Headlines about complaints over sex education in a Catholic school. Claims that some students are “scared” by the approach used in teaching about sexually transmitted diseases. The head teacher defending what had been done and saying the aim was to meet the needs of pupils and “discuss various issues and ideas”.
Sound familiar? There has been plenty of controversy over sex education in recent years. So why did Britain’s Daily Telegraph pick up this particular story?
Coloma Convent Girls’ School is a popular Catholic girls’ school in the London suburb of Shirley, Croydon, with a strong academic reputation, a famous choir, a string of successes in sporting and other fields, and a deep involvement in a range of charitable and community projects. It is hugely over-subscribed.
What was the problem? There really wasn’t one. The school is Catholic and is teaching Catholic morals. Yet we are, it seems, supposed to find that shocking. A former pupil was quoted, to show how she too had suffered by being given a similar message at the school: “I specifically remember at one point a group was brought in for a sex education session which involved only promotion of abstinence … There was also lots of discussion on how being promiscuous had ruined lives and that even if you had made the mistake of losing your virginity, you could ‘regain’ it by rejecting that lifestyle.”
And apparently it was even worse than that. The group promoted—wait for this, it’s truly dreadful!—prayer. No explicit sexual material and no promotion of abortion or of a lesbian or homosexual lifestyle. No detailed descriptions of sexual acts, no illustrations of intimate activity, no crude words, no indelicate language. Lots of emphasis on prayer and on wholesome friendships.
The group that came in to the school is a popular one that has gained considerable support among young Catholics. It’s called Pure in Heart and it teaches chastity through focusing on prayer, friendship, and support. It emphasizes the importance of a deep knowledge of the Church’s teaching on sex, marriage, and family life, especially as given by Pope St John Paul. And the newspaper’s indignation was precisely because the message was centred on all this.
Apparently, that’s what is controversial: a Catholic school is giving Catholic teaching to Catholic pupils.
Whatever next, one wonders. A ballet school that dares to teach its pupils ballet, with all the discipline that involves, the endless practicing, the struggle for excellence, the rehearsals? A language college that insists on its pupils being taught how to speak a foreign language with fluency and skill?
The Daily Telegraph seemed to assume that readers should be appalled when it revealed the material produced by Pure in Heart: “The group describes itself as a collection of young adults who ‘through prayer and friendship strive together to learn, live and share the truth, beauty and meaning of human sexuality’.”
The Telegraph was always regarded as the “conservative” newspaper—the “Torygraph”—the one that supported traditional moral values and would give a fair hearing to a robust bishop who sought to uphold Christian teachings, or to a Conservative MP who wanted to tighten up the law on abortion or pornography.
Not any more. Now “conservative” means something different. To be conservative is to support the status quo: teenagers should be given contraceptives, promoting chastity is unfair, and young people should not be encouraged to think that casual sexual relationships can damage soul or body.
I salute the head teacher of Coloma school (where I have also had the privilege of being a guest speaker—tackling, as it happens, journalism and the mass media including a discussion about truth, good taste, honesty, bias and other issues). I salute the Pure in Heart team and hope they give many more presentations to many schools.
But a more important thing to ponder is this: upholding the good and the true and the beautiful means being counter-cultural. It may make for a successful and popular venture: in this case a school which parents actually like, and where pupils are happy and high-achieving. But despite this the current fashionable media line will be to denounce you. Keep going.
I’m unconvinced that most Telegraph readers will share the newspaper’s outrage about Catholic children being taught Catholic morals. I suspect that a new generation of younger parents are finding that such teaching is just what they want for their teenagers. I’m convinced that ten years from now Pure in Heart and its successors will be thriving and there will be many more such groups working with dedication and vigour.
St John Paul—a great model and hero to groups such as Pure in Heart—knew what it was like to work in a country where ordinary people supported the Church while the media and officialdom strove to attack and undermine it. He told us not to be afraid, and the generation for whom he is just a childhood memory has grown up to venerate his memory, hail him as a saint, and take to heart his message. They are the generation that is shaping the Church of tomorrow.