What is happening in Catholic sex education in schools?
In this recent talk, Jonathan Doyle outlines some of the big picture issues.
Ladies and gentleman a very good afternoon and a genuine thanks to Dr. Tonti-Phillipini for the invitation to be with you today. I look forward to traumatising you, I mean sharing with you the latest news from the front lines of Catholic sexuality formation in our school system where the words of John Paul II that, ‘we are engaged in the front-lines of a lively battle for the dignity of man’ have rarely rung more true.
It’s getting late in the day and I am reminded of the words of Theodore Roosevelt who once said, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.” He also advised speakers to be sincere, be brief and be seated. He obviously never got a chance to teach homiletics in some of our seminaries.
Many children grow up wanting to be doctors, lawyers or Catholic bioethicists. It raises the question, how did I end up spending the last decade talking to hundreds of thousands of people around the world about the light and airy topics of sexuality formation and pornography addiction? How did I end up building a business where at least 80% of Catholic and Independent schools in this country use our curriculum programs and thousands of teachers each year receive our formation on Catholic identity and mission or on the pastoral care of young people?
Some years ago, Karen and I were newly married and were working in a Catholic boarding school in a remote part of Australia. I was teaching and Karen, with a nursing background was running the school clinic. One Monday morning a girl from Year 11 came to see her. Long story short, she had gone to a party on the previous Friday night and her boyfriend of 3 weeks thought it would be a good time for her to have sex for the first time.
They had both drunk a lot. People were hiding by the windows trying to video them with camera phones and others kept trying to walk in the door. The young woman was traumatised and pushed him away. As she ran out of the house crowds of people laughed at her.
In the silence of the school clinic she broke down. During a long conversation that followed Karen asked her. “Did you want to have sex with him?” Through her tears she whispered NO! A pause, “So how did you end up in that situation?” She looked up at Karen and said, “We’d been going out for three weeks, he’d been so nice to me. I felt I had to give him something.” Sometime later, I famously said, “Buy him a tie!”
On that day I got interested in one single question. How could a young person go through our school system and have no idea of the truth and meaning of human sexuality and what that might look like in the concrete realities of life?
The very first line of Aristotle’s ethics says, “All human action is action toward the good.” We could probably qualify that by saying, “It’s action toward the perceived good.” What I realised that day is that our young people face a metaphysical crisis of the true, the good and the beautiful. This precious young woman wanted love, intimacy, to be beautiful. She experienced something very different.
That day was a catalyst for us to make some small difference in the lives of young people and the families and educators that speak into their lives.
So, as a result of life experience and the extraordinary quality of the post-graduate formation afforded me here at the Institute my wife Karen and I and the staff that have followed in our footsteps have had a unique and privileged opportunity to share deeply in the hopes and aspirations of young people, to view the quiet heroism of a small number of faithful and committed Catholic teachers and to marvel at the the vast indifference and cynicism of numerous Catholic leaders and technocrats.
I think, on that last point, it’s worth following the advice given by Archbishop Chaput to Catholic leaders that we need to call things by their right names. We need to call cowardice, cowardice, sophistry, sophistry, indolence, indolence and reminds ourselves that the Church does not have a mission, she is a mission and when vast numbers of our young people leave our schools with no understanding of the truth and meaning of human sexuality then some of our Catholic bureaucracies and school leaders need to answer some tough questions….or perhaps it might be of enough of start to realise that some questions about the efficacy and reason for existence of our schools even exist.
My invitation today involves a very brief focus on some of the key issues facing young men in our school systems in the area of sexuality formation. Perhaps next year, assuming my thinly veiled frustration with aspects of our system does not become too much of a stench in the collective nose of Pharaoh, I can return and share with you what we are seeing happen for young women.
In terms of young men I will share a Biblical insight on a strikingly obvious sociological phenomena. I’ll then talk very briefly about how pornography is the key game changer in the current sexual landscape of modernity and then finish with an insight I developed from recently reading Anthony Esolen’s somewhat turgid but interestingly named, Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of your child.
