Values-Based Sex Ed Appeals to Head, Heart

"Alive to the World" Program Called an Effective Alternative

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, MAY 27, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Many British Catholic parents were greatly relieved when a government sex education bill, which would probably have mandated Catholic schools to teach girls how to procure an abortion, was dropped ahead of the country's general election earlier this month.

The Children, Schools and Families Bill, which would have also required the teaching of divorce and same-sex relationships to primary school children as young as 7-11, was fiercely opposed by many Catholic parents who signed a petition in protest.

But such legislation is not unique to Britain: In many other countries, similar or worse sex education programs already exist, and governments are promising more of them. Only last month, authorities in Ontario were forced to climb down on a new "health and physical education curriculum" following anger from parents. And there's no guarantee that the U.K. bill won't be reintroduced in the new Parliament.

Yet there is an alternative approach, one that is said to be highly effective for pupils, parents and teachers in Catholic and non-faith schools, and which governments could consider. Called Alive to the World, it is a program of personal, social and health education that focuses primarily on values rather than sexuality. It is already being successfully taught in some Latin American and British schools.

Originally conceived and produced in Spanish by Christine de Marcellus Vollmer, a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Academy for Life, it contains course books that guide pupils aged 8-13 on how to form good, healthy and lasting relationships.

"Sex education has never been defined, it's always 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge, we know what that is,'" Vollmer explains. "So we defined it thus: Sex education is everything an individual has to learn from birth in order to be able to live happily ever after with their spouse. And what do you have to know in order to live harmoniously and forever with another person -- even if it's your mother, sister, or brother? You need to learn patience, generosity, loyalty, understanding, how to listen, how to express yourself -- there are so many things you need in order to be successfully married for 50 years."

For this reason, Vollmer and her colleagues prefer to call sex education "values education" because values lead to the virtues. "If you are persevering, committed, truthful and all these good things," she says, "then this is going to make your sexual relationships fall into place -- you don't have to start with the genitals in the way all these horrible other programs do."

Charlie's friends

Based on extensive modern research by psychologists, developmentalists, and sexologists, the Alive to the World course centers on events in the lives of Charlie, his cousin, Alice, and some of their friends. The pages are brought to life through illustrations and simple stories, and the characters grow older and more mature along with the readers. "Eight-year-old kids love it because it's all about sports," says Vollmer, herself a married mother of seven and a grandmother of 20.

The program takes a three-pronged approach, appealing to the head, the heart and practical action. It also claims to be very anthropologically and neurologically based. Lessons on humility, caring and sharing, temptations, teamwork are just some of the themes covered.

But perhaps most importantly, it's compatible with sex education requirements set by many governments. "You can't stop these obscene programs, all you can do is make something better to take its place," says Vollmer, who has had plenty of experience of battling with destructive state sex-ed programs in Latin America. "I always say to people: There are poor people so hungry that they eat out of garbage bins but if you say to one of them 'Do you want garbage or this beef steak?' they will always take the beef steak." The course does, therefore, teach about contraception and abortion, but always in ways that uphold the natural law. "We don't say anything that isn't untrue or which sounds religious, but the kids realize they don't want to go that way," she says.

Vollmer offers some remarkable testimonies among schools that have used the program. One, in a poor region of Argentina, had such unruly pupils that a whole class was expelled. But a year after using the course, "the violence disappeared." At another, a "Bolivarian" school set up by Hugo Chávez in her adopted country of Venezuela, the course had a similar effect. "Three years prior to using the course, teachers had to be saved from gangs of students," Vollmer explains. "That's now all gone."

Truly Catholic

Some Catholic schools in Britain have had reservations because the program is not overtly religious. But Vollmer says such concerns are unwarranted: Catechetics, she believes, are only usually effective if children have been taught these values and virtues underneath. She believes both the course and religious education can be taught effectively together, and refers to Westminster Choir School in London which has managed to combine the two. The program, she says, "is Catholic in the true sense."

Since its beginnings, Alive to the World has had the strong support of the Vatican. When he was president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the late Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo called it an "extremely useful program," which "meets the cry for help from parents." In a letter of recommendation, he added: "I believe this major work has achieved a complete and successful product which will be of great help, and in a sense bring relief, to all who use it." He also noted that its stress on moral values was in tune with his council's 1995 document, "Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality." His successor, Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, is said to also be supportive.

Another positive aspect of the course is that it is said to be adaptable and not limited to various cultures (some books are being devised for schools in Africa). Vollmer's next goal is to introduce it to American schools, which she says would be straightforward in a practical sense as the course texts are already available in American English and in Spanish.

But it's not only pupils it's aimed at helping, but parents, too -- many of whom have little knowledge about how to bring up children. "Today's grandmothers were hippies," says Vollmer. "The chain of what you teach your child was sort of broken in the 60s; mothers after that time have done their best, but they don't know whether to say yes or no to everything, and they don't know because it's really been half a century since everything was thrown out the window."

In a letter of recommendation for Alive to the World, Cardinal López Trujillo made these important points on sex education in a world where moral relativism and a sexualization of culture is predominant: "Sex education is often given without the correct outlook and necessary prudence, and as a result it transmits views which are questionable and ends up by defending the trivialization of sexuality, which is a gift from God.

"It should be linked to values such as friendship, fidelity, companionship, honesty and respect for nature. It should be education for love, in the noblest sense, with an authentic responsibility which goes deep into the truth of what it is to be a human being."

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org