Ryan Dunn, the author of this post, is a student at Bishop Blanchet High School, a Catholic school, in Seattle, WA. Dunn was told by school administrators not to run the article in the school newspaper for fear of raising the hackles of the Archdiocese of Seattle , the organization that runs the school. For a brief prologue to this story, read Amie Newman’s blog post published last week.
The Institution of the Catholic Church is at a crossroads. As the turning tides of society and progress press onward, the dilemma has become how to avoid fading into antiquity, how to remain relevant in people’s lives while still promoting and teaching the essential Gospel values of Christianity. This is a time of flux for the Church, an uneasy time of change as centuries-old traditions such as celibacy, clerical marriage and ordination of women are called into question. Some prominent members of the Church have even begun calling for a Vatican III to reevaluate and integrate the Church’s doctrine and practices into this modern world.
This is not unheard of; despite its firm foundation in tradition, the Catholic Church has always been a dynamic force. Just as the official teaching Church no longer condones the existence of witches or a geocentric universe, many Church teachings have been altered and adapted to be more appropriate and relevant. These revisions usually come in light of scientific discoveries, like the Vatican’s official apology to Galileo in 1992, or just to make Christianity more accessible to the masses, like the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s that liberalized many of the Church’s long-held traditions, like the Latin mass.
However, there is one arena in which the Church seems unwilling to move an inch: the official doctrine regarding contraception. This controversial teaching, which bans all artificial forms of birth control, is rooted deeply in the Church’s commitments to sanctity of life and natural law.
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“Conjugal sexuality is an expression of the faithful, life-enriching love of husband and wife, and is ordained toward the loving procreation of new life,” reads The Formation for Love and Chastity by Archbishop Alexander Brunett. “Genital sexual activity has true meaning and integrity only within the context of marriage.”
As a result, the Catholic Church supports premarital abstinence and calls all forms of contraception “intrinsically evil” (CCC 2370).
In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this; the Catholic Church should be able to preach whatever they see fit. However, one must keep in mind that the Catholic Church operates more schools and educates more students than any religious organization in this country, and the practical outcome of the doctrine regarding contraception is sex education that teaches only abstinence. The Church sees this as necessary to align with traditional teachings, but more and more people are beginning to see this practice as harmful to children.
Abstinence-only sex education has been a hot-button issue for years, but flamed its way into the public eye during the Bush administration, when the government poured millions of dollars into federally mandated abstinence-only sex education. Programs such as these typically present total abstinence until marriage as the preferable choice, and withhold information about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases. Dozens of scientific studies were conducted in these eight years in response to the federal mandate, and the overwhelming majority found that abstinence programs had little to no effect on students’ sexual choices, and often put recipients at a higher risk for pregnancy and STD’s.
Studies by Columbia University found that recipients of abstinence-only sex education are at higher risk for STD’s and unwanted pregnancies, and studies by Advocates For Youth concluded that abstinence programs have absolutely no effect in delaying first sex of students. Columbia University also conducted a study of teenagers who pledge virginity until marriage, and found that 88 percent did not keep that pledge, and those teens were less likely to use contraception or seek STD testing and were therefore at a much higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies. The Society for Adolescent Medicine went so far as to say that “abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental human rights to health, information, and life.”
Faced with this evidence, the Church is placed in a precarious situation. It must balance its responsibility to effectively teach its doctrine with legitimate concern for the well-being of its students. It’s an unenviable state of affairs that goes much deeper than a debate about condoms; it calls into question all kinds of philosophical and ideological issues that challenge the very fundamental values of Christianity. It’s a classic battle, a clash of ideals, an archetypical struggle to maintain identity and cling to precious values in a world that changes with every passing day.
What it boils down to, however, is a debate of practicality. The Vatican devises its doctrine in a Catholic world, but educates its students in a secular one. While instilling the vital Gospel values of love, mercy and righteousness in its students is always the first priority, at some point, the Church, and the Archdiocese of Seattle, and Bishop Blanchet High School have to find a way to give students the information they need to protect themselves from STD’s and pregnancy.
Blanchet seems to have struck a good balance. Officially, health classes and religion classes that deal with sex must promote abstinence, but in a more liberal part of the country, the faculty seems to have a bit more leeway.
“When we cover the male and female reproductive systems we talk about the parts of the system and how they function as well as how they operate to achieve the primary goal of creating life,” said a Blanchet health teacher. “We discuss the different types of contraceptives and their effectiveness in protecting the individual from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy protection, emphasizing that abstinence is the most effective.”
The curriculum isn’t strictly abstinence-only, but it is a far cry from the comprehensive sex ed that is the norm at public and secular schools, and to many students it is not adequate.
A recent survey of Blanchet students found that 58% of students do not feel satisfied with the amount and quality of sex education they have received at Blanchet.
“At Blanchet, the health class only teaches the Catholic Church’s teaching, which would be abstinence,” said one anonymous student. “But I feel like the school should realize that not everyone is going to wait until marriage to have sex and that we should have more options.”