I’ll then finish quickly by highlighting what just might actually work with young men in our schools and mention some of the places and some of the fine men and women who are devoting themselves to that noble cause.
A short audience competition. Without reference to your phone and anyone with degrees from the Biblicum is bared from playing. What are the very last words of the old testament? Think of all the things that God could have said! Given the Israelite propensity for constant harlotry surely a final summative admonition would be more that appropriate. If I was God, there is no way I would have missed a chance to give them one final exhortation to get with the game-plan. But no…of all the things God could have said, we find something rather unexpected.
Malachi Chapter 4 v5.
Boys need men. It’s over a decade since David Blankenhorn wrote Fatherless America and in terms of a curse upon the land, when the hearts of the fathers are not turned to the children, the sociological evidence for the absence of men and fathers in boys lives is voluminous. To be succinct. Men and fathers need to provide sexual discipleship. Where exactly do we all think young men learn about human sexuality in the absence of men and fathers.
Where might they learn about gentleness, courtesy, perseverance when relationships are tough, romance and sexual union? In the absence of men and fathers engaging with them and modelling and mentoring a truly human and divine model of sexuality they learn from peers and the Internet.
We are a deeply conflicted society. Men are useful as the but of sitcom jokes. They are Homer Simpson types. They are still useful enough in the odd war but outside of that we don’t know quote what to make of them. Any celebration of an innate and fixed masculine essence would undo the faux gains of the sexual revolution. Any suggestion that there is nobility, strength and dignity in the masculine soul, anything distinctive would be to subvert the cultural carpet bombing that is the push for androgyny.
And lets be clear androgyny is nothing other than the denial of the unity in difference that defines the trinity. And if that sounds abstract lets remind ourselves that John Paul II said that the Trinitarian concept of the image of God (in man) is perhaps the deepest theological statement that can be made about the human person.
All this is just to say that many, in fact a vast multitude of our boys are lost and alone when it comes to great questions of their hearts, the meaning of their bodies and what to do with the visceral and transformative strength that lies within them.
In 1910 the divorce rate was 9%. It’s currently around 48% but the best research from the US suggests that divorce is not something we need to worry about much anymore as the coming generation won’t bother marrying at all, with the exception of the wealthy and educated classes who understand that stable, committed marriage confers numerous benefits.
As such, many of our boys, when it comes to sexuality formation and manhood and love and romance don’t have a clue…because there is no one in the home to teach them.
It’s interesting that the term husband comes from the old English and Nordic husbonda – which translates as he who dwells in the house. The one who is present. The one whose heart has been turned to the children.
And this absence of teachers is more than likely to ensure that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons and that masculine dysfunction will continue from generation to generation. These are the boys in our schools.
Pornography. In the absence of men and fathers boys learn their sexual scripts from pornography. Some years ago I was lucky to share the stage at a conference in Federal Parliament with Professor Mary-Anne Layden from the University of Massachussets. One of her key points was to hammer home the reality that pornography is a curriculum. It operates as a pedagogy that normalizes brutality, enshrines a hyper aggressive Freudian utilitarianism and strips sexual intimacy of the transcendent and sublime.
Some months ago I was listening to a podcast by a Catholic priest in the US. He made the interesting observation that science often, perhaps always, ends up proving the Church right. Our cultural scripts begin with the Church portrayed as a retrograde enemy of all progress but it is funny how the sociological and epidemiological evidence often ends up supporting the Church on key issues. How is this relevant to pornography?
Long story short. The Catholic Church thinks pornography is a bad thing. What is the emerging science telling us. Pornography creates neurochemical arousal in the brain that is way beyond any evolutionary model. Boys and men can be sexual aroused for hours at a time because pornography overrides the brains satiety mechanism because of endless novelty. The result is that the brain is dosed in large amounts of dopamine. Too much dopamine leads to the secretion of another neurochemical called DeltaFoss B. DeltaFoss B when overproduced – eats brain matter.
The largest study to date suggests a loss of somewhere between 10 -20 percent of frontal lobe grey matter for heavy Internet pornography addicts. The result in the pre-frontal cortex is characterized by a loss of impulse control and an inability to forsee consequences.
