Seven years ago, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was seeking a new director for the archdiocesan Respect Life Office. He wanted a director who was more than simply opposed to abortion. He wanted a director who also believed in and practiced one of American society’s most neglected virtues, chastity. When he met Mary-Louise Kurey, Miss Wisconsin in 1999 and a Miss America contender who had taken the unusual step of making chastity part of her platform, he had found the right candidate.
“I have long felt a calling to teach teens about chastity,” Kurey related. “In fact, I sought out the title of Miss America so I could have access to groups and organizations [and] deliver the message.”
With the cardinal’s blessing, Kurey launched the archdiocesan Chastity Education Initiative in 2003. Through a variety of speakers, rallies, retreats, educational materials, and curricula for teachers, the initiative teaches teens and young adults about the importance of saving sex for marriage. The audience is teens att ending the Archdiocese of Chicago’s 40 high schools and 215 elementary schools (totaling about 90,000 students), as well as students in the neighboring dioceses. Additionally, the initiative has an outreach to local colleges.
“Chastity is embracing purity of mind, heart, and body,” said Kurey. “It is about embracing real love and God’s plan for our lives.” She says many teens ask: how far can I go and still remain a virgin? The right question, she counters, is: “How much can I save for that person to whom I will commit myself for a lifetime in marriage?”
The program includes information on the potentially devastating consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, the emotional and psychological consequences of pre-marital sex, and the abortions of unwanted children to which sexual immorality often leads.
The program also provides practical advice on how teens can remain chaste. Chief among the recommendations is avoiding occasions of temptation. Double-dating, for example, can be a better choice than going out as a couple. Teens are also encouraged to postpone dating until they are older and ready for marriage. “Dating for teens can be pointless and dangerous. If they wait until they’re ready for marriage, dating becomes courtship. Its purpose is to find a partner suitable for marriage,” explained Kurey.
Kurey encourages teens to seek out at least one like-minded friend who can help them remain faithful to their pledge of chastity. Additionally, once dating begins, it is important to be upfront about one’s commitment to chastity. The reaction of the dating partner can often be telling, noted Kurey. “Real love respects, real love waits.”
The Chastity Education Initiative encourages parental participation, and offers parents advice on helping their children remain chaste. For example, the initiative recommends a “floating curfew” for teens going out in the evening, based on the activity in which they are engaged. It’s a mistake to think that teen pregnancies are only conceived late in the evening or at night; in fact, studies show that the majority of such conceptions occur between 3 and 5 pm. For this reason, the initiative recommends that when a teen goes to a friend’s house after school, at least one parent be present at all times.
Parents should keep in mind that chastity education is not just a onetime “the birds and the bees” talk, but an ongoing discussion parents must have with their children, says Kurey. “Chastity was important to my parents. When I was a teen, I might get up in the morning and find an article taped to the bathroom mirror about the prevalence of Chlamydia among teenage girls with a note from my mom saying, ‘Let’s talk about this.’ When my parents would talk to me about chastity I might pretend I wasn’t listening, but I was.”
Committed parents are a major factor in helping their teens to stay chaste. Girls living in homes with an absent or distant father, for example, are much more likely to become sexually active than those with involved fathers. Often girls in this situation succumb to pressure for sex from older men. Even in a culture in which the role of father is often undermined, dads are natural protectors and defenders of their children far more often than they are abusers. For this reason, in homes where dads are absent, the initiative curriculum encourages another male mentor to step up and fill the void.
Kurey presents the chastity message to many Chicago-area parishesand schools, including Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Arlington Heights. Our Lady of the Wayside is a northwest suburb of Chicago; Kurey makes annual presentations to the parish’s eighth-grade confirmation class. When the class covers such topics as the sacrament of matrimony or the gospel of life, Director of Religious Education Sr. Adrienne Weseman extends an invitation to Kurey to come and speak. Parents are invited to sit in on the presentation as well.
“She does a fantastic job,” remarked Sr. Adrienne. “She’s a beautiful model of chastity, and the children are very receptive.” Sr. Adrienne continued, “Mary-Louise gives a high priority to respect, the respect we must expect from others and the respect we must offer them.”
Sr. Adrienne added that while the public schools offer children information on the biological and scientific aspects of sexuality, Kurey brings in the moral dimension. The students are attentive, eager to learn and receptive to her message. “I wouldn’t have her coming back year after year if she wasn’t so effective.”
Kurey is also pleased to welcome other chastity speakers to the archdiocese. Each year, as part of the initiative’s effort to promote chastity, the archdiocese welcomes Jason Evert, a chastity speaker with Catholic Answers, for a speaking tour at many of Chicago’s Catholic schools. Evert’s presentations often receive standing ovations from the students. According to Kurey, frequently after Evert’s presentations students give him packages of birth control pills and Playboy memorabilia and request that he discard the items for them because, having heard his talk, they now wish make a new beginning in a life of chastity. Kurey noted, “He’s truly the best chastity presenter I’ve ever seen. He shares with the students a vision of a better kind of love, the kind of love that God calls us to live in chastity.”
Father Steve Bauer, associate chaplain of the University of Illinois-Chicago Newman Center, has also seen the eff ect Evert has had on his students. “He’s new, inspiring, and enlightening,” says Father Bauer. “[Female students] realize they have an inherent dignity, of which guys can’t be allowed to take advantage.”
Father Bauer previously served as associate pastor at St. Benedict Parish in Chicago alongside St. Benedict High School, so he’s worked with both teens and young adults. In addition to welcoming speakers, Father Bauer has also used the initiative’s Theology of the Body materials to teach his students about the Church’s teachings on life issues.
