Onward Christian Censors
A New Conservatism in the Seattle Archdiocese Has Catholic High-School Teachers Scared
Ryan Dunn, a senior at Bishop Blanchet High School, just spent four months researching and writing an editorial for his school newspaper, arguing that more comprehensive sex education should be available on campus. But it won't run in the school paper, called the Miter (named after the pointed hat worn by popes, bishops, some abbots, etc.). Dunn was pressured to pull the article after his principal said some of his favorite teachers might lose their jobs because publishing it could offend church officials.
Dunn's research included a Facebook survey of 100 fellow students that revealed, among other findings:
58% of students do not feel satisfied with the amount and quality of sex education they have received at Blanchet... Perhaps most shockingly, the survey indicates that 58% of Blanchet students have had sex, and 39% of those students have had unprotected sex. Sadly, 42% of all students describe their sex education as abstinence-only, and 16% say they have received no sex education at all.
The Miter's homepage claims that the paper "offers all students a public forum to exercise their freedom of speech. In each issue, students from all classes are encouraged to sound off on topics that matter most to them."
But the principal, Tom Lord, says Blanchet is concerned that running an article like Dunn's could further ire the upper echelons of the local archdiocese. "Blanchet's had a lot of issues about how we teach certain things," Lord says, "and not meeting some of the newly designed standards the Catholic bishops have come up with. We don't need an additional controversy at this time."
"I'm in an awkward position because I teach journalism and I believe in the freedom of the press and yet we write articles with our hands tied," Blanchet journalism teacher Chris Grasseschi says. "There are things we don't touch." Among those things: Planned Parenthood, which Grasseschi says "doesn't exist" as far as the Miter is concerned.
Dunn's story, titled "Let's Talk About Sex," is a well-researched and well-written piece of persuasive writing about sex ed at Blanchet as well as a history of contraception in the church (including the controversial papal encyclical from 1968 that declared contraception immoral—a doctrine overwhelmingly opposed by the Vatican II council but overturned by the pope). Dunn's article asks for more comprehensive sex ed at the high school and cites the overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only education is dangerous. (Blanchet is not a strictly abstinence-only school, but its discussion of contraception is so cursory, even a longtime Blanchet teacher quoted in the piece describes the program as "abstinence-only.")
Dunn points out:
Studies by Columbia University found that recipients of abstinence-only sex education are at higher risk for STDs and unwanted pregnancies... Columbia University also conducted a study of teenagers who pledge virginity until marriage, and found that 88 percent did not keep that pledge... The Society for Adolescent Medicine went so far as to say that "abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental human rights to health, information, and life."
"[Principal] Lord really didn't want to be the bad guy," Dunn says. "He wouldn't give me a no, but he made it very clear that he didn't want it to run and that he was worried that teachers would lose their jobs. I didn't want to put anyone's job in danger."
Instead of running his article in the Miter, Dunn self-published the article on a blog.
"They were afraid of the archdiocese seeing a student who had views that might be seen as radical," Dunn says. "And they might think the religion department isn't teaching kids what they're supposed to believe."
The national conference of Catholic bishops, Lord said, is "bringing the church back to pre–Vatican II structure and mentality." Blanchet, for example, has traditionally taught social-justice issues in the religion curriculum but is under pressure to replace those components with greater emphasis on prayer and theology.
Other Catholic high schools are feeling intimidated as well. When asked about the new level of doctrinal scrutiny, Tom Schutte, the chair of religious studies at O'Dea High School, says he isn't allowed to comment: "My contract is predicated on saying positive and good things. I'd like to answer your questions, but I don't want to come across as a heretic or get pulled into an office next week for any questions."
Bishop Joseph Tyson, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Seattle archdiocese, who is responsible for overseeing the newly conservative education guidelines, has not returned a request for comment. I'm not holding my breath—Dunn asked to interview Bishop Tyson for his story months ago. He never heard back.
Click here for the article by Dunn that had school officials so worried. If you are a Catholic who is distressed by the curriculum taking a giant leap backward—a freedom-of-speech-denying journalism class, the kind of sex-ed program that results in more unwanted pregnancies and STDs—now would be a good time to make your feelings known to the archdiocese of Seattle: email@example.com.