So not to be overly pessimistic as you will all know a few young men that don’t fit this description. We have a generation of unfathered and unmentored boys who can access a perverted sexuality formation modality – online pornography- that has absolutely no historical precedent. And no one is talking to them about it.
A final quick reflection based on Anthony Esolen’s book ties in, in a roundabout way with the absence of men and fathers. Esolen’s task in his latest book is to simply make the point that much of modern culture flattens human experience into the mass produced and banal. He argues that we have done culturally is to kill young people’s imagination. When everyone wants to be Miley Cyrus or Bieber then whose left to do the next Sistine Chapel. I think I agree. In terms of sexuality formation we actually have a generation of young people with a crisis of imagination.
Let me explain. I can tell you one thing that I know for sure. After all these years and so many lectures, seminars and visits around the world…boy’s want to be good men. They want to be heroic. They want to love and strive and struggle and be strong and come through and serve young women…but many just don’t know how to love. They have a crisis of imagination because they lack a compelling ideal. They lack a masculine narrative of sacrificial love and service. They actually don’t know that they are made in the masculine generative archetype and that the deepest truth of their existence is that they can only find themselves through a sincere gift of self. All this potential then turns inward and is twisted by the ugliness and self-hatred cycle of pornography addiction.
But I know a place where they could hear a better story. I know a place where the truth and meaning of human sexuality is growing from a whisper to a quiet counterculture. Something similar once happened in Imperial Rome. People began to hear a more compelling story about life and love and death, and marriage and family and birth and children and selflessness.
I never get cynical or hopeless because I know that a better story, a true story, one that connects with the deepest aspirations of the human heart can, eventually, overcome pain and isolation and perversion and lies in all their many forms.
Our job is win the battle for their imagination by telling a much better story. And it is not just a story. It is a story accompanied by the logos that spun the universe into being. It is a story accompanied by power and that power is in the heart of the Church and her sacraments.
There is good news. There is always good news. We have to tell a better story about sex, marriage, romance, and manhood in this instance. There is such beauty we can share. I think of how the word ‘chastity’ is such a joke for teens. But the actual definition in the catechism is compelling and beautiful and if shared with boys by men and women who actually believed it and had lived it, could make such a difference. Chastity is an apprenticeship is self-mastery where the couple wait to receive each other as a gift from God.
As men we need to get off our collective backsides and stand up for our sons, grandsons, nephews and students. We need to talk to them again…about manhood and love and sexuality and service. Our silence is serving no one. But I think to create a change we need to genuinely pursue holiness of life and abandon ourselves to the Church and her sacraments and the Christ who is within them both. I mean this. I’ve seen plenty of big programs and there is a place for them but what we actually need right now are some saints. The Catholic Church is not in the business of programs. It is in the business of relationship with Jesus and sanctification of souls.
We need some principals who will stand up and make sexuality and character formation a key part of their ministry and stop trying to lure parents in the door with another IPAD offer or the promise of a better ATAR. We need men and women in our Catholic Education Offices to realise that they exist to serve the Church – she who is a mission. They exist to serve young people. This requires saints at the top of our leadership structures. It requires saints. Men and women who think with the Church.
We desperately need staff professional development as the highest priority. Less than 8% of our teachers have theological qualifications. Most are people of goodwill. A vocal few seek to deliberately subvert the Church’s teaching, undermine parents rights as primary educators and sow confusion, skepticism and cynicism among our young people.
We urgently need robust, rigorous and flexible staff professional development as the highest priority. When these many many educators, these people of good will are given the time and resources to encounter and consider the Church’s teaching on human sexuality the transformation is profound. Many become quiet evangelists in their classrooms and often in their own homes, and they come, in time, to understand the depth and beauty and nobility of what it means to be a Catholic educator.
We currently provide online formation in Catholic identity and mission to over 100 schools in this country and our mission is to reach many many more in the coming years.
Our young people want to love. They want to be loved. They need a better story. We know the best story in the world.
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