Tuesday 26 April 2016

Inquiry into sexual violence in schools: my observations, and Pope Francis on the content of school sex education

The Women and Equalities Committee of the UK Parliament recently announced an inquiry into sexual harassment and violence in schools. At the time of the launch of the inquiry, much of the talk in the media coverage was about the need for enhanced sex education to address the issues raised, along with a renewal of the calls to make sex education a statutory requirement in the curriculum of all schools.

1. It is difficult, from the media coverage, to understand exactly the extent of the problem of sexual harassment and assault in schools, particularly incidents that are perpetrated by pupils on other pupils. Police data reported by the BBC after a Freedom of Information Request gave a headline figure of 4 000 alleged assaults and over 600 rape allegations in schools over a three year period, but suggested that only about one fifth of these incidents alleged an offence committed by a pupil. Maria Miller, the Women and Equalities minister was quoted by the BBC as saying that:
.... the evidence [the Women and  Equalities Committee] had heard exposed a "really concerning problem" of "widespread sexual harassment on a regular basis", particularly among young women.
The evidence compiled by the organisation Fixers, at the request of the Committee, in order to support the call for evidence by the Committee, indicated:
Some 18% [of young people in schools] reported being sexually harassed once or more than once and 34% did not feel safe walking to and from school. Some 12% stated they had been sexually assaulted.
Whilst recognising that sexual harassment experienced by young people represents a real issue to which schools should make an appropriate response, I am nevertheless put in mind of the way in which statistics with regard to bullying of LGBT pupils have been cited as justification for programmes that, in effect, give a preferential profile to that form of bullying in schools policy making when other triggers might well be behind many more instances of bullying in schools.  There will clearly be those who will use the data, with a political intent, to deliberately promote the notion of a particular type of statutory sex education curriculum in schools.

2. This report of comments by the General Secretary of the NAHT seems to me to have some potentially sinister implications:
Mr Hobby said: "We don't need you need to make PSHE statutory to make teachers do it, but to protect teachers when they do it, because otherwise they are vulnerable to accusations that they are pursuing a personal agenda.
"We've seen really difficult situations where parents who disagree with the philosophies that are being promoted are saying, 'You're doing this, you're brainwashing our children.'
"It's really helpful for professionals on the ground to be able to say, 'No, this is a duty, it's government regulation, and I am doing this as every school in the country is.'
"By not making statutory, the government is making teachers absorb the controversy when it really should be the government that's strong enough to absorb that."
Should the PSHE curriculum be used to promote "philosophies" that are not those that accord with the parents' wishes? And should the making of PSHE a statutory part of the curriculum be used to defend teachers in promoting such "philosophies"?  

3. It is interesting to read the Fixers report in full, so that you can make of it what it actually is rather than selectively using it to promote a particular notion of sex education. What is interesting to try and judge is whether, anywhere in the report, there is any consistent thread that there are sexual behaviours that can be considered morally wrong. I spotted a couple of points at which a hint of this occurred - but it seems to be something completely outside of the experience of the young people whose views were sought. A second interesting point is that a picture is portrayed in which the focus of concern is not "safe sex" and the like, but the personal and emotional consequences of the young people's sexual culture. It is almost as if the debate has moved on a step. I would also observe that the adoption of the language of "relationship", of "pleasure" from sex, of "consent" as if consent is the only moral determinant in the articulation of proposed actions by the young people already betrays an implicit acceptance of presuppositions that sit behind some of the problems identified by them.

