect for the sacredness of human life and the dignity of marriage". Programs must also take account of the age of innocence of the children involved and make it clear that a school "supports rather than displaces the role of parents as first educators."
The Directives clearly place parents in charge, with the onus on schools to collaborate with them in developing any curriculum in sexuality, ensuring the above points of chastity, sacredness of human life and dignity of marriage are all incorporated.
The Directives' affirmation of parents as their children's first educators means they should be more actively involved in knowing about and assessing any sexuality education curriculum before it is presented to their children. Teachers, who have a duty of care, must have the full consent of parents before a child participates in any sex education program. Parents, indeed, must be fully informed of the contents of such material.
As for the programs themselves, the Directives state they must adhere to the "doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church", that sexuality must involve "the whole person" and that it must be appropriate to the phases of a child's development.
The Directives also make it clear which programs are not allowed, e.g., those promoting "recreational attitudes to sex, safe sex methods and [those which are] value free".
Should a school have in mind to invite IVF doctors such as Dr John McBain or Carl Wood as guest speakers on sex and reproduction, parents can breathe easily, as such experts "whose ideas are not in accord with Catholic beliefs and teachings" are not to be approached.
The Directives are concise and clear, with the responsibly for implementing them falling to the principal of each school. This might perhaps be their Achilles heel, although if the document is widely circulated among parents, they can no doubt ensure their local principal fully implements them.
These Directives may also prompt parents - as they hopefully begin to take a greater interest in their children's education - to follow up on the recommended readings, and so gain an introduction or pathway of discovery into the Church's many rich teachings on sexuality.
This new Melbourne Archdiocese document is timely and deserves to be widely circulated.
Anthony Cappello BTh, MA, along with his wife, are members of the Melbourne Archdiocese Council for Marriage and the Family.