It is now the liberal progressives who peer through valley of the squinting windows

Criticism of Catholic Church’s sexual teaching in classroom marked by harshness and condemnation

There was nothing new in the recent controversy regarding the sexual teaching of the Catholic Church and its place in the classroom. The publication of Flourish, a relationships and sexuality education (RSE) programme developed by the Irish Bishops' Conference for junior infants to sixth class, has prompted mixed reactions. But – and this was not new either – the leading objectors to the church's teaching conveyed a sense of shock and surprise, as if the church had suddenly made a radical new announcement, calculated to offend the reasonable and hurt the vulnerable.

The church has not always taught with gentleness, yet it’s clear that harshness and condemnation have skipped to the other side of the aisle. Our gleaming, new, tolerant Republic has limits to its pluralism: in the matter of sexuality, only liberal mainstream views can avoid opprobrium. It is now the progressives who peer through their curtains in the (only slightly reconfigured) valley of the squinting windows.

Human sexuality

The church will continue to proclaim a vision of human sexuality which, while austere, is coherent and sane. She will continue in the view that a gender quota applies in a pre-eminent way to marriage and child-rearing, despite the common insistence that gender quotas apply in every area of human endeavour except marriage and child-rearing.

It's hard to see how the disproportionate number of Catholic-patronage schools can continue

The issue of school patronage naturally accompanies such controversies, and there's no doubt that the figures look very odd: more than 90 per cent of primary schools under Catholic patronage, while the figure for consistent church attendance is, at best, rather less than a quarter of that. It's hard to see how the disproportionate number of Catholic-patronage schools can continue – and hard to see why it should. Vatican II's Declaration on Christian Education states that public authorities are bound "to ensure that public subsidies to schools are so allocated that parents are truly free to select schools for their children in accordance with their conscience." This cuts both ways.


Then there is the much-misunderstood and maligned business of ethos. When Pope Francis steadfastly proclaims the need for care of the environment, he is expressing and fostering Catholic ethos. Progressives don't mind, and nobody suggests that the pope is imposing his views, teaching mystifications that depend on the existence of God, or fostering confusion between environmental science and religion.

Catholic ethos

But as for sexual teachings as an expression of Catholic ethos – that’s a whole different matter: there is a stampede to proclaim the contaminating effect of ethos. The truth, however, is that ethos, as it is often invoked, is a red herring, brought into the debate to imply that the Catholic position is based on mystification, rather than on a clear set of principles that can be understood and assented to on the basis of reason, even by those who do not believe in God.

Handwringing over Catholic ethos begins to look like crocodile tears when it is done by those who show no interest in discussing key developments in sex education of children

The arguments are not actually between faith and science, or mystification and reason. They are between sets of ideas that must account for themselves at the bar of reason, between coherence and incoherence in how we view the human person and human sexuality.

Are our politicians ethos-free? Not by any stretch. There is more than a tincture of ideology in the Oireachtas when it comes to the matter of sex education, and when politicians criticise one approach, they should be utterly transparent about their own. Consider the 2019 Report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, which recommends changing the language in which RSE is taught, in order to reflect the "spectrum of gender identities". How many politicians have we heard expressing concern at this radical, untested proposal, or proposing widespread consultation with the nation's parents, or asking whether it will be conducive to the wellbeing of children? How many are willing to consider the growing concern that this approach may foster, rather than alleviate, gender dysphoria in children?

Crocodile tears

It is right to seek to ensure that children are not upset by what they hear in school, just as there is an onus on educators to be sensitive and thoughtful in all their teaching. But handwringing over Catholic ethos begins to look like crocodile tears when it is done by those who show no interest in discussing key developments in the sexual education of children, and who seem, instead, quite content to allow radical, ideologically-based changes to percolate into the education system.

The controversy over church teachings and their place in the classroom should not blind us to the worrying lack of controversy in other areas. But perhaps that is just what it is intended to do?