Vatican’s new sex education guidelines sell women short

It may come as a surprise to some that the Vatican now is undertaking sex education. And it turns out there is more to its just released sex education guidelines for young people aged 12 to 16 than simply “Just say no.” But the Catholic Church still is sending enough troubling messages to make any Catholic feminist weep.

I guess I should be thankful that the Vatican believes that the human body is not to be despised, contrary to what I was taught in parochial school long ago. And there are good things in this sex education package. It encourages teens to see boys and girls as people. It helps teens understand the power of emotions. I’m not quite sure what to make of the assortment of films the Vatican suggests for educators, since so much would depend on how they were interpreted.

Of course, I didn’t expect the Vatican’s sex education kit to teach kids any useful information about contraception, or even preventing sexual transmitted diseases. Nor did I expect the Vatican to suggest the possibility that sexuality is a continuum or that many of the characteristics we attribute to each gender are social constructs.

But at the very least, I would like the Vatican to give up this “girls are pink” and “boys are blue” mindset that is generations out of date.

The Vatican continues to sing the same old song of “complementarity” – that old saw that claims women and men may be equal but in a way that says they’re really not.

Complementarity holds that women and men are very, very different – in ways that restrict the women to more submissive and passive roles, primarily nurturing mothers and helpmates. Pope Francis himself has stated that he approves of feminism, but only if it does not “negate motherhood.”

Complementarity also means that women are not perceived worthy to be priests, or to assume meaningful leadership roles in the institutional church. And it ignores the contributions of unmarried women – who are not women religious — to the church and to society.

Given the church’s continued infatuation with complementarity, it’s not surprising that in this sex education guidance, boys and girls are taught that men are less dependent on relationships and more pragmatic, and women are, you know, wimps.

Oh, they don’t call us wimps. They use far loftier terms. “Man is more analytical and has a greater capacity for analysis.” While, “the affective response of the woman is global, and feelings and their manifestation play an important role. They give value to what is spoken. … Men compartmentalize and internalize affections to a greater extent.”

Worse, this sex education lesson for teens describe women’s bodies like all-night diners: “Inscribed in the woman’s body is the call to WELCOME both man and baby” [emphasis in original]. All we lack is a neon sign.

The Vatican just doesn’t overgeneralize, a la Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, it attacks efforts by women to declare that we’re more than these limiting definitions.

It critiques a “quest for sexual equality” that pits the sexes in a competition “to see who can get farther and who can be better.” Instead, the Vatican recommends that men and women use their energies for “helping each other.” That notion would work fine if there wasn’t a built-in assumption, perpetuated by the Vatican in these materials, that women are inferior.

Essentially, the Vatican would have teenage girls assume that their primary role is motherhood and that it’s not a good idea to compete with boys academically or in other arenas. It could certainly make life more difficult both for a girl who is analytical and pragmatic, and a boy who is tender and nurturing.

What’s really sad is that if the Vatican wanted to seriously explore sexual morality in the 21st century, it could take advantage of the groundbreaking, respectful and brilliant work of Catholic theologian Margaret Farley. Her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, carefully frames the challenge of living a moral sexual life in the context of emerging science on sexual preference and gender identity. Church officials might have learned something from Farley’s thoughtful and scholarly work. Farley’s insights could have informed a much richer approach to sex education.

The Vatican, under Pope Benedict XVI, did take notice after Farley, then a theology professor at Yale, published her book. The church rebuked her.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post

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3 thoughts on “Vatican’s new sex education guidelines sell women short

