TeenSTAR helps youth get real about God’s plan for sex

Today’s teens are faced with an influx of messages on a sensitive and often controversial topic — the role of sex in human life.

“They are being taught that sex is to be explored, experienced and is designed for self-gratification,” said Carrie Keating, NFP and Marriage Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver.

“God, through the Catholic Church, has a beautiful plan for the human person and a road map for a much more fulfilling purpose for their identity and sexuality that will lead them on a road to happiness,” she said.

That’s where TeenSTAR comes in, a program that helps teens develop prudence and communication skills when it comes to sexual behavior.

TeenSTAR is located in about 35 countries and and has been around since 1980. Now, with the support of Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, it will be an option for youth in the Archdiocese of Denver.

“What is unique about the TeenSTAR program is that it is based on understanding and valuing one’s sexuality and “Teens are taught about how their bodies work and the proper purpose for the gift of their sexuality,” she said. “As they integrate this knowledge properly into their self-concept, they are guided to healthy and virtuous behaviors.”

The Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries will sponsor TeenSTAR teaching training at the end of June this year.

Set up as a two-semester long curriculum designed to occur for one hour each week, TeenSTAR is open to any Catholic school with middle or high school students, but each school principal will decide whether or not the school will offer it.

“It can be a part of a school’s curriculum, run as an after-school program or connected to a youth ministry program,” Keating explained, and instructors can be school teachers, youth ministers or volunteers.

Archdiocesan leaders are excited for the opportunities TeenSTAR will bring.

“I support programs like TeenSTAR that instruct our teens on the meaning of their bodies, how to understand them, and to present this knowledge in the context of the virtue of chastity,” Archbishop Aquila wrote in a letter of support for TeenSTAR.

Sister Hanna Klaus, the program’s Executive Director, explained the program is set up to cater to teens and help them sort out any curiosity or confusion they might have.

Students are encouraged to ask questions, guiding the class with what they want to know. Sister Klaus is not concerned teaching about how their bodies work will lead to immoral behavior.

“Parents are afraid that if you give kids information, they will misuse it,” she said. “The fact is they could — they have free will. But our behavioral outcomes show that rarely happens.

“When kids own their fertility, they give it a high value.”

According to Keating, the teenage years are a crucial time to reach young people in this area as they start to transition into adulthood.

“They are in a place where society around them is strongly influencing their lives,” she said. “Teens are trying to make sense of who they are, what they believe and what they want to do in life, so they are in an open but vulernable stage.

“The teenage brain is still developing, and it’s controlled more by emotion than logic,” she said. “TeenSTAR equips them to rationally connect and understand their bodies and the behaviors they choose in life.”

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.