Understanding God’s gift: A new vision

Vision statement for chastity education in the Diocese of Charleston
Editor’s Note: The following statement was published as part of Msgr. Martin T. Laughlin’s promotion of chastity and Family Honor programs in the Diocese of Charleston.

We are living in the midst of a culture which talks about sex, but doesn’t understand it. We are surrounded by media who promote sex, but who reject the fullness and beauty of our sexuality.

We are immersed in a consumer-oriented society which often confuses the human person with a material product, to be used primarily in the pursuit of personal pleasure.

Even Christians have become confused, living in a culture that aggressively promotes a philosophy of individual pleasure as a primary right, no matter what the cost.  

When this type of environment is combined with a lack of understanding of traditional church teachings regarding God’s gift of sexuality and true love, tragic individual choices can occur, which set in motion events that have a serious impact on relationships, families, children and the individual person.

Pope Benedict XVI expresses the challenge Christians face in this regard in his encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love):

“… the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex’, has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great ‘yes’ to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will.

“Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.

“Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”

Now, more than ever, we should re-examine what the rich deposit of our faith says about being created male and female in the image of God. Likewise, we should strive to better understand the gift of our sexuality, this marvelous treasure we have been given which is intricately woven into our identity as male or female persons.  

It is for these reasons the Diocese of Charleston would like to assist families in particular, along with parish and diocesan leadership, in discussing the wonderful gift of our sexuality, along with the virtue of chastity, in order to help prepare our young people to enter into their adult years with a maturity and perspective that will lead them to live lives of holiness and happiness, regardless of the vocation they choose.

What does our faith reveal to us about the related topics of sexuality and chastity?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: Sexuality “… becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and mutual lifelong gift of a man and a woman.  

“Insofar as it entails sincere self-giving, it is obvious that growth in love is helped by that discipline of the feelings, passions and emotions which leads us to self-mastery. One cannot give what one does not possess. If the person is not master of self — through the virtues and, in a concrete way, through chastity — he or she lacks that self-possession which makes self-giving possible. Chastity is the spiritual power which frees love from selfishness and aggression.”

The right words make all the difference in transmitting our faith and values to children and adolescents. Nowhere does this appear truer than in our efforts to articulate a positive, hopeful view of sexuality to young men and young women.

It is this hopeful view of sexuality that should lead us, then, to promote the virtue of chastity. Rather than a simple “just say no” approach which can often be based on fear of pregnancy or disease, the virtue of chastity is a positive good. It means saying “yes” to God in a joyful commitment to live one’s life in a way that shows respect, reverence and restraint with our gift of sexuality. Chastity thus becomes a natural and inseparable part of our core identity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains chastity as: “… the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.”

As baptized Christians, our Catholic faith serves as the perspective from which we view the world. It follows, then, that Scripture and Tradition, as understood through the teaching of the church, should be the reference point from which we speak about and instruct young people about God’s gift of sexuality, the virtue of chastity and all related topics, including marriage, celibacy, male-female complementarity, love, friendship, fertility, the role of parents and the theology of the body.

According to The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, issued by the Pontifical Council on the Family:

Educating children for chastity strives to achieve three objectives:  

To maintain in the family a positive atmosphere of love, virtue and respect for the gift of life;
To help children to understand the value of sexuality and chastity in stages, sustaining their growth through enlightening word, example and prayer;
To help them understand and discover their own vocation to marriage or to consecrated virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven in harmony with and respecting their attitudes and inclinations and the gifts of the Spirit.”
Over the years, the church has consistently recognized parents as the individuals who are primarily responsible for teaching “education in human love” to their children.
In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II wrote: “The right and duty of parents to education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others,” except where there is a physical or psychological impairment that would prevent this.

It is clear that parents should play the central role in any efforts to teach young men and women about sexuality and virtue.

Adult individuals who have been trained in a Catholic approach to chastity education and virtue formation will recognize parents as the primary educators of their children in this delicate area, and yet will also recognize that they can play an important role in assisting families by facilitating opportunities for parents and children to come together for age-appropriate instruction on human love, sexuality and chastity.

Since the church regards parents as the primary adults who are responsible for instructing their own sons and daughters in these tender matters, this assistance from facilitators will, of necessity, come under the principle of subsidiarity.  

This simply means: “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 centers chosen and controlled by them.

In this regard, the church reaffirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents.”

The Diocese of Charleston envisions that all adult men and women who are called or asked to serve their parish, school, or diocese as teachers in the area of chastity education, would embrace the following ideals:

Recognition of the uniqueness of each child in the parish or school and an understanding of the different stages of psychosexual development for children and adolescents; participation in training that will equip sexuality education teachers with a better understanding of a family-centered approach to chastity education, the role of the family in chastity education and criteria for effective chastity education programs; agreement with Catholic Church teaching in the areas of sexuality and morality; recognition of parents as the primary sexuality educators of their children; a commitment to empower and encourage parents to be the primary sexuality educators for their children; a willingness to collaborate with other school, parish and ministry leaders in developing goals for all chastity programs, along with an effective plan for implementation of those chastity programs in that parish and school.

The Diocese of Charleston invites Catholic parents, priests, teachers, ministry leaders and laity in South Carolina to join with us in a new vision for proclaiming the good news of the truth and meaning of God’s gift of sexuality and the virtue of chastity to our young people.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8-10).