23 Sex Education from the Catholic Church

Bailey Pellissier

Introduction

To warn seventh and eighth grade girls about the “dangers” of premarital sex, Father Filas, a Jesuit priest, visited a Catholic School in Anandale in 1977.[1] Although there was obvious condescension in his seminar, it was a progressive step toward implementing any kind of sex education in schools found to be necessary in reducing pregnancy risk.[2] While in modern day, human sexuality has come to be viewed in a more “progressive” manner in most American schools, at the time of this seminar, sex was mostly seen as “a field of knowledge that…engages issues of values.”[3] The topic of sex was especially controversial in a deeply Catholic institution. Not only did Father Filas provide sexual education, he went beyond the limited sex education topics that the Fairfax County allowed, mentioning birth-control, abortion, masturbation, and homosexuality.[4]

While this information contributed to a greater understanding of sex for the adolescents, Father Filas was adamant in his religious views. He delivered the information with strong words and heavy bias, such as when he states, “If you don’t hold with the differences between men and women…then you destroy marriage.” His motive was to “get to [them] before the culture gets to [them] and tells [them] sex is for fun.” The content of his speech attempted to scare the girls rather than inform them. He fed them a distorted image of sex in order to persuade them not to engage in premarital sex. For example, he proclaimed that, “sex is not what we do but who we are.” The gravity of this statement functioned to intimidate the girls, not to mention the subjectivity behind the statement as well.[5]

In the same issue of the Washington Post in 1977, there was an article reporting that “the Vatican cannot change its law barring women from ordination to the priesthood” even though the article also states that there is no biblical basis for banning women from priesthood.[6] These two articles together suggest that Catholicism was a prominent participant in perpetuating the discrimination and subordination of women. Father Filas stresses the importance of feminine delicacy regarding sex, which is not only condescending but characteristic of their sexual narrative. Women are not allowed to attain dominant positions in the structure of the Catholic Church and from an early age, are condemned from dominating in sexual relations as well. Therefore, the Catholic Church has acted to systematically withhold power from women.

However, Father Filas’ speech was not entirely toxic to female power. He stressed the importance of communication, which serves as a preventative measure against girls being put into precarious situations where someone might take advantage of them due to a lack of understanding. He also answered frequently asked questions, effectively providing relevant information to teenagers who might be too nervous to ask.

In the 1960s, there were barriers against administrating sex education due to uncertainties about its potential effects.[7] A quiet spread of sex education programs grew in the early 1970s, however the content of these programs varied greatly. An awareness movement originating in New York spread that encouraged teacher training for sex education programs, and in 1972, the U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future strongly encouraged sex education and educator development. While this recommendation was ultimately rejected by Nixon, word spread about the importance of sex education.

During the time, Christian Crusaders were vocally against sex education, thus Father Filas’ seminar was quite controversial to his religion. As a proponent of informing teenagers rather than leaving them in the dark, Father Filas was active in warning against sex. His teaching may not have been secular nor progressive in the modern day sense, however he went against the norm to address the unspoken or taboo in order to promote chastity.

Teaching the Goodness of Sexuality

By Lynn Darling

Jesuit Father Francis L. Filas came to St. Michaels School in Annandale yesterday to spread the world of the “goodness of sexuality” to an assembled group of seventh and eighth graders to warn them of the consequences of discovering the joy of sex before signing a marriage license.

Father Filas came to Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington fro Chicago as a “kickoff speaker” to test parental response to a possible sex education program for Catholic students in grades 7 through 12, accoriding to a diocesan spokesman.[8]

A professor of theology at Loyola University in Chicago, Father is on a 10-day Virginia tour, speaking to about 18 groups of Catholic school children and parents on the subject of sexuality.

“We live in a society that rips you apart,” Father Filas told approximately 200 young girls sitting quietly in their crisp white blouses and blue and plaid jumpers. “So many girls can be played for a sucker.” They were having this talk, Father Filas told them, “to prevent you from getting hurt.”

They also were having the talk, said Doug Grasso, diocesan coordinator of religious and adult education, “In response to the controversy” that has surrounded the subject of sex education in Fairfax County.

Last month, the Fairfax County school board approved a limited sex education program in county schools. The instruction will not be coeducational and will not include information on abortion, birth control, homosexuality or masturbation.

Father Filas, however, managed to every one of the proscribed subjects, illustrating his points with gothic horror stories of misused sexuality that he delivered with Gatling gun speed, “We want to get you before the culture gets you and tells you sex is for fun, you can play around with it and so what,” Father Filas said. “I’m here to show you the positive side.”

The message Father Filas said was simple. First, “sex is not what we do but who we are,” and second, “always used refined and delicate language and as soon as possible use technical terminology.”

Before launching into a discussion of the perils of premarital sex, Father Filas stressed the importance of communication and served up a number of anecdotes depicting what can happen when ignorance is something less than bliss.

