The Catholic Attitude to Sex Education

Joint Pastoral Letter of the Hierarchy of England and Wales, 1944


Dearly Beloved Brethren and Dear Children in Jesus Christ:

The publication of the Board of Education’s pamphlet on sex education in schools and youth organizations[1] has brought the subject into prominence and calls for some statement concerning the Catholic attitude towards the problem. We have no desire to minimize the necessity of some attention being paid to the problem both now and continuously in the future. But the remedy is to be found not so much in the imparting in public of fuller and more systematic knowledge of sex from the physiological or biological standpoint as by the removal of external temptations and by the general and determined inculcation of the practice of Christian virtue and our dependence on divine grace. “Far too common,” said Pope Pius XI, “is the error of those who, with dangerous assurance and under an ugly term, propagate a so-called sex education, falsely imagining they can forearm youths against the dangers of sensuality by means purely natural, such as a foolhardy initiation and precautionary instruction for all indiscriminately, even in public; and, worse still, exposing them, at an early age, to the occasions in order to accustom them, so it is argued, and as it were to harden them against such dangers. Such persons,” says the Pope, “grievously err in refusing to recognize the inborn weakness of human nature and the law of which the Apostle speaks, fighting against the law of the mind[2] and also in ignoring the experience of facts, from which it is clear that, particularly in young people, evil practices are the effect not so much of ignorance of intellect as of weakness of a will exposed to dangerous occasions and unsupported by the means of grace.”[3] 


If the problem with which we are concerned is accentuated in these days it is due, apart from wartime conditions, (1) to certain general influences which are responsible for placing before young people lower moral standards of life and conduct, and (2) to the failure on the part of many parents to fulfil the obligation which is theirs of instructing their children in the things

which concern the welfare of body and soul. The proposed instruction in the schools would be largely unnecessary if the causes of the evils which it is intended to remedy were, first of

all, removed — bad literature, bad pictures, bad theatre displays, shocking housing conditions. It is our opinion that these evils can and should be removed. As regards the parental instruction of children in the matters concerned, we are convinced that herein lies the chief cause and the remedy which is being sought. There is to-day a lamentable decline in family education due largely to an ever-increasing tendency on the part of parents deliberately obligation to see to the religious and moral education of their children rests primarily on themselves and that there are certain aspects of this education which cannot satisfactorily be delegated to others.[4] “However eminent school teachers may be in their profession,” said Pope Pius XII, addressing Catholic mothers, “they will have little success in the formation of your children without your collaboration.”[5] “To women, more than to anyone else,” continued the Pope,” is entrusted the first education of the child in its early months and years.”[6] The omission of parental instruction and parental discipline is undoubtedly responsible for many of the moral and social evils which we regret to-day. At the same time we are aware that even good parents sometimes feel themselves unprepared or ill-equipped for their work as educators, not only with regard to subjects which are now universally taught by specially trained teachers in the schools, but also with regard to matters which have, so far, been considered of a more intimate and personal nature and, accordingly, are more properly the sphere of the home.


The Catholic Church does not encourage such unpreparedness on the part of parents nor does she, as some have thought, favour a policy of complete secrecy between parents and children concerning the mysteries of life. Any doubts upon this have been set at rest by the pronouncements of recent Popes. “Train the mind of your children,” said the present Holy Father to the gathering of Catholic mothers on the Feast of Christ the King, 1941; “do not give them wrong ideas or wrong reasons for things; whatever their questions may be, do not answer them with evasions or untrue statements which their minds rarely accept, but take occasion from them lovingly and paternally to train their minds, which want only to open to the truth and to grasp it with the first ingenuous gropings of their reasoning and reflective powers.” Catholic parents can depend on the grace of the sacrament of matrimony and upon the additional help which comes from prayer and the frequent reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist to carry out this advice of the head of the Church with the desired results. Those seeking suggestions as to how the counsels of the Pope can be carried out with more full effect will find help in an increasing number of publications from reliable Catholic sources.

