By Thandiwe Konguavi 

Staff Writer

Catholic school board trustees must be champions of Catholic education, especially in a society where sexuality has been trivialized and impoverished, Bishop Fred Henry told Alberta trustees at their annual general meeting and convention. 

Henry, the Bishop Emeritus of Calgary, was a keynote speaker on Nov. 17 as the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association opened their annual gathering at The Westin hotel in Edmonton.

“Society is struggling with sex education within our school systems,” he said, drawing on the recent teachings of Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love)

“There is an ongoing assault on the human person in our society, and it focuses in part on the Bible truth of the Book of Genesis: ‘Male and female, He created them.’ ”

Understanding our bodies as male and female is necessary for self-awareness and encounter with other people, said Henry. Sex education has to be much more than teaching the technical ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy, “as if an eventual child was an enemy to be protected against.”

He described the current approach to sex education is one of risk management: “Be in control, don’t do any harm, make sure everyone consents to what’s going on -- without really explaining what is involved in mature consent.”

“Children need help to deal with their sexual urges through a process of self-knowledge and self-control, rather than simply giving it a free reign with the hope that nobody gets hurt in the process,” said Henry. “They have to be able to seek out positive influences while shunning those things that will cripple our capacity for love.”

He suggested that Catholic education, as a triune partnership between parish, school and family, can offer those positive influences, but right now, the family part of that triangle has been weakened, which “should be a cause of concern for all of us.”

“Intellectual critics of every kind have silenced parents in countless ways in order to protect the younger generations from real or imagined harm,” said Henry, quoting from a 2015 address by Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square.

“The number of so-called experts has multiplied and they have assumed the role of parents in even the most intimate aspects of education with regard to emotional life, personality and development, rights and duties,” said Henry. “These experts know everything ... and parents must simply listen, learn and adapt.”

Parents should get involved and journey with their young people on the road of moral education, he said.

“What is most important is the ability to lovingly help them grow in freedom,
 maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy.”

“We have to have a deep desire to do the right thing because this is for our own benefit. We have to cultivate this desire to do good works according to our capabilities and the values really that we see as important, despite what some of our friends may tell us.”

The process of moral education is a patient one, that takes place over many years, said Henry. “It never, ever stops, but it proposes small steps on a continual basis as we try and walk in the direction of our hope,” he said.

He also referred to the Pope’s theme of “education for freedom” in Chapter 7 of Amoris Laetitia.

 “If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controlling all their movements, they will seek only to dominate space,” he said. “But this is no way to educate, strengthen and prepare their children to face challenges.

 “What is most important is the ability to lovingly help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy.”

Henry noted a recent announcement from Alberta Health regarding a spike in cases of newborns with life-threatening congenital syphilis. In the general population, cases of syphilis are on track to go well beyond the number of cases reported last year, and cases of gonorrhea have also skyrocketed. 

Public health officials initially linked the high sexually transmitted infection rates to the use of social media sites used for anonymous sexual hookups and launched advertising campaigns on these websites to raise awareness, Henry pointed out. 

When progress from that campaign eventually stalled and STI rates kept going up, Henry was hopeful when officials concluded they had to do something different. But he was let down when he found out their solution was to provide millions more in money for agencies that work with people already at risk. 

“We’re putting all this money into dealing with sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and neither Alberta Health Services nor the Ministry of Education have granted any money for the Catholic superintendents of the province to develop a curriculum in accordance to the teaching of the Catholic Church, which in the long range will indeed reduce the number of sexually transmitted diseases in the province of Alberta and the country of Canada.

“What a strange, convoluted system of values.”

Bishop Henry warned against the temptation to think that “we already have the answers and we really don’t need God at all.” 

“We push God out of the picture. We no longer need God, He doesn’t factor anymore into our lives,” said Henry. “The Scriptures, the Word of God, are nice stories, fables, but they don’t really have anything to do with it. We would rather dominate space ourselves with our own solutions,” said Henry. 

 “The real question, then, is not where our children are physically, or whom they are with at any given time, but rather where they are existentially, where they stand in terms of their convictions, goals, desires and dreams.”