For most Catholic parents a time will come when, sitting on the sofa at home watching pre-watershed primetime family television, for instance, their young children will hear references to transsexuality or homosexuality. An explanation will then be required as to why a man wishes to wear a dress and high heels or why two ladies are kissing.
This can be a bit unsettling, not least because in “the years of innocence” (from the age of five to puberty), as Pope St John Paul II called them, children really shouldn’t be concerned with these matters.
Such information “tends to shatter their emotional and educational development and to disturb the natural serenity of this period of life”, according to “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality”, a publication of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
“Parents should politely but firmly exclude any attempts to violate children’s innocence because such attempts compromise the spiritual, moral and emotional development of growing persons who have a right to innocence,” it says.
This isn’t so easy for parents when such attempts are beamed into their living rooms. Yet they can be confident that they are protecting their children by correcting immoral and erroneous information and the Church has a wealth of teaching to support them.
The Church has always taught that sexuality activity belongs solely within marriage (of a man and a woman), and the Catechism strongly proscribes any ill-treatment of those for whom same-sex attraction is a deep-seated condition, and often a trial, saying that they must be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity”.
Catholic parents therefore have a duty to teach tolerance while simultaneously explaining the Church’s teaching on chastity. A parent who fails to transmit both aspects of this teaching is falling short of the demands of the Church.
It seems sensible and reasonable, and parents are eminently the right people for the task. Yet last week it was announced that the state is to usurp this role because children were growing up in a “more complex” society.
The government’s new guidance is vague but nonetheless disturbing. The parental right to withdraw children from sex education will be removed when a child reaches 15, or in “exceptional circumstances” – which are not spelt out. Children should face compulsory teaching about LGBT issues “at a timely point” and primary school children should be taught that families “sometimes look different”: again, the key phrases are left open to interpretation.
But the direction seems clear. Sir Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough and a Catholic, said the changes represented a “fundamental shift of power to the state” from people who have their own “justifiable formal belief about the best way to teach sex education”.
A petition against the plans, which gained 107,000 signatures, said that “many of the RSE resources being produced by lobby groups and external organisations will actually cause more harm than good”.
But commentators like Dr Max Pemberton, writing in the Daily Mail, argued that such changes were essential to protect the 75 per cent of gay pupils who, according to Stonewall, the gay rights group, are bullied at faith schools.
“Parents of religious persuasions who don’t approve of homosexuality cannot be allowed to influence what their children are taught,” he wrote. “In 21st-century Britain we must not tolerate intolerance.”
Sadly, Catholics are only too familiar with what the ideas behind such militant sloganeering mean for them, and they have little to do with tolerance. In this case it is about who has the right to educate their children – parents, and the schools they choose, or the champions of the LGBT+ movement.