Why Flourish could be stunting

An Cailín Rua

NOT CLASSROOM FIT The Irish Bishops’ Conference new relationships and sex-education programme for children does not reflect the lived reality of most people.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

A few weeks back, it was announced that a new relationships and sexuality education (RSE) programme, Flourish had been developed by the Irish Bishops’ Conference. Designed for schoolchildren from Junior Infants to Sixth Class, the programme is not restricted to sex education, as the headlines would have us believe.
Neither is it wholly focused on religion. It offers a series of considered lessons on things like relationships within the home, road safety, citizenship, decision-making, and being kind and considerate. In its lesson on puberty, it refers the teacher to the HSE guidance, which is secular. Many of the lessons end with a prayer or a reflection referring to God, which you’d probably expect from a Catholic programme.
Casting a critical eye, however, it’s not hard to see why concerns have been raised, in relation to some of the content that has been included, but equally, that which has been excluded.
For example, Flourish tells children that their bodies, and puberty are ‘gifts from God’. An introduction to the programme specifies that the Church’s teaching in relation to marriage (that it should be between and man and a woman) will not be omitted. It also refers to sex as a gift from God, belonging to committed relationships. Reference to the use – or existence – of artificial contraception is not included.
So, in summary, the content of the programme is not exactly reflective of the lived reality of most people. Same sex marriage is legal, emphatically endorsed; abortion is legal, if not quite accessible; the majority of sexually active people do not restrict their activities to marriage and contraception is widely used. You might say that the Church’s teachings on sexuality in schools have already been rejected in practice, so why worry?
We need only look at our history. We don’t have far to go to look at the pain and damage done, the horror inflicted by abusers, by mother and baby homes, by things like the Eighth Amendment. The language used in Flourish might appear kinder and softer. The attitudes and the doctrine underpinning it are the exact same.
Religion is, and should be, a personal choice. Like most personal choices, we should be making room for it, allowing people to engage with it and practice as they see fit, in the appropriate surroundings.
Spirituality and faith are deeply personal, they are a way of life for many, and the practicing of faith brings comfort, familiarity and structure at some of the happiest and saddest times we can experience in our lives.
Equally, the Church itself is entitled to preach as it sees fit. It would be deeply hypocritical, for example, for it to suddenly embrace artificial contraception, sex outside marriage, and same sex-relationships. It either stands up for what it believes in, or it loses all credibility. We should respect that choice to practice and preach faith.
What we are no longer obliged to do, however, is to listen to it, or to tolerate any situation where the religious beliefs of a group of people or a religious institution actively infringe upon the rights of others or do them real harm.
Society in Ireland has shown itself to be liberal, compassionate and pragmatic, in contrast to Catholic ideology, which has suppressed people, particularly women, for as long as it has existed. In the 21st century, there is no good reason why a suggestion should be made to a child that being a member of the LGBTQI community marks a person as different, for example, or that having sex outside marriage is wrong. Those are merely personal beliefs, and while people are entitled to hold them, they have no place in a classroom. That is not education, it is indoctrination.
Additionally, children deserve to be taught in a responsible way about their bodies, their sexuality, consent and yes, pleasure, without the stain of guilt that has tainted generation upon generation in this country.  
No child should ever have to hear the line “We are perfectly designed by God to procreate with him” in a classroom setting, or anywhere, ever. But in a country where we still persist in dressing little girls as miniature brides of Christ – often for the sake of a day out – perhaps we still have a way to go.