Vatican's new sex education guidelines sell women short

It may come as a surprise to some that the Vatican now is undertaking sex education. And it turns out there is more to its just released sex education guidelines for young people aged 12 to 16 than simply "Just say no." But the Catholic Church still is sending enough troubling messages to make any Catholic feminist weep.

I guess I should be thankful that the Vatican believes that the human body is not to be despised, contrary to what I was taught in parochial school long ago. And there are good things in this sex education package. It encourages teens to see boys and girls as people. It helps teens understand the power of emotions. I'm not quite sure what to make of the assortment of films the Vatican suggests for educators, since so much would depend on how they were interpreted.

Of course, I didn't expect the Vatican's sex education kit to teach kids any useful information about contraception, or preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Nor did I expect the Vatican to suggest the possibility that sexuality is a continuum or that many of the characteristics we attribute to each gender are social constructs.

But at the very least, I would like the Vatican to give up this "girls are pink" and "boys are blue" mindset that is generations out of date.

The Vatican continues to sing the same old song of "complementarity" - that old saw that claims women and men may be equal but in a way that says they're really not. Complementarity holds that women and men are very, very different - in ways that restrict the women to more submissive and passive roles, primarily nurturing mothers and helpmates. Pope Francis himself has stated that he approves of feminism, but only if it does not "negate motherhood."

Complementarity also means that women are not perceived worthy to be priests, or to assume meaningful leadership roles in the institutional church. And it ignores the contributions of unmarried women - who are not women religious -- to the church and to society.

Given the church's continued infatuation with complementarity, it's not surprising that in this sex education guidance, boys and girls are taught that men are less dependent on relationships and more pragmatic, and women are, you know, wimps.

Oh, they don't call us wimps. They use far loftier terms. "Man is more analytical and has a greater capacity for analysis." While "the affective response of the woman is global, and feelings and their manifestation play an important role. They give value to what is spoken. ... Men compartmentalize and internalize affections to a greater extent."

Worse, this sex education lesson for teens describe women's bodies like all-night diners: "Inscribed in the woman's body is the call to WELCOME both man and baby" [emphasis in original]. All we lack is a neon sign.

The Vatican just doesn't overgeneralize, a la Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, it attacks efforts by women to declare that we're more than these limiting definitions.

It critiques a "quest for sexual equality" that pits the sexes in a competition "to see who can get farther and who can be better." Instead, the Vatican recommends that men and women use their energies for "helping each other." That notion would work fine if there wasn't a built-in assumption, perpetuated by the Vatican in these materials, that women are inferior.

Essentially, the Vatican would have teenage girls assume that their primary role is motherhood and that it's not a good idea to compete with boys academically or in other arenas. It could certainly make life more difficult both for a girl who is analytical and pragmatic, and a boy who is tender and nurturing.

What's really sad is that if the Vatican wanted to seriously explore sexual morality in the 21st century, it could take advantage of the groundbreaking, respectful and brilliant work of Catholic theologian Margaret Farley. Her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, carefully frames the challenge of living a moral sexual life in the context of emerging science on sexual preference and gender identity. Church officials might have learned something from Farley's thoughtful and scholarly work. Farley's insights could have informed a much richer approach to sex education.

The Vatican, under Pope Benedict XVI, did take notice after Farley, then a theology professor at Yale, published her book. The church rebuked her.