4. In this context, Pope Francis' words on sex education in his recent Exhortation Amoris Laetitia are strikingly prescient (nn.280-286). I quote some parts of this section of the Exhortation below, but do read the whole section. Firstly, the paragraph in which Pope Francis discusses modesty - surely the principle that provides a response to the problem of the sharing of sexualised images highlighted by young people in the Fixers report and more generally:
A sexual education that fosters a healthy sense of modesty has immense value, however much some people nowadays consider modesty a relic of a bygone era. Modesty is a natural means whereby we defend our personal privacy and prevent ourselves from being turned into objects to be used. Without a sense of modesty, affection and sexuality can be reduced to an obsession with genitality and unhealthy behaviours that distort our capacity for love, and with forms of sexual violence that lead to inhuman treatment or cause hurt to others.
Comparing to the Italian translation, which reflects the French in this paragraph, and conveys slightly different nuances, including a stronger sense of objectivity in the way in which modesty protects the interiority of the person:
.....È una difesa naturale della persona che protegge la propria interiorità ed evita di trasformarsi in un puro oggetto. Senza il pudore, possiamo ridurre l’affetto e la sessualità a ossessioni che ci concentrano solo sulla genitalità, su morbosità che deformano la nostra capacità di amare e su diverse forme di violenza sessuale che ci portano ad essere trattati in modo inumano o a danneggiare gli altri.  [... It is a natural defence of the person that protects ones personal interior being and avoids ones becoming a pure object. Without modesty, we can reduce affection and sexuality to obsessions that concentrate only on genitality, on unhealthy behaviours that distort our capacity to love and on different forms of sexual violence that lead us to be treated in an inhuman way or to harm others].
And a second quotation:
Frequently, sex education deals primarily with "protection" through the practice of "safe sex". Such expressions convey a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance. It is always irresponsible to invite adolescents to toy with their bodies and their desires, as if they possessed the maturity, values, mutual commitment and goals proper to marriage. They end up being blithely encouraged to use other persons as an means of fulfilling their needs or limitations. The important thing is to teach them sensitivity to different expressions of love, mutual concern and care, loving respect and deeply meaningful communication. All of these prepare them for an integral and generous gift of self that will be expressed, following a public commitment, in the gift of their bodies. Sexual union in marriage will thus appear as a sign of an all-inclusive commitment, enriched by everything that has preceded it.
And a third:
....Beyond the understandable difficulties which individuals may experience, the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created, for “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation… An appreciation of our body as male or female is also necessary for our own self-awareness in an encounter with others different from ourselves. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment”. Only by losing the fear of being different, can we be freed of self-centredness and self-absorption. Sex education should help young people to accept their own bodies and to avoid the pretension “to cancel out sexual difference because one no longer knows how to deal with it".
 Again the French and Italian convey a nuance at a key point that the English does not quite capture:...."pouvoir se reconnaître soi-même dans la rencontre avec celui qui est different" ...."poter riconoscere se stessi nell’incontro con l’altro diverso da sé" ...... to be able to know oneself in the encounter with the one/the other who is different than ourself. The difference being referred to is clearly that between the male sex and the female sex.

Saturday 16 April 2016

Gender ideology harms children

The April 2016 Bulletin of the Family Education Trust has drawn my attention to a statement published on the website of the American College of Pediatricians, with the title "Gender Ideology Harms Children". A full statement is due to be published by the College later this year.

Before continuing with this post, please read the statement Gender Ideology Harms Children as I am not going to repeat it here. I add below my own observations, using the numbering of the paragraphs of the statement.

1-2. It appears to me to be the competence of the physiological/biological/chemical/physical sciences to arrive at the conclusion drawn by the American College of Pediatricians in n.1: "The norm for human design is to be conceived either male or female. Human sexuality is binary by design with the obvious purpose being the reproduction and flourishing of our species." The competence of sociology, referred to in n.2 with regard to the idea of "gender", does not extend to the sphere of human physiology. A discussion of gender should not displace or deny the physiological reality of sex (as it does, rather dishonestly, in much public discussion, by maintaining a silence on the real distinction between the two concepts).

2-3. These paragraphs appear, to me at least, to require some reflection on the relationship between a person's biological sex and their experienced gender. Whilst this reflection has its sociological and psychological dimensions about which I am not competent to speak, it also has a philosophical dimension. It strikes me that the account of the reality of this relationship, and the way in which that relationship should be supported to achieve outcomes that are in the interests of the health and well being of the persons involved, asks for an appropriate integration of the person's identifying gender with their physiological body. It is undermined by allowing the one level of human acting (the sociological/psychological) to override the other (the physiological). And yet it is precisely this overriding that the promotion of gender ideology seeks to bring about. Karol Wojtyla, for example, in The Acting Person, includes in his discussion of the integration of the person in their acting an account of the part played by the bodily dimension of human activity in that integration (cf Chapter 5):
The integrity of the man-person consists therefore in the normal, indeed, in the possibly perfect matching of "somatic subjectivity" with the efficacious and transcendent subjectivity of the person. Such integrity is the condition of the person's integrity in the action. Any defects in this respect are a threat to man's unity and may lead to his disintegration; that which is like the body's own subjectivity, the reactive and vegetative subjectivity of the body, is then out of tune with the person as the efficacious subject. We may say that it breaks out from the control of the person and gains a disadvantageous "independence". We then observe a kind of abnormality, something that seems contrary to nature; for it appears natural for the reactive and vegetative subjectivity of the body to be in tune with the person, the efficacious subject who is conscious of himself - at least in the sense in which such harmony corresponds to the human nature of the person.
None of this is to suggest that those experiencing gender dysphoria should be the subject of stigmatization or of discriminatory behaviour. It is, however, to offer a challenge to a surrounding ideology which might determine treatments, rather than it being good medicine that determines those treatments.