He believes young people are open to the message of chastity despite living in an over-sexualized culture. He commented, “The challenge is to present [chastity] in a way that they’re ready to receive. We don’t want it to sit in their brains, but be something they integrate into their lives. We want them to see that it’s a way to bring Christ into their sexuality, and that a relationship with Christ will ultimately bring them peace and joy.”
Father Bauer also takes groups of students on the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, held annually on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Participation is coordinated by the archdiocesan Respect Life Offi ce, and helps deliver the Church’s message on the gospel of life. “When students att end the March for Life, they come to realize the depth and gravity of life issues, and that they’re linked to how they live out their sexuality,” he says, adding that while in Washington, DC his students sometimes have the opportunity to meet congressmen and ask them about their positions on life issues.
Priests are an important part of the archdiocese’s March for Life participation as well as other pro-life rallies, because they can hear the teens’ confessions and can offer them one-on-one advice. Liz DeSimon, a youth minister with St. Peter Damian and St. John the Evangelist Parishes (both in the Chicago area), also brought a group of teens to the March for Life. She described it as a life-changing experience for her teens and their adult chaperones. “Experience is the best teacher and this was a needed learning opportunity!” DeSimon said. “Their hearts are convicted and they are spreading the message of life to all their friends.” DeSimon continued, “[The teens] have expressed how angry they are about how our generation has allowed [abortion] to happen. They vow that they will be the generation to end abortion and the March for Life will no longer be necessary. I have faith that they will!”
THE ORIGINS OF HER COMMITMENT
Kurey, age 35, was born in upstate New York. She grew up in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. She was the youngest of four children in a practicing Catholic home. She attended public schools, and by age 12, was aware that many of her classmates were becoming involved in alcohol, drugs, and sex. She chose to have no part of that world; instead she abstained from drinking and drugs, and made a commitment not to have sex—or engage in intimate behaviors that lead to sex— until she was married. She believes the choices are linked; a child under the infl uence of drugs or alcohol, or who is involved in the drugs and alcohol culture, is much more likely to make bad decisions about sex.
She kept quiet about the risky and reckless behaviors of some of her classmates, however, believing what they did was not her concern. In fact, in her earlier years, the future director of the Chicago Respect Life Office described herself as “pro-choice” on the issue of abortion.
Her perspective began to change, however, when she saw the harmful consequences of promiscuity in the lives of her friends. One 15-year-old friend, for example, became pregnant by her boyfriend despite practicing “safe sex.” She opted to rear her child, but faced the challenges of life as a single mother. Another young adult female friend married, yet a few months later was hospitalized after having a nervous breakdown. The young woman revealed she was tortured by guilt after having an abortion during a previous relationship.
“I never said anything to these young women,” Kurey related. “I felt guilty I hadn’t done anything. I began to feel called as a chastity educator.”
There was plenty of sex education in schools, she noted, but litt le chastity education. And the sex education typically offered in public schools did more harm than good. Kurey explained, “Sex ed in public schools is demeaning. They teach that the body is just a tool, to be used for sex or anything else. These programs deny the beauty and sacredness of sex.”
Kurey wanted to share the chastity message with teens, but needed a means of establishing her reputation as a chastity speaker. She had participated in some beauty pageants in an effort to earn scholarship money for college, and realized that being named Miss Wisconsin might give her a prominent position for spreading her message. She competed three times, and on her third try was named Miss Wisconsin for 1999. Her platform as Miss Wisconsin was chastity, and she stressed the importance of young people saving themselves for marriage. Although she was not selected as Miss America, her Miss Wisconsin title garnered her many media invitations and gave her many opportunities to advocate chastity.
Among her most notable media appearances was Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, a political talk show which ran from 1993-2002. She appeared on the show five times, often alongside guests who mocked her message (episodes can be viewed on YouTube). Maher, too, would mock her often, but would apologize once they were off the air.
One episode placed her opposite Playboy Playmate Summer Altice. Kurey recalled, “After the show, she told me she admired me, and said, ‘Good luck in your mission.’” She was also a guest on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show, Inside Edition, and Janet Parshall’s America. She related her experiences of growing up chaste, being Miss Wisconsin, and dealing with the media in her 2002 book, Standing with Courage: Confronting Tough Decisions about Sex.
Kurey found a life-partner to help her in her mission to promote chastity in husband Brian, an att orney who himself has been a chastity speaker. The pair wed in 2003. Kurey is also a gifted singer; she has a bachelor’s degree in voice from the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire and a master’s in voice from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Kurey has taken her message to lawmakers in Washington, DC. On April 11, 2002 she testified before the House Ways and Means subcommitt ee on Human Resources about the eff ectiveness of abstinence education programs.
FUNDED BY PRIVATE DONATIONS
The Chastity Education Initiative operates on a budget of $270,000 per year, and is funded solely by private donations. The funding pays for two staff positions, speakers, materials, and event-related costs. Jason Evert’s presentations, for example, cost more than $2,000 each; the initiative pays the fee so schools can have him speak free of charge.
The initiative’s chief fundraising event is a benefit dinner, this year to be held November 21 at Drury Lane in Oakbrook, Illinois, with featured speaker and Irish singer Ronan Tynan.
After nearly two decades as a chastity educator, Kurey believes the good news about the chastity message is that many teens are responding to it. She cited a recent Centers for Disease Control survey which found that 53 percent of teens ages 15-19 are virgins, and that of those who had been sexually active, a third regret the decision and are trying to live a “second virginity.”
Kurey believes there has been a cultural shift on the issue, with more teens embracing and living out chastity in their lives. She concludes, “Every teen and young adult deserves to know that he or she is worth waiting for, regardless of past actions. Their sexuality is a beautiful gift, a precious gift—so precious that it’s worth saving for the one person who makes a lifetime commitment to love them fully and unconditionally.”