The Missing Grace in Public School Abstinence Programs


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.


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  • What an excellent post! GSK, you are so right. Temperance is a virtue and only works when it is taught as such. Self-control and purity are socially healthy ideals but without grace they have no lasting value and make no deep impression. Our young people are strangers to any kind of self-denial, unlike former, more primitive societies, and so a lot of grace in needed. Similarly, since grace builds on nature, habits of self-discipline and self-denial need to be taught and reinforced from early childhood on. It is why our very Catholic tradition of fasting was always seen as beneficial to the soul as well as helping to tame the flesh.

  • The situation we are in here in the once prosperous Western world is similar to that in the last days of the Soviet Union. They had their acquiescent “writers” like Ms. K.C. Dermody who were the defenders of the official way of thinking. Those scabby dogs were quick to throw stones to Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, or Sakharov but they did not say peep about the crimes of the KGB. Ms. K.C.Dermody barks selectively at Christians but she has no qualms in being pretty silent about the blatant abuse of her women sisters in the Muslim world. The cowardice and obsequious unctuose smugness of the slime produced by that despicable kind of “writer” flows like pus out of the postmodern pustules of the gliberal media. One day Sarah Palin will be a President, or a Secretary of the Interior, or a a Secretary of State, or a Senator. She will continue to shine because she lives what she believes. She does not have to prostitute herself and prostrate to the powers that be. Go on Sarah: as long as the female dogs bark you are going in the right direction!

  • David OConnell

    The grace missing from public school abstinence programs is a necessary consequence of the mandated atheism the entire system. With Christ, chastity is a positive direction of one’s personality and social energy, enabled by the grace and virtues that accompany the Faith. For poor atheists, the teaching on abstinence, a shadowy substitute for chastity, is a negative discipline employed to avoid disease and unplanned pregnancy. What power do faithless adolescent attempts at self-denial have when a teen is faced with strong, new sexual urges, and a world evangelizing the fun of contraceptive hedonism 24/7? Even with grace and Faith the resistance of temptations is a challenge; without them success is near impossible. That’s why so many abstinence programs only hope for young people to hold off sex until after high school, or “until their ready”, rather than marriage. I think atheistic abstinence is doomed from the start, since no “invulnerable” teen she’s going to get pregnant or a disease, the primary reasons to abstain. I hope the programs in Catholic schools are far more than abstinence curriculum, and teach the fullness of Christ-centered chastity. Then we will be the example to those parents and youth who are earnestly looking for the right solution.