  1. Adam Visconto says:

    Dear Celia,
    It was by chance that I stumbled upon your article through Yahoo.com. And thank God that I did. As I poured through your words, I find the persistent struggle that I’ve encountered with the Catholic Church, finding both a voice and an identity in your words and work. I’ll give you a brief history of myself for context. I’m a 29 year old male born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. I have a beautiful wife who I’ve been married to for 11 years. And together we have three beautiful daughters. I was born and raised in a small community that consisted mainly of Polish and German Catholic families. I went to the local Polish Catholic School and church, Saint John Cantius. And while most of my peers heavily sighed and moaned in boredom at the mere mention of Church activities, I thrived in that setting. From a young age, I felt a calling to the priesthood. I had the celebration of the mass memorized to a “T” and often held “mass” in my living room accompanied by crackers and grape juice. I even had my mom sew me some custom vestments. I had an altar at home and my room was decorated with paintings and pictures of saints as opposed to bands and sport stars. Catholicism wasn’t just an adjective I used to describe myself; it was the verb that I tried to live every day. The whole culture of my being was, and still is, very Catholic. For someone who is too often a rebel at heart, I found a comforting place in the structure of the Catholic Church. I remained a faithful, Church going Catholic until my freshman year of high school. After that year, I transferred from my Catholic high school to a public high school. This put me in an environment where I was confronted with thoughts and feelings that I hadn’t dealt with before. And while I didn’t lose my faith, it was certainly tested and put through the fire. There was a spiritual element and deep connection to Jesus that I wasn’t finding in the Catholic Church anymore. I bounced around from progressive Christian churches with rock bands and power points, but to no avail. The spiritual rift was still there. For some time, I just kind of settled into that rift. I had a relationship with God; and it was okay with me. In the time from this revelation to today, I got married to my high school sweetheart and together, we welcomed three amazing girls into this world. Enter the beginning of my current spiritual dilemma. Growing up, I spent a lot of my time with my mother and my two sisters. My mother had a deep, personal devotion to the Blessed Mother. This was the root of the feminine aspect of my spiritual identity. I saw my mom struggle through multiple, personal hardships with a grace and humility that bordered on the divine. She perfectly exemplified the power of the “sacred feminine” and from her, a well of respect and admiration for the role of women was developed. As I held my daughters each for the first time, I looked at these amazing gifts from God and vowed to raise them to be fearless warriors in their own respect. I vowed to raise them as head strong women “clothed in strength and dignity” who “laughed without fear of the future.” But as they grew and I grew, I felt a yearning to return to the roots of my Catholic faith. I began attending mass in 2013 and would take my oldest daughter (6 at the time) with me. One day, while walking to mass, she said with great excitement how, when she grew up, she wanted to be one of those people who does all the stuff at mass. Her excitement quickly turned to sadness as she said, “But I can’t because I’m a girl.” To say my heart broke would be a gross understatement. All I wanted to do was shield my young goddess from the sad realities of a gender oppressive Church. I immediately got down on my knees and looked into her eyes. I told her, “You are a girl and that means you can do anything you want. The Jesus I believe in and love had many friends that were women. He believed women can do whatever men can do. And if being a priest is something you want, then you continue to talk to God about it and don’t give up until you make it happen.” We never made it to mass that night. And I haven’t been back since. I struggle, Ms. Wexler, with wanting to raise my daughters to be strong minded, feminist women; but also want them to see the beauty and love that exist within the Catholic Church. How can I justify inviting them to be members in a Church that teaches them that they’re second class citizens? I want to do right by them as their father. I want them to know the moral guidance and spiritual security that the Catholic Church has. But I also want them to see in themselves the eternal value and amazing grace that they have been given as young girls and one day women. Where do I go from here?
    With Great Appreciation,
    Adam Visconto

    Like

  2. avisconto says:

