Health and Moral Education

What kind of life should I lead? What kind of person should I be?

Already I can know something of the God-given ideal of human dignity and human destiny. Despite human frailty, I have "the ability to seek and freely know the good, to recognise and reject evil, to choose truth and to oppose error" (Pope John Paul II: Message for World Day of Peace, 1991, I). But in a unique way God has made himself known through Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church so I can surely and fully find the answer to these questions.

Knowledge of God gives me an understanding of what it means to be human; I know myself in a new way. I learn that I am called to live in a relationship of love with God. That relationship both enables and requires me to love myself and other people in a way that affirms my humanity, upholds human dignity, and sets me on the way to the destiny God has prepared for me. For the sake of that relationship and to achieve that destiny I must live according to the moral order given by God. Catholics have to be educated in the Catholic principles of morality. They need to know the moral order whose bases are revealed by God in Jesus Christ. They also have to be motivated by a personal knowledge of God that moves them to live according to God's design. We, the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand, rightly expect programmes of education in Catholic schools to provide adequate knowledge of these moral principles and to provide important elements of that motivation.

In 1986 the Government education authorities introduced a health syllabus into all schools, including Catholic integrated schools. That syllabus contained moral and ethical teaching on a number of points of human attitude and behaviour.

In light of the divine moral order as it is understood and presented by the Catholic Church, the syllabus has to be supplemented in the several areas where its treatment of the human person is incomplete. In August 1990, amendments were made to the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of 1977. The amendments mean that persons of less than sixteen years can now obtain contraceptive advice and devices from any source and no-one is prevented from instructing such persons in the use of contraceptives, or persuading or directing them to use them. These things may be done even without the knowledge of parents or guardians. We know all of this has been a cause of deep concern to Catholic parents and teachers. We intend to give full support to their desire that teaching in our schools faithfully present a Catholic understanding of the moral order, especially concerning personal relationships and sexuality.

To this end, we are bringing up to date and presenting again the considerations we made public in 1986 when the Health Syllabus was introduced into our schools, and addressing the implications of the amendments to the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act.

i) No teacher in a Catholic school has authority to present any part of this or another syllabus in a context other than that which reflects the values and moral principles of the Catholic Church. Failure in this matter would be a serious breach of the obligations accepted by teachers in their appointment to a Catholic school in terms of its special character requirements.

ii) Those parts of the Health Syllabus about which we have a particular concern and to which we draw your attention are:

  • Building self-esteem
  • Caring for the body
  • Hygiene
  • Pubertal changes and associated body care
  • Eating for health.

These five areas have been chosen because they provide an opportunity to present values and morals in a context which is wider than health and which incorporates basic moral and value teachings.
a) Building Self-esteem
It is necessary that teachers present the human person as a spiritual being, having a relationship with God. Self-esteem, in the Christian context, comes from a belief and confidence in God and in what God offers us now and in eternity if we follow the teachings of Christ. The Health Syllabus presents self-esteem as a purely human phenomenon. While there is truth in the humanist approach, it is seriously incomplete. Christians see the basis of self-love in the unconditional and unique love God has for each one of us. If we are so loved by God, even as sinners, then we can love ourselves despite the mistakes we all make, and despite mental, physical or emotional flaws we may have. It is important to state this clearly and to uphold it in our Catholic educational programmes.
b) Caring for the Body and Hygiene
This is important from a health viewpoint. It is also necessary to present the body as God's creation, an earthly temple in which he is present. We have religious and spiritual reasons for caring for that body and maintaining it in a good and clean condition. Two extremes are to be avoided. One is that of complete materialism which concentrates exclusively on bodily well-being. The other approach concentrates so much on the spiritual dimension of the person that the body's needs are ignored or considered unimportant. The Christian faith enables us to see our bodiliness reflecting the image and likeness of God along with the spiritual qualities of our humanity. A joyful and wholesome earthiness is part of our faith, since Christ shared the same human flesh.
c) Eating for Health
This should be presented as positive concern for care of the body rather than as primarily the avoidance of abuse by over eating or poor choice of diet. As well, young people in this country can be reminded of the privilege and gift of having a choice of food. The virtues of fasting and abstinence are part of this topic, as is reference to the sin of gluttony in relation to food and drink. In the Christian life the use of appetites and delight in God's gift of food and drink are to be conditioned by moderation, by self-denial, and by our responsibility to share with the hungry.
d) Pubertal Changes and Associated Body Care
The biological facts will, and should be presented. In a Catholic school, however, they should be presented in the context of personal growth in the knowledge and love of God, in the context of the responsibility and freedom God is bestowing on the developing person, and in the context of the miracle of birth and life.