The results of the survey, which gathered statistical data as well as anonymous opinions from students, emphasized that students don’t just want to learn facts about contraceptives but how to use them, and how to find them. Others want the school to not just address contraception, but educate students in order to dispel potentially harmful myths, like the notion that women can’t get pregnant during their periods.
“Instead of just letting us know that there are places such as Planned Parenthood and that contraception is available in the world if we seek it, it would be nice if BBHS gave us a more direct line to these resources,” said another anonymous student.
Indeed, Blanchet’s lack of sexual health resources remains perhaps the most controversial issue among students. Survey respondents expressed desire for a clinic or teen health center (common institutions at public and secular schools) where students could have access to birth control, pregnancy testing, STD screenings and counseling on sexual matters. 20 different students said they’d like to see condoms available at Blanchet, another common feature in public and secular schools.
One student said, “I’d like to see at least more sexual health information. I know it’s probably out of the question to ask for pregnancy tests and birth control, even if that would be very beneficial.”
Perhaps most shockingly, the survey indicates that 58% of Blanchet students have had sex, and 39% of those students have had unprotected sex. Sadly, 42% of all students describe their sex education as abstinence-only, and 16% say they have received no sex education at all.
The statistics seem to beg for a change, but again, it is a matter of practicality. Blanchet’s policies are the Church’s policies, and they aren’t arbitrary.
Humanae Vitae is the cornerstone of this debate, the source of the proverbial firestorm that surrounds this issue. It is a papal encyclical, a document published by Pope Paul VI in 1968. It is the source of the Church’s stance on contraception and the reason that it teaches abstinence to its students. It has always been an extremely controversial document; the opposition has been so outspoken and widespread that some blame it for the perpetuation of overpopulation, poverty and the spread of AIDS in strictly Christian African nations.
In essence, Humanae Vitae took the traditional Church teachings about contraception and took the extra step to set them in stone, to make them so official and permanent that reversing them would be near impossible. This was prompted by Vatican II, the ecumenical council in the 60’s that reevaluated and modernized the practices of the Catholic Church. This, along with the advent of new birth control methods like the pill compelled the Pope to create a Papal commission to decide whether to revaluate the traditional ban on birth control.
The committee voted overwhelmingly (30 of the 35 lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians, and 9 of the 12 bishops) that contraception was not necessarily immoral and that the traditional teaching should be overturned. They argued that the conjugal act itself should not be viewed as an isolated reality but in a larger context as a normal part of human life and relationships.
However, Paul VI decided to ignore the urgings of the Papal commission and instead publish the infamous document that would change the way Catholics deal with their sexuality. The encyclical lambasts and officially bans artificial barrier methods like condoms and birth control pills as a violation of natural law. It says that in order to be in accordance with God’s natural law, “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” The document is still the official law of the Church, and still calls every form of artificial birth control “illicit.”
The reception in the religious community was mostly negative. Priests and theologians wanted to emphasize primacy of conscience, the idea that every situation is different, and Catholics must be guided by their consciences instead of blanket statements in order to do the right thing in their particular situation. They wanted to acknowledge the fact that not everyone can realistically abide by the encyclical, and those that cannot should not feel separated from God’s love.
The question really is, Humanae Vitae is on the books, but is it a black and white law or is it a law to be strived for?
That’s a good question, considering that The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 97% of American Catholic women over 18 have used a banned form of birth control, and Harris Interactive says that 90% of Catholics support the use of birth control. With numbers like that, it’s clear that in this area, conscience is taking precedent over Church teaching.
With primacy of conscience, the idea of practicality comes back into play. If scientific research shows that abstinence-only sex education can be harmful to students, should Blanchet and the Church be guided by policy or by conscience? This is where the debate wades into some muddy waters.
Early Christian scholars upheld the notion that sex was only for procreation, period. The doctrine was eventually watered down to allow sterile and menopausal women to partake. Today, natural family planning – intercourse during the so-called “safe period” of a woman’s menstrual cycle – is even allowed. Maybe allowing artificial birth control isn’t that crazy; maybe it’s not even that far off. But one thing that is clear is that through the centuries of redactions and alterations to “infallible” doctrine, the underlying Gospel values of love, mercy, righteousness and purity of heart have not wavered a single inch. Traditions and rules and doctrines about things like sex may come and go, but the ability of the Church to change people’s lives for the better will remain solidly cemented in place for eternity. Maybe that’s what’s really important. And maybe there’s a way to instill those values in students and still teach them about contraception.
The debates about sanctity of life and natural law are best left to Biblical scholars, but for now sex is on the minds of Blanchet students. Responses to the survey show that this is issue a big deal for many of Blanchet’s students. Keeping this in mind, maybe it’s that time again. Maybe the paradigm is shifting. Maybe society is taking such a sharp turn that the Church will have to do its best to keep up. And maybe this is a good time for the Church to refocus its position. It’s done it before. Will it actually happen this time? That’s a question for another day.