Knowing sexuality in document of the pontifical council for the family of the catholic church, teaching sexuality in the stages of development

Understanding sexuality from a Christian anthropological point of view

We offer part of chapter VI of the document on human sexuality of the Pontifical Council for the Family, highlighting some ideas. 

The complete reading of the document, with abundant notes, is a basis for understanding the theme of sexuality, from an adequate anthropological point of view.

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Learning stages of sexuality

64. Parents in particular have the duty to let their children know about the mysteries of human life , because the family "is, in fact, the best environment to accomplish the obligation of securing a gradual education in sexual life. The family has an affective dignity which is suited to making acceptable without trauma the most delicate realities and to integrating them harmoniously in a balanced and rich personality". As we have recalled, this primary task of the family includes the parents' right that their children should not be obliged to attend courses in school on this subject which are not in harmony with their religious and moral convictions. The school's task is not to substitute for the family, rather it is "assisting and completing the work of parents, furnishing children and adolescents with an evaluation of sexuality as value and task of the whole person, created male and female in the image of God".

In this regard, we recall what the Holy Father teaches in Familiaris Consortio: "The Church is firmly opposed to an often widespread form of imparting sex information dissociated from moral principles. That would merely be an introduction to the experience of pleasure and a stimulus leading to the loss of serenity — while still in the years of innocence — by opening the way to vice" (…).

Four Principles Regarding Information about Sexuality

65. 1. Each child is a unique and unrepeatable person and must receive individualized formation. Since parents know, understand and love each of their children in their uniqueness, they are in the best position to decide what the appropriate time is for providing a variety of information, according to their children's physical and spiritual growth. No one can take this capacity for discernment away from conscientious parents.

66. Each child's process of maturation as a person is different. Therefore, the most intimate aspects, whether biological or emotional, should be communicated in a personalized dialogue (…).

67. Experience shows that this dialogue works out better when the parent who communicates the biological, emotional, moral and spiritual information is of the same sex as the child or young person. Being aware of the role, emotions and problems of their own sex, mothers have a special bond with their daughters, and fathers with their sons (…).

68. 2. The moral dimension must always be part of their explanations . Parents should stress that Christians are called to live the gift of sexuality according to the plan of God who is Love, i.e., in the context of marriage or of consecrated virginity and also celibacy. They must insist on the positive value of chastity and its capacity to generate true love for other persons. This is the most radical and important moral aspect of chastity. Only a person who knows how to be chaste will know how to love in marriage or in virginity.

69. From the earliest age, parents may observe the beginning of instinctive genital activity in their child. It should not be considered repressive to correct such habits gently that could become sinful later, and, when necessary, to teach modesty as the child grows (…).

70. 3. Formation in chastity and timely information regarding sexuality must be provided in the broadest context of education for love . It is not sufficient, therefore, to provide information about sex together with objective moral principles. Constant help is also required for the growth of children's spiritual life, so that the biological development and impulses they begin to experience will always be accompanied by a growing love of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and an ever greater awareness of the dignity of each human person and his or her body. In the light of the mystery of Christ and the Church, parents can illustrate the positive values of human sexuality in the context of the person's original vocation to love and the universal call to holiness.

71. Therefore, in talks with children, suitable advice should always be given regarding how to grow in the love of God and one's neighbour, and how to overcome any difficulties: "These means are: discipline of the senses and the mind, watchfulness and prudence in avoiding occasions of sin, the observance of modesty, moderation in recreation, wholesome pursuits, assiduous prayer and frequent reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Young people especially should foster devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God".

72. To teach children how to evaluate the environments they frequent with a critical sense and true autonomy, as well as to accustom them to detachment in using the mass media, parents should always present positive models and suitable ways of using their vital energies, the meaning of friendship and solidarity in the overall area of society and of the Church.

When deviant tendencies and attitudes are present , which require great prudence and caution so as to recognize and evaluate situations properly, parents should also have recourse to specialists with solid scientific and moral formation in order to identify the causes over and above the symptoms, and help the subjects to overcome difficulties in a serious and clear way (…).

73. The objective of the parents' educational task is to pass on to their children the conviction that chastity in one's state in life is possible and that chastity brings joy . Joy springs from an awareness of maturation and harmony in one's emotional life, a gift of God and a gift of love that makes self-giving possible in the framework of one's vocation. Man is in fact the only creature on earth whom God wanted for its own sake, and "man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself" (…).

