The human sexuality curriculum at Father Ryan High School, which has been taught for more than 30 years without objection, has recently come under the attack of a small group of critics.
The parents of a freshman student, who did not think the curriculum was appropriate for their child or other students at a Catholic high school, took their objections to a Canada-based website, which has launched an international effort to force Father Ryan to drop the curriculum.
But school officials say the curriculum, which is taught as part of freshman and sophomore theology classes, is in line with Catholic teaching, as presented in St. John Paul II’s the Theology of the Body, and is designed to help students understand human sexuality in light of Church teaching.
The theology curriculum has broad support within the Father Ryan High School community. Since the online criticism began, dozens of alumni, including men who are now seminarians and priests, recent graduates, and parents, many of whom have taken the class themselves and now have their own children at the school, have voiced their support. All have commented on the benefit that the theology program has been to their lives, its faithfulness to Church teaching, and their belief that the program should continue. Uniformly, they say that the curriculum was very helpful in their daily life as they faced temptations and made personal decisions growing into adulthood.
“I have taught this curriculum. What I was most surprised with was how little real information students had” about human sexuality, said Sara Hayes, Vice Principal and Academic Dean at Father Ryan.
“Our strong belief was we need to start with our freshmen so they had the tools to make decisions about respecting their bodies and others in a theological framework,” Hayes said. “This is a tremendous gift God has given you. You have to use it responsibly.”
The curriculum is a four-week segment taught during the Theology One course for freshmen and the sophomore theology class on Morality. With the school’s block schedule, the curriculum is taught over the course of 10 class periods across four weeks.
School and diocesan officials point out that the curriculum is within the guidelines for teaching about human sexuality as laid out by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican. The curriculum is rooted in Church teaching, drawing on the Theology of the Body as developed by St. John Paul II, said Father Gervan Menezes, the chaplain and a theology teacher at Father Ryan.
“A lot of times when we talk about sexuality, it is something bad,” Father Menezes said. “It’s beautiful because it comes from God.”
But students’ understanding of sexuality can be skewed by secular culture. By discussing it in light of Church teaching, Father Menezes said, students and teachers can have a dialogue about the subject in the safe environment of the classroom.
Several families considering enrolling their students at Father Ryan raised concerns about the curriculum with school officials last May and June, Hayes said. The school made some adjustments to the curriculum to address the families’ concerns, she said.
The materials for the curriculum include biological drawings of the human reproductive anatomy. “There is nothing pornographic about them,” Hayes said. In deference to the families, “we reduced the size and number of those drawings. We took out the ones they thought were most egregious even though we didn’t agree.”
The families also objected because curriculum also addresses how the body responds to stimulus, Hayes said. “We advocate they practice chastity. To do that they have to know what their bodies will want to do, with or without their permission.”
“They didn’t like that we use the word stimulation,” Hayes said. “We tried to put in a different word that they hopefully would find less offensive.”
Another objection was how the curriculum addresses artificial contraception. The curriculum addresses the fallacies of contraception, Hayes said.
The students are taught that society promotes artificial contraception as the norm, Hayes explained, but the teacher goes through the various methods, pointing out their dangers, how they cheapen God’s gift of human sexuality, and adversely affects the marriage bond.
The curriculum “tries to make the point with them how cheaply society values this gift,” Hayes said. “It’s not to teach them to go buy condoms.”
From the discussion of artificial contraception, the curriculum moves into a discussion of Natural Family Planning, which is consistent with Church teaching, Hayes said. The curriculum explains “why the Church embraces Natural Family Planning so a husband and wife can regulate their family growth in a way that is natural, healthy and requires a commitment from both parties,” she said. “It’s also done in the context of a faith belief. It’s not just purchased from a drug store shelf.”
“So, in no way are we advocating artificial contraception, it’s the opposite,” Hayes said.
The curriculum is readily available on the Father Ryan website for parents to review, Hayes said. School officials raised the concerns they had heard about the curriculum with families at a meeting for parents of new students, she said. “We didn’t want them to be unaware, so we posted to theology teacher websites the materials so (families) could review it. It’s up there now.”
In the curriculum for the sophomore Morality class, most of the time is spent on discussing chastity and building healthy relationships, Hayes said. “All of that is done in the context that marriage is the only place that sexual activity should be happening.”
“We did other things to accommodate them,” Hayes said of the families’ objections. School officials checked the statistics cited in the curriculum and updated them and created a bibliography of sources that cites Church teachings and official documents that the curriculum draws upon, she said.
In the end, at least one of the families asked the school to allow them to opt out of the curriculum for their child. Father Ryan doesn’t let its students opt out of any of the core classes they need to graduate, Father Menezes noted.
“When you come to Father Ryan you come to be part of the community in everything we do,” including attending school Masses and the theology classes that are required for all students, whether they are Catholic or not, Father Menezes said.
“We have people who disagree with the Church on immigration or other controversial issues,” said Father Menezes, but students aren’t allowed to opt out of those discussions.
“We teach what the Church teaches. We teach what we believe to be the truth. So we don’t let people opt out,” Hayes said.
Hayes acknowledged that public schools allow students to opt out of sex education classes. “That’s not what we teach,” she said. At Father Ryan, human sexuality is taught in the context of Church teachings, Hayes said. “You do have the option to opt out in public schools, and frankly I understand that, because there’s no faith element.”
“If you feel the need to opt out of what the Church is teaching, this may not be the right school for you,” Hayes said.
One of the families that raised their concerns enrolled their child at Father Ryan for the academic year, but eventually left the school. They took their complaints to the press and Bishop David Choby, who expressed his support for school officials and the curriculum.
“There have been some vicious attacks” online and in emails and phone calls in the wake of the coverage, Hayes said. The school took the precaution to hire off-duty police officers to patrol the school, she said. “I don’t like that. I don’t like our kids to see that and wonder what’s wrong. But they took it in stride.”
Alumni and parents and of current Father Ryan students have been supportive, Hayes said. “The reaction from inside our community has been incredible.”