The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) plans to incorporate the new Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) within the framework of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE). It has also indicated that there will be ‘a whole school approach’ to the subject which suggests the curricular content will not be confined to timetabled classes. These two changes in approach would effectively make the new RSE programme compulsory for all children.
The clear implication – and indeed intention – is that the Catholic/Christian ethos of the schools will be replaced by a new secular, if not overtly anti-religious one. Words like ‘factual’, ‘age appropriate’ and ‘comprehensive’ are ruses to mask that fact and suggest that what is proposed is as neutral as Chemistry or Algebra.
This is the key issue to confront. There is no curriculum, secular or religious, on human relationships and connected issues that can be ethos-free or value-free. RSE programmes are orientated to a view of marriage that is either indifferent to gender or is firmly defined as an exclusive union between one man and one woman.
They are ether based on an understanding that gender is primarily a social construct and as such is distinct from ‘sex assigned at birth’ or an understanding of sex and gender has intricately interconnected. Even the phrase, ‘assigned at birth’ strongly suggests that physiology itself is, potentially at least, irrelevant to gender identity. On the one hand, a secular curriculum supports a particular social construct of parenting and assigns no particular value to the biological link of children to both parents. It does not regard the gender identity of parents of any particular significance either. On the other hand, a relationships education imbued with a Catholic ethos holds the opposite assumptions.
More fundamentally, a Catholic ethos holds that sexuality is orientated to marriage, according to its understanding of marriage, and should be exclusive to it. The RSE programme the government proposes sees sexuality as orientated to nothing beyond sexual fulfillment. The only moral dimension that applies is consent. However sexuaity is expressed or practised, whether alone or with others, it is considered morally permissible provided consent is clear and explicit. The government cites ‘best international practice’ as an overarching authority for its programme. But best international practice, as recommended by WHO for instance, considers themes like ‘early childhood masturbation’ and the ‘first sexual experiences’ of 9-12 year olds appropriate for primary school children.
Related issues like abortion are also necessarily framed within an ethical framework. Secularist terminology defines abortion euphemistically as ‘reproductive healthcare’. It is unlikely any discussion of pregnancy will focus on the rapid and marvellous development of human organs and human function in the early weeks and months of gestation. The focus will instead be on the mother, her circumstances and choices. A very different approach, in very different language, from a Catholic programme.
It is nonsense to say that one programme carries an ethos and the other is ethos-free. Both are equally imbued with what may be called an ethos, a world view, a value system and even more fundamentally a very specific, anthropological understanding of sex, gender and parenting.
For the NCCA to say, with reference to their public consultation, ‘there is a broad consensus (among parents) that ethos should not be a barrier to students receiving a comprehensive curriculum in RSE’ is a disingenuous statement that means in effect, assuming the validity of such a claim, that there is a consensus that RSE should exclude a Catholic ethos. Some politicians, like Sinn Fein’s Education Spokesperson, Donnchadh O Laoghaire, have been more unequivocal and prepared to justify such exclusion on the basis that the referenda results on marriage and abortion show that Ireland no longer supports such an ethos.
This is really very concerning given the likelihood that Sinn Fein might be in a position to enforce such an anti-rights agenda in years to come. Liberal democracy is not to be equated with dictatorship of the majority, whatever the size of the majority. The separation of powers in our democratic system, between legislature and judiciary, is intended to guarantee fundamental rights for minorities.
Both powers are underpinned and limited by our Constitution. The referendum questions put to the people in 2015 and 2018 were very specific and did not set aside the constitutional provisions that uphold ‘the rights and duties of parents to provide for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children’. This is before we get to constitutionally backed rights of conscience and religious expression.
There has to be space for parents to provide the sort of RSE that accords with their values. Catholic schools, and no one disputes there should be far fewer of them in our rapidly secularising country, must have the freedom to teach an ethically appropriate as well as factually sound programme on sexuality and relationships to Catholic children. This does not mean that issues around LGBT+ won’t be raised in a respectful and sympathetic way. In fact the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly demands as much in stating that ‘people do not choose their homosexual condition and they must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity’. Catholic parents should be able to demand as much respect and sensitivity from their government.
It is, in the final analysis, not so much about the content of programmes as about the way they are orientated. A Catholic programme will lead with an emphasis on the value of the foundational social unit, the biological family comprising parents, children and extended family, an organic rather than an artificial ‘pack’ as American writer and social researcher, Mary Eberstadt, puts it. It is the bedrock of both society, culture and civilizations across millennia. A secular RSE will lead with an alphabet of sexual identities without reference to wider societal values and impact. Instead we get to learn that Leo Varadkar is gay, Katherine Zappone lesbian, Angelina Jolie bi-sexual, Elliot Page transexual, Miley Cyrus pansexual and so on. This is not just about normalizing what is decidedly non-normative, it is about making the normative shrink to become just one other point on a very wide spectrum.
One of the more disturbing things about the proposed RSE programme is that lobby groups like ShoutOut, Spun Out, BeLonG To and TENI frequently crop up as references and sources. It is disturbing that their representatives have had such an influence in the shaping of the proposed curriculum. It is even more disturbing that schools, including schools under Catholic patronage, consider it appropriate to invite such groups to give inputs in RSE classes. Such lobby groups are about promoting an ideology of gender that has nothing to do with imparting an informed, ethically nuanced programme in a faith school. A Catholic school should understand that even if the government doesn’t.
Failed by many school trustees, parents with concerns and objections need to mobilise into an effective counter lobby. September is not a long way off and disconnected voices are rarely heard. One thing that groups like ShoutOut have demonstrated is the power of a focussed, well articulated campaign.