74. God's help is never lacking if each person makes the necessary commitment to respond to his grace. In helping, forming and respecting their children's conscience, parents should see that they receive the sacraments with awareness, guiding them by their own example. If children and young people experience the effects of God's grace and mercy in the sacraments, they will be capable of living chastity well, as a gift of God, for his glory and in order to love him and other people. Necessary and supernaturally effective help is provided by the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially if a regular confessor is available (…).

Reading well-chosen and recommended books of formation is also of great help both in offering a wider and deeper formation and in providing examples and testimonies of virtue.

75. Once the objectives of the information to be provided have been identified, the time and ways must be specified, starting from childhood.

4. Parents should provide this information with great delicacy , but clearly and at the appropriate time. Parents are well aware that their children must be treated in a personalized way, according to the personal conditions of their physiological and psychological development, and taking into due consideration the cultural environment of life and the adolescent's daily experience. In order to evaluate properly what they should say to each child, it is very important that parents first of all seek light from the Lord in prayer and that they discuss this together so that their words will be neither too explicit nor too vague. Giving too many details to children is counterproductive. But delaying the first information for too long is imprudent, because every human person has natural curiosity in this regard and, sooner or later, everyone begins to ask themselves questions, especially in cultures where too much can be seen, even in public.

76. In general, the first sexual information to be given to a small child does not deal with genital sexuality , but rather with pregnancy and the birth of a brother or sister. The child's natural curiosity is stimulated, for example, when it sees the signs of pregnancy in its mother and experiences waiting for a baby. Parents can take advantage of this happy experience in order to communicate some simple facts about pregnancy, but always in the deepest context of wonder at the creative work of God, who wants the new life he has given to be cared for in the mother's body, near her heart.

Children's Principal Stages of Development

77. It is important for parents to take their children's needs into consideration during the different stages of development. Keeping in mind that each child should receive individualized formation, parents can adapt the stages of education in love to the particular requirements of each child.

1. The Years of Innocence

78. It can be said that a child is in the stage described in John Paul II's words as "the years of innocence" from about five years of age until puberty — the beginning of which can be set at the first signs of changes in the boy or girl's body (the visible effect of an increased production of sexual hormones). This period of tranquility and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex (…).

79. During this stage of development, children are normally at ease with their body and its functions . They accept the need for modesty in dress and behaviour. Although they are aware of the physical differences between the two sexes, the growing child generally shows little interest in genital functions (…).

80. Nonetheless, this period of childhood is not without its own significance in terms of psycho-sexual development. A growing boy or girl is learning from adult example and family experience what it means to be a woman or a man. Certainly, expressions of natural tenderness and sensitivity should not be discouraged among boys, nor should girls be excluded from vigorous physical activities. On the other hand, in some societies subjected to ideological pressures, parents should also protect themselves from an exaggerated opposition to what is defined as a "stereotyping of roles". The real differences between the two sexes should not be ignored or minimized, and in a healthy family environment children will learn that it is natural for a certain difference to exist between the usual family and domestic roles of men and women.

81. During this stage, girls will generally be developing a maternal interest in babies, motherhood and homemaking. By constantly taking the Motherhood of the most holy Virgin Mary as a model, they should be encouraged to value their femininity.

82. In this period, a boy is at a relatively tranquil stage of development. This is often the easiest time for him to set up a good relationship with his father. At this time, he should learn that, although it must be considered as a divine gift, his masculinity is not a sign of superiority with regard to women, but a call from God to take on certain roles and responsibilities. Boys should be discouraged from becoming overly aggressive or too concerned about physical prowess as proof of their virility.

83. Nonetheless, in the context of moral and sexual information, various problems can arise in this stage of childhood. In some societies today, there are planned and determined attempts to impose premature sex information on children. But, at this stage of development, children are still not capable of fully understanding the value of the affective dimension of sexuality. They cannot understand and control sexual imagery within the proper context of moral principles and, for this reason, they cannot integrate premature sexual information with moral responsibility. Such information tends to shatter their emotional and educational development and to disturb the natural serenity of this period of life (…).

84. A further problem arises when children receive premature sex information from the mass media or from their peers who have been led astray or received premature sex education. In this case, parents will have to begin to give carefully limited sexual information, usually to correct immoral and erroneous information or to control obscene language.

