Catholic Church leaders speak consistently about the great gift of human sexuality lived properly as an expression of the total gift of self for one’s spouse and an openness to life only in marriage. The teaching is rooted in the understanding of the dignity of the human person as created by God.

The Church’s leaders teach about the topic of human sexuality but it’s the vast majority of the Church, the lay people, who put the teaching into practice in their families. Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents and siblings – all have a role in encouraging young Catholics to recognize and respect their God-given dignity and reserve sexual intimacy for marriage.

In today’s over-sexed culture, it’s an almost superhuman task to convince young, healthy teenagers to abstain from sex. But it’s not impossible. Teens can and do remain chaste, thanks to the efforts of so many people who love them and their own efforts in cooperation with grace.

Parents have known for a long time that the best way to prevent pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases among their children is for them to remain chaste. At some point, cynics asserted that self-control was impossible. Most if not all teens will inevitably have sex before marriage, the thinking goes, so the education they receive about human sexuality should emphasize contraception and leave abstinence behind as a relic of a bygone era.

Cynicism got its comeuppance recently when a new study led by University of Pennsylvania researchers – these were scientists, not moralists – concluded that teaching young people abstinence only was at least as effective as teaching them contraceptive methods.

Certainly, teenage pregnancies will always occur. When they do, the same love and support families showed before the occurrence will be needed to welcome the child into the world either to be raised by the young mother or placed for adoption.

But it is best for everyone if teens wait until marriage to give themselves freely to their spouse and open themselves to the gift of new life from that time, not before. Teaching them to remain chaste is not only logically most sound, this new evidence supports what the Church, its leaders and its families have always held.

While 11- and 12-year-old children are learning about sexuality from peers, entertainment media and school programs, they should first learn through family life not to treat sexual activity as a tool only for their pleasure. Abstinence, in other words chastity, remains the best policy for young people discovering sexuality. Their best teachers also remain their parents, aided by the truth of Church moral teaching and, increasingly, empirical evidence.