The chattering classes have focused fresh attention on what they perceive as that last definable sin: hypocrisy. They claim to have found it anew in Sarah Palin’s family, because her son — recently married — seems to have conceived his first child before exchanging vows. This has naturally led to heated discussions over the abstinence-based programs which Mrs. Palin and other conservatives have consistently promoted. To be sure, the Church also supports these programs, which advise young people to refrain from sexual intimacy rather than offering them salacious details about “safe sex,” how to use contraceptives, and how to procure abortions when contraceptives fail. If Mrs. Palin, as a mother, cannot convince her own children to abstain, the argument goes, then what hope do these programs have in our schools?
It must be noted from the outset that the schools’ primary goal is to reduce what they see as a civic annoyance: children giving birth to children. Their mission is to educate the young and to set them up for success in this world, and unplanned pregnancies introduce a host of complications into their already difficult task. Thus, statistical outcomes drive policy, and the tidy work of eliminating these distractions leads them to entirely superficial solutions. If they can kick the can further down the street, so to speak, and delay the natural outcome of sexual intimacy until after graduation, then they will have accomplished their immediate mission. At this point, education in virtue, or the larger questions of morality and sexual ethics have no place in the public schools.
With this high-profile example of another child conceived out-of-wedlock, the advocates of contraception-based sex education can crow about two things at once: the purported failure of the “abstinence” approach to avoiding pregnancy and the obtuseness of Christians who exhibit the exact behaviors they preach against in public. Each of these arguments is based on a bad premise.
One point of confusion seems to be the erroneous notion held — by those outside the Christian fold — that embracing Jesus as our Savior should eradicate our sinfulness. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason people cling to Christ is precisely because we recognize sin, both as a concrete reality of this world and a constant element in our daily lives. Finding ourselves unable to be good, we acknowledge our unworthiness and beg for the graces necessary to choose well.
As we consider the things God asks us to avoid and the virtues he demands we embrace, with reflection we discover that each of those categories of sin are ultimately harmful to the human person, and each virtue helps to fortify us in the most difficult of circumstances. Thus, while becoming a Christian means entering into a personal relationship with the One who was sent to save us, it also offers a way of life that will allow that friendship to prosper and deepen.
So this brings us to the problematic foundation of the abstinence programs in public schools. Since they are strictly designed to limit a particular behavior — sexual activity — in a moral vacuum, they provide the students with just a sliver of truth at best. Abstinence is required of all unmarried persons, but it requires tremendous grace for perseverance. We know that God’s commandments are in our best interest, and that promiscuous behavior brings a host of physical side effects, drags young people into a maelstrom of confusing emotions and runs the risk of creating babies who will not be born to parents in lifelong unions, but those mundane reasons are strictly academic — and remarkably abstract — to passionate youngsters.
The very best of these programs and the most eloquent teachers are hobbled by stringent regulations which demand that they remain secular in their approach. Thus, while suggesting the most virtuous way of life possible for the student, they cannot fully explain the larger picture, which weaves together the nature of sin and temptation, the need for life-long discipline, and the demands of charity — nor can they offer them the concrete means of finding the graces essential to its success.
So what the secular pundits are currently batting about as hypocrisy is nothing more than the age-old story of sin and redemption. Those who love God will seek his will, and when they fail, they make amends and they try again. While there are many bad habits among us that will remain hidden, known only to God, promiscuity has a outcome that will be quite visible (if not compounded by the additional sins of contraception and abortion). The greater good is proper human formation, but that is entirely lost when our public policy is driven by narrow, mundane goals.
Clearly, as Christians we must prioritize the need to catechize our young people on the nature of sin, how to avoid it, and how to live chastely. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to surround them with a wider culture that supports healthy choices and facilitates virtue, and in that sense, the only amendment we could offer to improve the abstinence-based programs isn’t contraception but confession. And then the necessary graces would follow.