Nevertheless, in treating of these delicate matters, “every precaution must be taken” even by parents.[7] “Such is our misery and inclination to sin,” says a well-known Christian writer quoted by Pope Pius XI, “that often in the very things considered to be remedies against sin, we find occasions for and inducements to sin itself. Hence it is of the highest importance that a good father, while discussing with his son a matter so delicate, should be well on his guard and not descend to details, nor refer to the various ways in which this deadly hydra destroys with its poison so large a portion of the world; otherwise it may happen that, instead of extinguishing this fire, he unwittingly stirs or kindles it in the simple and tender heart of the child. Speaking generally,” concludes the same writer, “during the period of childhood it suffices to employ those remedies which produce the double effect of opening the door to the virtue of purity and closing the door upon vice.”[8]


Unfortunately, until parents are better equipped for their task, and do in fact carry out their obligations, there will always be some children lacking in the knowledge of those things intended by God for their own progress in virtue and for the fulfilment of God’s designs. But we do not admit that, therefore, the duty of imparting this knowledge necessarily falls upon the school teachers. Teachers have no strict right to arrogate to themselves parental duties; if called upon by the parents to deputize for them in this delicate matter they may very properly do so. Whilst we willingly and readily pay tribute to the highmindedness of the majority of the school-teachers of this country, and whilst we acknowledge with deep appreciation their contribution towards the welfare of our children and the common good, we feel it necessary to insist that the teacher is primarily “in place of the parent” (in loco parentis) and not a civil servant doing the work of the State. Accordingly, a teacher must always respect the rights and wishes of the parents concerning the education of children, and rather than taking over parental duties should regard it as their task to help parents towards the proper fulfilment of obligations. 

This is not to belittle or depreciate the help which individual teachers have, in their charity, given to individual children concerning even the more intimate matters of life. There will, unfortunately, always be some parents who neglect their obvious duties towards their children and whose omissions call for attention by someone else. In such cases the teacher or experienced youth-leader, animated by Christian charity and having the necessary competence, may be the best person to make up the deficiency. But it is advisable that the approval of the parents should always be sought. This help, however, on the more intimate matters of life must always remain personal and individual. Class or group instruction of children or of youth on the physiological aspect of sex would be fraught with grave dangers and would be against the traditional teaching of the Church.


To the question whether the method called “sexual education” or even “sexual initiation” could be approved, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, on 21st March, 1931, replied “in the negative”, and directed that “the method of educating youth employed by the Church and holy men in the past, and commended by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical on ‘The Christian Education of Youth’, 31st December 1929, must be preserved”. The method commended by the Pope, in the encyclical referred to, is clear. “In this extremely delicate matter,” says the Holy Father, “if, all things considered, some individual instruction is found necessary and opportune from those who hold from God the commission to educate and who have the grace of state, every precaution must be taken. Such precautions are well known in traditional Christian education.” These words, taken in conjunction with the decree of the Holy Office, leave no room to doubt that the Church is opposed to collective or public sex education with or without supposed “safeguards”. She teaches that, in place of such methods of sex education, “care must be taken, in the first place, to give a full, firm, and uninterrupted religious instruction to youth of both sexes; that an esteem and desire for and love of the angelic virtue be instilled into them; that they shall be urged, especially, to be instant in prayer, assiduous in the reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist; that they shall cultivate a filial devotion to the Blessed Virgin, Mother of holy purity, and place themselves under her protection; and that they shall carefully avoid dangerous reading, immodest shows, bad company, and all occasions of sin.”[9]


