Reports indicate that a matter of the greatest concern today to third-level institutes in many parts of the world – including Ireland – is the shockingly high proportion of students who indicate that they have experienced unwanted sexual attentions – up to and including rape – in their time at college. Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, is considering making classes on sexual consent obligatory at third-level. There have been calls, too, for lessons of a similar kind in schools in the Republic, some insisting that our RSE courses must be revised root and branch to meet the socio-cultural realities of today, others – inevitably – adding that this requires that the influence of Catholic moral doctrine in Irish schools must be curtailed and eradicated.

Subject to the statutory duty on every board of management of a recognised school in the Republic of Ireland to uphold the characteristic spirit of that school, initiatives of the kind and purpose envisaged here deserve our support. It must, indeed, be our common object to ensure our Catholic schools are places where all students feel secure in their own skins and learn that mutual respect is essential for life in any civilised society, a necessary and governing principle in all relationships.

In his appearance before the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills in July, 2018, John Curtis, General Secretary of JMB/AMCSS, emphasised that, in the Catholic schools his organisation represented, RSE was understood and taught in the light of Familiaris Consortio, the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope St. John Paul II on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, issued in November, 1981. Though it is, in fact, 33 years “younger” than, e.g., the UDHR, subsequent comment emphasised how “old” FC was. The great focus, though, was on its insistence that “education for chastity is absolutely essential, for it is a virtue that develops a person’s authentic maturity and makes him or her capable of respecting and fostering the ‘nuptial meaning’ of the body (paragraph 37)”.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church presents chastity one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, a gift of God received in Baptism, to be cultivated thereafter in accordance with one’s state in life. It also presents it as a human virtue related to the Cardinal Virtue of Temperance, by which, as a rational being, the human person strives to ensure that s/he controls, and is not controlled by, the powerful appetites common to all. Chastity is the virtue that helps us control the sexual appetite.

Many scoff at even the mention of chastity and deride those schools which make provision for helping students understand, appreciate and practise it. In advocating chastity, schools, of course, follow a tradition of education in ethics inspired and guided by ancient Greek philosophy, on the one hand, and, on the other, by Judaeo-Christianity, the twin streams of thought and action that, for millennia, have permeated European culture, shaping and sustaining it right up to today.

Awareness of this history is not required for us to understand and accept the need for the inculcation of self-restraint in the young, especially in respect of their sexual drives. A glance at any day’s headlines will induce most thinking men and women to wonder how, precisely, without that mastery of one’s sexual urges many across the globe call “chastity”, any of us, including any student, second-level or third, may be taught to respect the right of another to say “No!” to sexual advances and, more importantly, to have that “No!” immediately and decisively heeded.

It is sometimes intimated that we must change our thinking the better to accommodate the New Irish. Many of the latter espouse traditional values and, though they may well have other ways of understanding and naming it, the majority of them have a very high regard for what we call chastity.