Abstinence-only education is about more than telling kids to "Just say no," according to Suzanne Stack, life-issues coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester.
A good abstinence-education program will teach kids why they should say no, and Stack said the short answer to that question comes down to one word: respect.
"That whole ‘just say no’ business doesn’t work if you don’t get that complete understanding of how important it is to respect yourself, set boundaries and respect the other person," Stack said. "It has to be on that foundation of respect, because otherwise it’s just about how to keep your pants zipped, and that’s not enough."
The basis for the need for respect may be found in church teachings, both about the virtue of chastity and about the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death, she added. Catholic schools and catechetical programs in the Diocese of Rochester draw upon these teachings as they incorporate abstinence education into their religion curricula, she said.
Abstinence education in diocesan schools and parishes falls under the broader heading of education in chaste living, according to Anthony S. Cook III, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. A module on chastity is included in the catechesis preparing children to receive the sacrament of confirmation in this diocese, he added.
Abstinence is a part of chaste living, although it is not the same thing as chastity, noted Mary Dundas, diocesan coordinator of evangelization and sacramental catechesis. While abstinence can be defined as the practice of refraining from indulgence in something, in this case sexual intercourse, living chastely is about far more, she said.
"If you’re just looking at abstinence you could have the potential to miss the broader concept of chaste living," Dundas remarked. "Chastity provides the foundation for a fuller understanding of who we are as children of God."
Catechists and teachers have a wealth of resources to help them teach students about the Catholic understanding of chaste living. One of the most valuable of these, according to both Dundas and Cook, is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2008 document, "Catechetical Formation in Chaste Living: Guidelines for Curriculum Design and Publication."
This document defines chastity as "a virtue that allows us to do what is right, good and truly loving in the areas of relationship and sexuality." Chastity, which the bishops describe as "a spiritual power," frees love from selfishness and aggression and promotes the full integration of sexuality within people according to their states in life as married, single, professed religious or consecrated celibate people. A person living a chaste life will direct his or her sexual desires toward authentic love and away from using other people as objects for sexual pleasure, the bishops continued. Thus, chastity is not about repressing sexual feelings but about successfully integrating the gift of sexuality in the whole person.
The decision to abstain from premarital sex comes out of this Catholic understanding of the whole person, Cook said. According to the bishops’ document, formation in the virtue of chastity includes, among other things, understanding one’s sexuality as a gift; the practice of decency and modesty in behavior, dress and speech; assistance in acquiring self-mastery and self-control; respect for human dignity in oneself and in others; and respect for one’s own body and for others as temples of the Holy Spirit.
"To integrate the gift of sexuality means to make it subordinate to love and respect through the practice of chastity," the bishops stated in "Catechetical Formation in Chaste Living."
When Catholics think about respect for life, they often think about the important moments at the beginning or end of life and the issues related to those moments, such as abortion and physician-assisted suicide, Stack said. Catholics, however, are called to demonstrate their respect for all human lives, including their own, in every choice they make.
"If we are upholding the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death, then part of that is having that respect for ourselves, our bodies and the other person’s body," Stack said.
Stack attributed reports of increasing numbers of sexual assaults on college campuses to many students’ lack of understanding of respect for themselves and others.
"The kids don’t get it. If they haven’t been taught that, they’re not going to think about it in the heat of the moment. … From a very early age, we have to help kids understand that level of respect for themselves, for other people. You have to be taught that," Stack said.
That’s why, for example, first-grade students in diocesan schools and faith-formation programs learn that bodies, talents, feelings and senses are gifts from God, according to the diocesan religion curriculum, which may be viewed online at www.dor.org/index.cfm/evangelization-catechesis/diocesan-religion-curricula. Students in fifth grade, meanwhile, learn that God made each person sacred and in his own image; that sexuality is part of how God made them; and that sexuality is good and holy. They also learn that chastity is the virtue by which they use their sexuality in a responsible and faithful way, and that the love between a husband and wife is a special, unique love.
Teachers and catechists never condone sexual activity outside of marriage and present discussions on abstinence in a positive manner while displaying the belief that students should, can and will abstain from sexual activity, Cook said. They promote the church’s teaching that the two purposes of sex are to bond married people to each other and to bring new life into the world, Stack said.
"The church teaches that the use of artificial contraceptives is morally unacceptable because they prevent the sexual act from being open to procreation," Cook said. "Not only is using condoms to prevent the spread of HIV unreliable, advocating their use is, in effect, promoting morally unacceptable behavior."
He noted that the social responsibility of the Catholic Church requires Catholic educators to do all they can to dispel the myth of "safe sex."
"We know there’s no such thing as safe sex outside of abstinence," Stack concurred.
Artificial contraception may prevent pregnancy, but it can’t always stop the spread of disease and certainly does not reinforce the importance of chaste living, she added. And to promote abstinence while also discussing artificial contraception as a "fall-back plan" is contradictory, Stack said.
"It’s really sending a mixed message, and I think it’s giving up (on students)," she said. "I think (promoting artificial contraception) is disrespectful. It’s taking the easy way out, which is not respectful of their personhood, their bodies, their minds."