It is not enough to present simply the biological facts. In a Catholic school any biological description of bodily changes is to be accompanied by discussion of the nature and purpose of sexuality. Sex is essentially relational - by definition there cannot be one sex. For Christians, a human sexual relationship is intended by God to be the very model and exemplar of the whole self-giving required to communicate and transmit and nurture love and life. It is a human image of the relational nature of the Trinity. As such, it is of its nature long-term, enduring. It is a process, something that cannot take place in fleeting encounters or indeed, outside the permanent commitment which is marriage.

We wish to comment also on the amendments to the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, especially as they relate to sex education programmes. No doubt the amendments to the Act have been put in place by Parliament in the hope of limiting teenage pregnancies and of restricting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. This hope results from a defective philosophy of education which is revealed at the practical level when it is applied to sex education programmes.

We have set out above some elements of the Christian understanding of human sexuality. But even at the level of secular humanism, it is unrealistic to treat the intense moment of personal passion, or lonely craving for loving closeness with another human being, or whatever other variant of urgent sexual need that may assail a teenager, as if these were merely biological urges predictably controllable by technology. The practical inadequacy of this approach is worsened by the documented high rate of failure of contraceptive methods. Given this, and given that the risk of infection with a sexually transmitted disease is present in every act of intercourse with an infected person, the promise of "safe sex" through the use of condoms is quite unjustifiable Knowledge of sexual techniques or what is called sex education is simply not enough. Perhaps nowhere has more been done over recent decades to provide sex education than in the United States of America. Yet there, at least, there is evidence to indicate that teenage pregnancies are on the rise with a sequel of increase in the number of abortions and illegitimate births.

Thus, it seems clear that contraceptive advice and accessibility to contraceptives cannot in fact be expected to change adolescent behaviour. We must accept that only strong motivational codes and personal moral convictions can achieve the necessary self-restraint. It is tragic that the legislators of our country should in a wholesale way advocate free access to contraceptives. It seems to spring from the assumption either that many young people are incapable of responsible behaviour in personal relations and sexuality, or that, equally false, the use of contraceptives is what constitutes responsible sexual behaviour.

We have greater faith in our young people and in those who teach them. That is why we call all teachers in our Catholic schools to a new effort in presenting the teaching of the Catholic Church on sexuality, especially as it relates to contraception, sterilisation and abortion. This means putting the Church's ideals forward in a positive and convincing manner and setting out in an attractive and humane way the motives for chastity.

The greatest hope for our young people of developing a happy and sound sexual life will come from a capacity to love and accept themselves, and others, warmly and openly. This capacity can come into being and exist only along with an internalised sense of personal responsibility. This must begin in the family. It must be supported and developed in the school. That demands a clear actualisation of Catholic character in each of our schools, a constant and convincing presentation of Christian motivation, and a sound integration of religious education and moral incentive into the entire curriculum of the school, especially the Health Syllabus.

The Education Act 1964 (Section 105C) requires the principal of a school to consult the proprietor of the school, the board of trustees, and the parents of the pupils before an integrated school embarks on a programme of health education, wherever a change in the programme is proposed, and every eighteen months while the programme is running.

Principals of schools and boards of trustees should make contact with their Diocesan Religious Education Offices in the first place to arrange the consultation with their proprietors.

Parishes also have a part to play.

We ask that youth groups, too, provide a forum where young people can obtain a sound understanding of Catholic moral principles and be given supportive motivation.

We strongly recommend that teachers and parents take advantage of the expertise of Christian Family Life Education tutors in their area. The CFLE programme was established in 1979 by the New Zealand Bishops Conference for the specific purpose of providing Catholic values and approaches in sex education. It is our alternative to other programmes. It concentrates mainly on the formation of suitable persons, chosen from among parents and teachers, for this aspect of education. We would also encourage parishes, schools and other Catholic organisations to sponsor suitable parents and teachers for the two year training programme run by Christian Family Life Education through the ational Centre for Religious Studies.

Anyone responsible for Catholic education who requires help in interpreting this directive should contact the Diocesan Religious Education Office.