85. Sexual violence with regard to children is not infrequent. Parents must protect their children, first by teaching them a form of modesty and reserve with regard to strangers, as well as by giving suitable sexual information, but without going into details and particulars that might upset or frighten them.

86. As in the first years of life also during childhood, parents should encourage a spirit of collaboration, obedience, generosity and self-denial in their children, as well as a capacity for self-reflection and sublimation. In fact, a characteristic of this period of development is an attraction toward intellectual activities. Using the intellect makes it possible to acquire the strength and ability to control the surrounding situation and, before long, to control bodily instincts, so as to transform them into intellectual and rational activities.

An undisciplined or spoilt child is inclined toward a certain immaturity and moral weakness in future years because chastity is difficult to maintain if a person develops selfish or disordered habits and cannot behave with proper concern and respect for others. Parents should present objective standards of what is right and wrong, thereby creating a sure moral framework for life.

2. Puberty

87. Puberty, which constitutes the initial phase of adolescence, is a time in which parents are called to be particularly attentive to the Christian education of their children. This is a time of self-discovery and "of one's own inner world, the time of generous plans, the time when the feeling of love awakens, with the biological impulses of sexuality, the time of the desire to be together, the time of particularly intense joy connected with the exhilarating discovery of life. But often it is also the age of deeper questioning, of anguished or even frustrating searching, of a certain mistrust of others and dangerous introspection, and the age sometimes of the first experiences of setbacks and of disappointments".

88. Parents should pay particular attention to their children's gradual development and to their physical and psychological changes, which are decisive in the maturing of the personality. Without showing anxiety, fear or obsessive concern, parents will not let cowardice or convenience hinder their work. This is naturally an important moment for teaching the value of chastity, which will also be expressed in the way sexual information is given. In this phase, educational needs also concern the genital aspects, hence requiring a presentation both on the level of values and the reality as a whole. Moreover, this implies an understanding of the context of procreation, marriage and the family, a context which must be kept present in an authentic task of sexual education.

89. Beginning with the changes which their sons and daughters experience in their bodies , parents are thus bound to give more detailed explanations about sexuality (in an on-going relationship of trust and friendship) each time girls confide in their mothers and boys in their fathers. This relationship of trust and friendship should have already started in the first years of life.

90. Another important task for parents is following the gradual physiological development of their daughters and helping them joyfully to accept the development of their femininity in a bodily, psychological and spiritual sense. Therefore, normally, one should discuss the cycles of fertility and their meaning . But it is still not necessary to give detailed explanations about sexual union, unless this is explicitly requested.

91. It is very important for adolescent boys to be helped to understand the stages of physical and physiological development of the genital organs before they get this information from their companions or from persons who are not well-intentioned. The physiological facts about male puberty should be presented in an atmosphere of serenity, positively and with reserve, in the framework of marriage, family and fatherhood. Instructing both adolescent girls and boys should also include detailed and sufficient information about the bodily and psychological characteristics of the opposite sex, about whom their curiosity is growing (…).

92. Through a trusting and open dialogue, parents can guide their daughters in facing any emotional perplexity , and support the value of Christian chastity out of consideration for the other sex. Instruction for both girls and boys should aim at pointing out the beauty of motherhood and the wonderful reality of procreation, as well as the deep meaning of virginity. In this way they will be helped to go against the hedonistic mentality which is very widespread today and particularly, at such a decisive stage, in preventing the "contraceptive mentality", which unfortunately is very common and which girls will have to face later in marriage.

93. During puberty, the psychological and emotional development of boys can make them vulnerable to erotic fantasies and they may be tempted to try sexual experiences. Parents should be close to their sons and correct the tendency to use sexuality in a hedonistic and materialistic way . Therefore, they should remind boys about God's gift, received in order to cooperate with him "to actualize in history the original blessing of the Creator — that of transmitting by procreation the divine image from person to person..."; and this will strengthen their awareness that, "Fecundity is the fruit and the sign of conjugal love, the living testimony of the full reciprocal self-giving of the spouses". In this way sons will also learn the respect due to women. The parents' task of informing and instructing is necessary, not because their sons would not know about sexual reality in other ways, but so that they will know about it in the right light.