5. The importance of the figures cited here - even if we take the figures that are at the upper end of the cited ranges and therefore most favourable to those who wish to promote gender ideology - lies in challenging what I think of as the idea of a "single narrative". Testimonies from women who experience a decision with regard to abortion (and I have a book authored by a writer seeking to support women seeking legally available abortion containing such testimonies) indicate that the narrative of "making my own free choice" is only one narrative among many. And yet, in public debate, the right to make that choice is often presented as the one narrative, though the reality for many women reflects a different narrative. Likewise, the figures cited here with regard to young people experiencing gender dysphoria suggest that the narrative of the public debate - that is, the narrative of legitimising the suppression of puberty in preparation for sex change surgery - is offering a single narrative when the reality of the individual young people involved would appear to reflect a range of narratives that may well not be best served by such a presumption.

Pope Francis' observations in Laetitia Amoris n.56 are prescient in this context:
Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time”. It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised. It needs to be emphasized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated”. On the other hand, “the technological revolution in the field of human procreation has introduced the ability to manipulate the reproductive act, making it independent of the sexual relationship between a man and a woman. In this way, human life and parenthood have become modular and separable realities, subject mainly to the wishes of individuals or couples”. It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality.

Monday 11 April 2016

The "reception" of Amoris Laetitia

There is a line, and I think it is applied with some generosity in certain circles in commenting on Humanae Vitae, that an exercise of the teaching office of the Holy Father cannot be considered as teaching binding on the Church until it has been "received" by the ordinary faithful. And since - so they say - Humanae Vitae is ignored by the ordinary faithful it therefore does not offer us a binding teaching.

It is intensely ironic, therefore, to see the more immoderate of the Catholic aether engaging in precisely that exercise of "reception" - or, to be precise, "non-reception"  - with regard to Amoris Laetitia. The most immoderate appear to be those who are often seen as most authoritative but who have for a long time needed to be read with care and a health warning.

Surely you must see that you are playing the same game that you would, a generation ago, have roundly condemned in the criticism of Humanae Vitae, but now consider heroic in attacking Amoris Laetitia!

I repeat something that I have said before: the anti-Francis attitude is not Catholic. And we need to ask ourselves how much it is an anti-Francis attitude that underpins the avalanche of criticism of Amoris Laetitia. The absurdity of criticising this paragraph (n.52), for example, by citing just the section in italics is quite manifest, and even more so in a post that suggests the Amoris Laetitia has in its turn undertaken selective quotation:
No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole. The contrary is true: it poses a threat to the mature growth of individuals, the cultivation of community values and the moral progress of cities and countries. There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. [But note that the Italian "riconoscere" and the French "reconnaitre" can be read as meaning "recognise", which has a weaker nuance of approval than does the English "acknowledge"; and the Italian "piena" and French "pleine" suggest a "full" role rather than a "plenary"!]
So far I have only had time to dip into some paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia, but I have yet to find anything that warrants the venom being poured out upon it by others - quite the contrary.

See Elizabeth Scalia here, for what strikes me as a most sensible comment. In particular ..... do read the wholefor yourself!

[As an aside, what I have found most interesting is comparing the English, Italian and French, as there appear to be a number of places where the latter provide a nuance or implication that is not as apparent in the former.]

Sunday 3 April 2016

Do good and carry on!

One suspects a certain sense of mischief on the part of the translator into English from the original Italian of Pope Francis' words during the General Audience of 10th September 2014. Extracts from that audience address form the meditation for today in MAGNIFICAT. The choice of text for the meditation reflects today's feast of the Divine Mercy, described by our priest at Mass this morning as being the culmination of the whole of the Year of Mercy.
Mother Church teaches us to give food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty, to clothe those who are naked. And how does she do this? She does it through the example of so many saints, men and women, who did this in an exemplary fashion; but she does it also through the example of so many dads and mamas, who teach their children that what we have extra is for those who lack the basic necessities. It is important to know this. The rule of hospitality has always been sacred in the simplest Christian families: there is always a plate and a bed for the one in need.
The MAGNIFICAT extract ends with Pope Francis words:
Do good and carry on! 
These translate from the Italian:
Fa’ il bene e vai avanti! [Do what is good, and move forward!]
Perhaps just as thought provoking as the paragraph above, is the following from Pope Francis' audience address:
And thus the Church conducts herself like Jesus. She does not teach theoretical lessons on love, on mercy. She does not spread to the world a philosophy, a way of wisdom.... Of course, Christianity is also all of this, but as an effect, by reflex [but consequently, indirectly - see the Italian below]. Mother Church, like Jesus, teaches by example, and the words serve to illuminate the meaning of her actions.
E allora la Chiesa si comporta come Gesù. Non fa lezioni teoriche sull’amore, sulla misericordia. Non diffonde nel mondo una filosofia, una via di saggezza…. Certo, il Cristianesimo è anche tutto questo, ma per conseguenza, di riflesso. La madre Chiesa, come Gesù, insegna con l’esempio, e le parole servono ad illuminare il significato dei suoi gesti