Of The Catholic Church, Censorship and High-School Sex

Ryan Dunn

What, if any, responsibility does the Catholic Church have to adapt to the realities of a contemporary society when it comes to sex-ed and contraception, especially when the health and potentially life of students are at risk?

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.

Commentary Contraception

For Students at Religious Universities, Contraception Coverage Isn’t an Academic Debate

Alison Tanner

When the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case about faith-based objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate back to lower courts, it left students at religious colleges and universities with continuing uncertainty about getting essential health care. And that's not what religious freedom is about.

Read more of our articles on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

Students choose which university to attend for a variety of reasons: the programs offered, the proximity of campus to home, the institution’s reputation, the financial assistance available, and so on. But young people may need to ask whether their school is likely to discriminate in the provision of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage.

In Zubik v. Burwell, a group of cases sent back to the lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, a handful of religiously affiliated universities sought the right to deny their students, faculty, and staff access to health insurance coverage for contraception.

This isn’t just a legal debate for me. It’s personal. The private university where I attend law school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., currently complies with provisions in the Affordable Care Act that make it possible for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive access to those who want it. But some hope that these legal challenges to the ACA’s birth control rule will reverse that.

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Georgetown University Law Center refused to provide insurance coverage for contraception before the accommodation was created in 2012. Without a real decision by the Supreme Court, my access to contraception insurance will continue to be at risk while I’m in school.

I’m not alone. Approximately 1.9 million students attend religiously affiliated universities in the United States, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We students chose to attend these institutions for lots of reasons, many of which having nothing to do with religion. I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center because I felt it was the right school for me to pursue my academic and professional goals, it’s in a great city, it has an excellent faculty, and it has a vibrant public-interest law community.

Like many of my fellow students, I am not Catholic and do not share my university’s views on contraception and abortion. Although I was aware of Georgetown’s history of denying students’ essential health-care benefits, I did not think I should have to sacrifice the opportunity to attend an elite law school because I am a woman of reproductive age.

That’s why, as a former law clerk for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I helped to organize a brief before the high court on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities including Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and the University of Notre Dame.

Our brief defended the sensible accommodation crafted by the Obama administration. That compromise relieves religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations of any obligation to pay for or otherwise provide contraception coverage; in fact, they don’t have to pay a dime for it. Once the university informs the government that it does not want to pay for birth control, a third-party insurer steps in and provides coverage to the students, faculty, and staff who want it.

Remarkably, officials at the religious colleges still challenging the Affordable Care Act say this deal is not good enough. They’re arguing that the mere act of informing the government that they do not want to do something makes them “complicit” in the private decisions of others.

Such an argument stands religious freedom on its head in an attempt to impose one group’s theological beliefs on others by vetoing the third-party insurance providers’ distribution of essential health coverage to students, faculty, and staff.

This should not be viewed as some academic debate confined to legal textbooks and court chambers. It affects real people—most of them women. Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and other groups that study human sexuality have shown that use of artificial forms of birth control is nearly universal among sexually active women of childbearing years. That includes Catholic women, who use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics.

Indeed, contraception is essential health care, especially for students. An overwhelming number of young people’s pregnancies are unplanned, and having children while in college or a graduate program typically delays graduation, increases the likelihood that the parent will drop out, and may affect their future professional paths.

Additionally, many menstrual disorders make it difficult to focus in class; contraception alleviates the symptoms of a variety of illnesses, and it can help women actually preserve their long-term fertility. For example, one of the students who signed our brief told the Court that, “Without birth control, I experience menstrual cycles that make it hard to function in everyday life and do things like attend class.” Another woman who signed the brief told the Court, “I have a history of ovarian cysts and twice have required surgery, at ages 8 and 14. After my second surgery, the doctor informed me that I should take contraceptives, because if it happened again, I might be infertile.”

For these and many other reasons, women want and need convenient access to safe, affordable contraceptives. It is time for religiously affiliated institutions—and the Supreme Court—to acknowledge this reality.

Because we still don’t have an ultimate decision from the Supreme Court, incoming students cannot consider ease of access to contraception in deciding where to attend college, and they may risk committing to attend an university that will be legally allowed to discriminate against them. A religiously affiliated university may be in all other regards a perfect fit for a young woman. It’s unfair that she should face have to risk access to essential health care to pursue academic opportunity.

Religious liberty is an important right—and that’s why it should not be misinterpreted. Historically, religious freedom has been defined as the right to make decisions for yourself, not others. Religious freedom gives you have the right to determine where, how, and if you will engage in religious activities.

It does not, nor should it ever, give one person or institution the power to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.

News Law and Policy

Virginia School Board Wants Supreme Court in Fight Over Transgender Student Bathroom Access

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Gloucester County School Board wants the Supreme Court to decide whether federal law requires schools to let transgender students access facilities such as bathrooms that conform to their gender identity.

A Virginia school board will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step into the fight over bathroom access for transgender students in the first real legal test of the Obama administration’s agency actions on the issue.

The case involves Gavin Grimm, a Gloucester County student who, in 2015, challenged his school’s policy of separating transgender students from their peers in restrooms and mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity.

As previously reported by Rewire:

Grimm’s attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the restroom policy, which effectively expels transgender students from communal restrooms and requires them to use “alternative … private” restroom facilities, is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment and violates Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

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The school board defended its policy, arguing that it was consistent with federal law and that it protected the privacy rights of other students at Grimm’s school.

Grimm’s attorneys had asked a federal court for an injunction blocking the policy. A lower court initially sided with the school board; Grimm’s attorneys appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which reversed the lower court and ruled that Grimm’s lawsuit against his school could proceed.

On Tuesday the Fourth Circuit agreed to put its decision on hold while the school board filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to step in. The board is arguing that the Obama administration has gone too far on transgender rights, beginning in 2012, when it issued an initial agency opinion that refusing transgender students access to the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity violated Title IX.

In October 2015 the administration took that opinion one step further and filed a friend of the court brief on Grimm’s behalf with the Fourth Circuit, arguing it was the administration’s position that the school board’s policy specifically violated federal law. Then, in May this year, the administration expanded that opinion into a directive. Though it still didn’t have the force of law, the directive put all schools receiving federal funding on notice: Should they deny transgender students access to facilities that conform to students’ gender identity, they would be in violation of federal law and subject to lawsuits. The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on this guidance in siding with Grimm earlier this year.

It is not clear whether the Roberts Court will step into the issue of transgender students’ rights at this time. So far, no other federal appeals court has weighed in on the issue.

Meanwhile, 22 states have filed a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s 2016 directive, arguing that the administration overstepped its authority. That lawsuit is also in its early stages.

Both Grimm’s lawsuit and the states’ lawsuit in response suggest the issue of transgender rights and sex discrimination will end up before the Roberts Court at some point.