94. In a positive and prudent way, parents will carry out what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council requested: "It is important to give suitable and timely instruction to young people, above all in the heart of their own families, about the dignity of married love, its role and its exercise; in this way they will be able to engage in honourable courtship and enter upon marriage of their own" (…).

95. As its departure point, the formation of conscience requires being enlightened about: God's project of love for every single person, the positive and liberating value of the moral law, and awareness both of the weakness caused by sin and the means of grace which strengthen us on our path towards the good and towards salvation.

"Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person" — which is "man's most secret core and sanctuary", as the Second Vatican Council affirms, "enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments".

In fact, "conscience is a judgement of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed" (…).

96. In answering children's questions, parents should offer well-reasoned arguments about the great value of chastity and show the intellectual and human weakness of theories that inspire permissive and hedonistic behaviour. They will answer clearly, without giving excessive importance to pathological sexual problems. Nor will they give the false impression that sex is something shameful or dirty, because it is a great gift of God who placed the ability to generate life in the human body, thereby sharing his creative power with us. Indeed, both in the Scriptures (cf. Song of Songs 1-8; Hosea 2; Jeremiah 3: 1-3; Ezekial 23, etc.) and in the Christian mystical tradition, conjugal love has always been considered a symbol and image of God's love for us.

97. Since boys and girls at puberty are particularly vulnerable to emotional influences, through dialogue and the way they live, parents have the duty to help their children resist negative outside influences that may lead them to have little regard for Christian formation in love and chastity. Especially in societies overwhelmed by consumer pressures, parents should sometimes watch out for their children's relations with young people of the opposite sex — without making it too obvious. Even if they are socially acceptable, some habits of speech and conduct are not morally correct and represent a way of trivializing sexuality, reducing it to a consumer object. Parents should therefore teach their children the value of Christian modesty, moderate dress, and, when it comes to trends, the necessary autonomy characteristic of a man or woman with a mature personality.

3. Adolescence in One's Plan in Life

98. In terms of personal development, adolescence represents the period of self- projection and therefore the discovery of one's vocation . Both for physiological, social and cultural reasons, this period tends to be longer today than in the past. Christian parents should "educate the children for life in such a way that each one may fully perform his or her role according to the vocation received from God" (…).

99. It is very important for young people not to find themselves alone in discerning their personal vocation. Parental advice is relevant, at times decisive, as well as the support of a priest or other properly formed persons (in parishes, associations or in the new fruitful ecclesial movements, etc.) who are capable of helping them discover the vocational meaning of life and the various forms of the universal call to holiness. "Christ's Follow me' makes itself heard on the different paths taken by the disciples and confessors of the divine Redeemer".

100. For centuries, the concept of vocation was reserved exclusively for the priesthood and religious life. In recalling the Lord's teaching, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), the Second Vatican Council renewed the universal call to holiness. As Pope Paul VI wrote shortly after the Council: "This strong invitation to holiness could be regarded as the most characteristic element in the whole Magisterium of the Council, and so to say, its ultimate purpose" (…).

101. Therefore, in catechesis and the formation given both within and outside of the family, the Church's teaching on the sublime value of virginity and celibacy must never be lacking , but also the vocational meaning of marriage, which a Christian can never regard as only a human venture (…).

102. Parents should always strive to give example and witness with their own lives to fidelity to God and one another in the marriage covenant. Their example is especially decisive in adolescence, the phase when young people are looking for lived and attractive behaviour models. Since sexual problems become more evident at this time, parents should also help them to love the beauty and strength of chastity through prudent advice, highlighting the inestimable value of prayer and frequent fruitful recourse to the sacraments for a chaste life, especially personal confession. Furthermore, parents should be capable of giving their children, when necessary, a positive and serene explanation of the solid points of Christian morality such as, for example, the indissolubility of marriage and the relationship between love and procreation, as well as the immorality of premarital relations, abortion, contraception and masturbation. With regard to these immoral situations that contradict the meaning of giving in marriage, it is also good to recall that: "The two dimensions of conjugal union, the unitive and the procreative, cannot be artificially separated without damaging the deepest truth of the conjugal act itself" (…).

103. Masturbation particularly constitutes a very serious disorder that is illicit in itself and cannot be morally justified, although "the immaturity of adolescence (which can sometimes persist after that age), psychological imbalance or habit can influence behaviour, diminishing the deliberate character of the act and bringing about a situation whereby subjectively there may not always be serious fault" (…).