“Girls should understand premenstrual tension,” Father Filas said. He recounted the story of a woman with husband and child who, seemingly unaccountably, he said, began to have the desire “to cut her baby’s throat and strangle her husband.” For six months, Father Filas said, she lived with these strange desires until she went to see a doctor who promptly recommended psychiatric hospitalization.

After years of hospitalization, Father Filas said, “she was released as a hopeless suicide.” Eventually, she met Father Filas who said he suggested that the problem might be premenstrual tension. Ever since, Father Filas said, she has been a “happy wife and mother.”

After a discussion of male prostitutes (“scruffy vermin”) wet dreams (“God’s way of telling a boy he can father a child”) and masturbation (“is that true happiness?… Where’s the meaning?”) Father Filas talked about temperemental sexuality, or the “biocultural differences between men and women.”

“If you don’t hold with the differences between men and women,” Father Filas said, “then you destroy marriage.”

There followed a catalogue of male female differences that would probably not have a positive effect on Gloria Steinem’s serenity.[9] “Men,” said Father Filas, “think in terms of things. Women think in terms of persons…” In addition, said Father Filas, men and women have different senses of humor. “Woman is the diplomat.”

After complimenting his audience on the fact they hadn’t “snickered” once during his lecture, “Father Filas asked the girls to write down anonymously any questions they might have about sex. Only one scrap of paper appeared.

“What if a boy makes fun of your breasts because it’s hard to ignore him if he keeps on?” asked the questioner. “Treat him with scorn and contempt,” came the answer. “It’s the one thing men can’t stand. Say something like ‘grow up, buster,’ and then turn on your heel and walk away.”

Since there were few questions from the audience, Father Filas answered some of those that he said had been asked most frequently in other lectures. One of the most popular, he said, was whether a girl should have premarital sex or “who not try it before you buy it?”

“When people say play around with sex, they forget about what can happen,” Father Filas said. “He’s using you, he’ll drop you.”

In addition, Father Filas said, there were dangers of pregnancy and “social diseases.” Syphilis, he noted, can eventually cause insanity and might have affected the behavior of such past and present leaders as Ugandan President Idi Amin and Ivan the Terrible.[10]

Father Filas Closed his lecture with these words: “You are good, you are beautiful, you deserve love.”

“I think he’s stuck up,” said Phyllis Lepri of Fairfax City, who, with her daughter Dana, was in the audience. He didn’t get down to the nitty-gritty, like what does a girl do when she’s sitting in the car with some guy and he’s got his arm around her shoulder and reaches for her breast?”


Bailey Pellissier is an undergraduate student at Wake Forest University majoring in Psychology and Health and Exercise Science and minoring in Dance. She is curious to learn more about the history of our understanding of gender and sexuality in educational institutions.


  1. Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order comprised solely of men founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1539. The religious order emphasizes obedience to the pope and missionary work. “Jesuit | Definition, History, & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed November 11, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Jesuits.
  2. Stephen R. Jorgensen, “Sex Education and the Reduction of Adolescent Pregnancies: Prospects for the 1980s,” The Journal of Early Adolescence 1, no. 1 (February 1, 1981): 38–52, https://doi.org/10.1177/027243168100100105.
  3. Mary Lou Rasmussen, “Secularism, Religion and ‘Progressive’ Sex Education,” Sexualities 13, no. 6 (December 2010): 699–712, https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460710384558.
  4. In the 70s, sex education programs were developing but not yet standardized in content. The content Fairfax County allowed mostly pertained to abstinence. Peter Scales, “Sex Education in the ’70s and ’80s: Accomplishments, Obstacles and Emerging Issues,” Family Relations 30, no. 4 (1981): 557–66, https://doi.org/10.2307/584345.
  5. Lynn DarlingWashington Post Staff Writer, “Teaching the ‘Goodness of Sexuality’: Teaching ‘Goodness of Sexuality,’” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., January 28, 1977, sec. METRO Federal Diary/Religion/Classified.
  6. Marjorie Hyer, “Women Barred as Priests In Declaration by Vatican: Vatican Rules Women Cannot Be Ordained Abortion Foe Nears Sainthood,” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., January 28, 1977, sec. General.
  7. Potential effects entailed a hypothetical increase in recreational sexual activity accompanied with increased teenage pregnancy, as well as controversy over conflicting values and backgrounds. Scales, “Sex Education in the ’70s and ’80s.”
  8. An area or group of churches under authority of a bishop “Diocese | Administrative Unit,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed November 12, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/diocese.
  9. Gloria Steinem was a leading feminist and political activist who was an adamant figure of the Women’s Liberation movement during the late 20th century. “Gloria Steinem | Biography & Facts | Britannica,” accessed November 18, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gloria-Steinem.
  10. Idi Amin was president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979 and was known for ruling a particularly brutal regime. Ivan the Terrible was Prince of Moscow and then the first to be proclaimed Tsar of Russia in 1547. He was known for carrying out a Reign of Terror. “Idi Amin | Biography, Facts, & Death,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed November 18, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Idi-Amin. “Ivan the Terrible | Biography, Achievements, & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed November 18, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ivan-the-Terrible.