    Dear Celia,
    It was by chance that I stumbled upon your article through Yahoo.com. And thank God that I did. As I poured through your words, I find the persistent struggle that I’ve encountered with the Catholic Church, finding both a voice and an identity in your words and work. I’ll give you a brief history of myself for context. I’m a 29 year old male born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. I have a beautiful wife who I’ve been married to for 11 years. And together we have three beautiful daughters. I was born and raised in a small community that consisted mainly of Polish and German Catholic families. I went to the local Polish Catholic School and church, Saint John Cantius. And while most of my peers heavily sighed and moaned in boredom at the mere mention of Church activities, I thrived in that setting. From a young age, I felt a calling to the priesthood. I had the celebration of the mass memorized to a “T” and often held “mass” in my living room accompanied by crackers and grape juice. I even had my mom sew me some custom vestments. I had an altar at home and my room was decorated with paintings and pictures of saints as opposed to bands and sport stars. Catholicism wasn’t just an adjective I used to describe myself; it was the verb that I tried to live every day. The whole culture of my being was, and still is, very Catholic. For someone who is too often a rebel at heart, I found a comforting place in the structure of the Catholic Church. I remained a faithful, Church going Catholic until my freshman year of high school. After that year, I transferred from my Catholic high school to a public high school. This put me in an environment where I was confronted with thoughts and feelings that I hadn’t dealt with before. And while I didn’t lose my faith, it was certainly tested and put through the fire. There was a spiritual element and deep connection to Jesus that I wasn’t finding in the Catholic Church anymore. I bounced around from progressive Christian churches with rock bands and power points, but to no avail. The spiritual rift was still there. For some time, I just kind of settled into that rift. I had a relationship with God; and it was okay with me. In the time from this revelation to today, I got married to my high school sweetheart and together, we welcomed three amazing girls into this world. Enter the beginning of my current spiritual dilemma. Growing up, I spent a lot of my time with my mother and my two sisters. My mother had a deep, personal devotion to the Blessed Mother. This was the root of the feminine aspect of my spiritual identity. I saw my mom struggle through multiple, personal hardships with a grace and humility that bordered on the divine. She perfectly exemplified the power of the “sacred feminine” and from her, a well of respect and admiration for the role of women was developed. As I held my daughters each for the first time, I looked at these amazing gifts from God and vowed to raise them to be fearless warriors in their own respect. I vowed to raise them as head strong women “clothed in strength and dignity” who “laughed without fear of the future.” But as they grew and I grew, I felt a yearning to return to the roots of my Catholic faith. I began attending mass in 2013 and would take my oldest daughter (6 at the time) with me. One day, while walking to mass, she said with great excitement how, when she grew up, she wanted to be one of those people who does all the stuff at mass. Her excitement quickly turned to sadness as she said, “But I can’t because I’m a girl.” To say my heart broke would be a gross understatement. All I wanted to do was shield my young goddess from the sad realities of a gender oppressive Church. I immediately got down on my knees and looked into her eyes. I told her, “You are a girl and that means you can do anything you want. The Jesus I believe in and love had many friends that were women. He believed women can do whatever men can do. And if being a priest is something you want, then you continue to talk to God about it and don’t give up until you make it happen.” We never made it to mass that night. And I haven’t been back since. I struggle, Ms. Wexler, with wanting to raise my daughters to be strong minded, feminist women; but also want them to see the beauty and love that exist within the Catholic Church. How can I justify inviting them to be members in a Church that teaches them that they’re second class citizens? I want to do right by them as their father. I want them to know the moral guidance and spiritual security that the Catholic Church has. But I also want them to see in themselves the eternal value and amazing grace that they have been given as young girls and one day women. Where do I go from here?
    With Great Appreciation,
    Adam Visconto

    Like

    1. cwexler says:

      If I never replied to your very thoughtful post from last fall, I apologize. I am very bad at looking at the comments on my own blog, which is no excuse, I realize. I don’t have any good answers for you. In my own case, I wrote my book to see what works for me, and for me, there was enough good in Catholicism to stay in the church. But that may not be true for your daughters. There is a wonderful facebook group, Catholic Women Speak, that you may find helpful. But there are no easy answers. I think if women are allowed to become deacons, that will be a good first step. And Sister Simone Campbell makes the point that priesthood should be much more broadly defined, that in reality, all the people of God have a priestly function. I don’t mean to plug my book, but it actually might be helpful because the women I profile are so wise. Again, I’m sorry for this inexcusable delay. Best, Celia

      Like

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