104. A particular problem that can appear during the process of sexual maturation is homosexuality, which is also spreading more and more in urbanized societies. This phenomenon must be presented with balanced judgement, in the light of the documents of the Church. Young people need to be helped to distinguish between the concepts of what is normal and abnormal, between subjective guilt and objective disorder, avoiding what would arouse hostility. On the other hand, the structural and complementary orientation of sexuality must be well clarified in relation to marriage, procreation and Christian chastity (…).

Especially when the practice of homosexual acts has not become a habit, many cases can benefit from appropriate therapy. In any case, persons in this situation must be accepted with respect, dignity and delicacy, and all forms of unjust discrimination must be avoided. If parents notice the appearance of this tendency or of related behaviour in their children, during childhood or adolescence, they should seek help from expert qualified persons in order to obtain all possible assistance.

For most homosexual persons, this condition constitutes a trial. "They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition". "Homosexual persons are called to chastity".

105. Awareness of the positive significance of sexuality for personal harmony and development, as well as the person's vocation in the family, society and the Church, always represents the educational horizon to be presented during the stages of adolescent growth. It must never be forgotten that the disordered use of sex tends progressively to destroy the person's capacity to love by making pleasure, instead of sincere self-giving, the end of sexuality and by reducing other persons to objects of one's own gratification. In this way the meaning of true love between a man and a woman (love always open to life) is weakened as well as the family itself. Moreover, this subsequently leads to disdain for the human life which could be conceived, which, in some situations, is then regarded as an evil that threatens personal pleasure. " The trivialization of sexuality is among the principal factors which have led to contempt for new life. Only a true love is able to protect life".

106. We must also remember how adolescents in industrialized societies are preoccupied and at times disturbed not only by the problems of self-identity, discovering their plan in life and difficulties in successfully integrating sexuality in a mature and well-oriented personality. They also have problems in accepting themselves and their bodies. In this regard, out-patient and specialized centres for adolescents have now sprung up, often characterized by purely hedonistic purposes. On the other hand, a healthy culture of the body leads to accepting oneself as a gift and as an incarnated spirit, called to be open to God and society. A healthy culture of the body should accompany formation in this very constructive period, which is also not without its risks (…).

107. Friendships are very important in this period. According to local social conditions and customs, adolescence is a time when young people enjoy more autonomy in their relations with others and in the hours they keep in family life (…).

108. Through loving and patient advice, parents will help young people to avoid an excessive closing in on themselves . When necessary, they will also teach them to go against social trends that tend to stifle true love and an appreciation for spiritual realities (…).

4. Towards Adulthood

109. It is not within the scope of this document to deal with the subject of proximate and immediate preparation for marriage, required for Christian formation and particularly recommended by the needs of the times and Church teaching. Nevertheless, it must be kept in mind that the parents' mission does not end when their children come of legal age which, in any case, varies according to different cultures and laws. Some particularly significant moments for young people are also when they enter the working world or higher education, moments when they come into contact with different behaviour models and occasions that represent a real personal challenge — a brusque contact at times, but a potentially beneficial one.

110. By keeping open a confident dialogue that encourages a sense of responsibility and respects their children's legitimate and necessary autonomy, parents will always be their reference point, through both advice and example, so that the process of broader socialization will make it possible for them to achieve a mature and integrated personality, internally and socially. In a special way, care should be taken that children do not discontinue their faith relationship with the Church and her activities which, on the contrary, should be intensified. They should learn how to choose models of thought and life for their future and how to become committed in the cultural and social area as Christians, without fear of professing that they are Christians and without losing a sense of vocation and the search for their own vocation.

In the period leading to engagement and the choice of that prefered attachment which can lead to forming a family, the role of parents should not consist merely in prohibitions, much less in imposing the choice of a fiancé or fiancée. On the contrary, they should help their children to define the necessary conditions for a serious, honorable and promising union, and support them on a path of clear and coherent Christian witness in relating with the person of the other sex.

111. Parents should avoid adopting the widespread mentality whereby girls are given every recommendation regarding virtue and the value of virginity, while the same is not required for boys, as if everything were licit for them (…).

Other resources for sexuality and chastity education

Read Chapter VII, practical guidelines on sexuality education

See document in Spanish

See doucment in Italian