This attitude of the Church is not obscurantist, as some may suggest, but is based on her two thousand years’ experience and upon her unrivalled knowledge of human nature. Moreover, it is an attitude which is supported by eminent educationists and  psychologists. The late Professor Münsterberg, the noted American psychologist and, incidentally, a non-Catholic, in his famous essay on “Sex ‘Education’”, wrote: “It is hardly possible to disagree on the one factor of the situation, the existence of horrid calamities, and of deplorable abuses in the world of sex. To recognise these abscesses in the social organism necessarily means for every decent being the sincere and enthusiastic hope of removing them. There cannot be any dissent….. But while there must be perfect agreement about the moral duty of the social community, there can be the widest disagreement about the right method of carrying on this fight. The popular view of the day is distinctly that, as these evils were hidden from sight by the policy of silence, the right method of removing them from the world must be the opposite scheme, the policy of unveiled speech. The overwhelming majority has come to this conclusion as if it were a matter of course. The man in the street and, what is more surprising, the woman in the home are convinced that if we disapprove of those evils we must first of all condemn the silence of our forefathers. They feel as if he who sticks to the belief in silence must necessarily help the enemies of society, and become responsible for the alarming increase of sexual affliction and crime. They refuse to see that on the one side the existing facts and the burning need for their removal, and on the other side the question of the best method and best plan for the fight, are entirely distinct, and that the highest intention for social reform may go together with the deepest conviction that the popular method of the present day is doing incalculable harm, is utterly wrong, and is one of the most dangerous causes of that evil which it hopes to destroy.”[10]


The reason for the recent agitation in certain quarters for more general sex instruction is not altogether clear to us. If its main purpose is a social one, namely, to safeguard the physical welfare of the nation, then the advocates of sex instruction on the lines suggested are doomed to disappointment, since the evils concerned are the effect not so much of ignorance as of a

weakness of will unsupported by the means of grace. Information alone will not produce a healthy and sound nation; much less will it be sufficient to prepare souls for their eternal destiny in the next life. It is not so much information as formation which is required – formation of character, the training of the mind, the heart, and the will with thenecessary assistance of religion. The religious and moral training must continue to be the main method of approach in the schools and youth movements to the problems we are seeking to solve. The psychological aspect will doubtless have increasingly interesting contributions to offer, but the supernatural Christian formation must always provide the foundation of the ideal education or youth. Every other form of education is false and unsound and will lead neither to spiritual nor temporal well-being. We exhort our Catholic teachers and youth leaders, therefore, to continue in their holy vocation and to be instant in helping to form those in their charge in the ways of Christian virtue. We regard our Catholic schools as sanctuaries wherein our children are mightily strengthened in the faith and its practice. Nevertheless, the school or the youth centre must always remain complementary to the home and must not supplant it. Even if parents are found to be neglecting duties which are essentially parental and which cannot be normally undertaken as satisfactorily by others, the State should hesitate, by teaching in the schools or by other means, to encourage parents in their neglect. The State should rather take steps to see that parents themselves are better equipped for their parental tasks.


This encouragement of the fulfilment of parental responsibility will, indeed, be the first endeavour of the Church. With this in view we endorse the appeal of Pius XI to all pastors of souls “to use every means, by catechisms and instruction, by word of mouth and in widely published writings, to ensure that Christian parents are well instructed both in general and in particular regarding their duties in the religious, moral, and civic education of their children, and regarding the best methods — apart from their own example — of attaining that end.”[11] In carrying out this commission the clergy will, no doubt, find helpful those gatherings, organizations, and confraternities of Catholic parents, mothers, and adolescents which the Holy Father refers to as “worthy of all praise and encouragement.”[12]

We appeal to all Catholic parents to respond to the general effort which will be made on their behalf and to co-operate wholeheartedly in trying to equip themselves adequately for their noble task. We feel sure that with generous co-operation on the part of parents we shall not only go far to remove the present grave social and moral evils but that we shall help to build up a generation whose delight it will be to “seek the things that are above” and whose purity and integrity of life will be a joy both to God and man.

Given at Westminster on the Feast of St Anselm in the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-four, and appointed to be read in all the churches and chapels of England and Wales on the third Sunday after Easter.

(Signed by all the members of the Hierarchy)


[1] H.M. Stationery Office, 1943.

[2] Rom. VII. 23.

[3] Encyclical Divini illius magistri, 31 Dec. 1929.

[4] cf. Code of Canon Law, Cn. 1113.

[5] Alloc., 26 Oct. 1941.

[6] Ibid.

[7] cf. Pius XI, Divini illius magistri.

[8] Silvio Antoniano, Delreducazione cristiana dei figliuoli, lib. II, c88, ibid. 

[9] Decree of the Holy Office, 21 March 1931.

[10] cf. Psychology and Social Sanity, by Hugo Münsterberg.

[11] Divini illius magistri.

[12] Ibid.