Boy Scouts' policy shift opens door for alternative groups

Scouting is proving to be an increasing source of tension at Catholic parishes nationwide following the Jan. 1 implementation of the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to lift its ban on gay membership.

Several evangelical-backed scouting organizations are reporting increases in membership, and a brand new one — Trail Life USA — was founded in response to the policy shift.

Still, in many places, the decadeslong affiliation between the Church and the Boy Scouts isn’t going away.

“We have a million Catholics involved in Boy Scouts of America,” said Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of Charleston, S.C., and the liaison between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Committee on Scouting. “Our Catholic kids are going to stay with scouting. Some are going to go with alternative troops. But if the (Boy Scouts) allows us to live our faith in ways that are consistent with our faith, we’re going to stay with the program, because our kids are going to stay with the program.”

Trail Life USA

Bishop Guglielmone said that while the May 2013 decision by the Boy Scouts doesn’t put it at odds with the Church, many Catholics are switching to alternative groups due to uncertainty.

“I know there are some parishes saying they will not charter (Boy Scouts) units in the future,” he said. “Some are going with alternative (programs) and some are having nothing at all.”

He added that he knows of no individual bishop who has banned the Boy Scouts in their diocese, though a few have questioned it. The USCCB has taken no official position, Bishop Guglielmone said.

For parishes who have decided to explore alternatives, one of the newest such is Trail Life USA, launched Jan. 1 largely in response to the Boy Scouts’ policy change, officials said.

“I was very discouraged by the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to change its membership policy,” said John Stemberger, Boy Scout veteran and founder of Trail Life USA. “That was a significantly motivating force — (their) apparent general philosophical shift from Christian values and more of a secular look at the public-opinion-polls mentality. That really was the impetus for thinking about a Christ-centered scouting organization.”

Trail Life USA, which so far is comprised of more than 500 troops in 44 states, is open to boys from kindergarten to 12th grade and welcomes all denominations, though the mission statement is Trinitarian — Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant.

Its structure parallels American Heritage Girls, which has a proven record of success, Stemberger said.

“It is focused on an outdoor adventure program of achievement, adventure and leadership, while instilling and intertwining Christian compassion, servant leadership and biblical moral values as the foundation for fun and adventure,” said Richard Mathews, general counsel for the organization. “All adults are required to subscribe and adhere to a Christian statement of faith and values. Trail Life teaches character and leadership based upon Christian biblical principles of morality, but invites boys of all faith beliefs, or no faith belief, to experience outdoor adventure under the guidance of Christian leaders.”

One of the new troops is based at St. Gregory Catholic Church in Marysville, Kan., and Daniel Faulkner is the charter organization representative.

“We started with Trail Life because we care about our sons and daughters,” said Faulkner. “We have watched what is happening in the world today, and we knew that they needed to be part of something that would teach faith-based values and not compromise with or capitulate to the pressure from secular groups. ‘Faith-based’ says it all. Trail Life impressed me as an organization that would prepare our sons and daughters for life while keeping them grounded with God.”

Trail Life USA, though, isn’t the only option. Christian Service Brigade is among alternative scouting organizations seeing a growth in membership in recent months, with a reported 15 to 20 percent increase in new members, officials said. Other programs include the Columbian Squires, a Knights of Columbus organization for boys ages 10 to 18 founded in 1925; Pathfinders, the Seventh-day Adventist coed program for grades 5 to 10 that got its start in 1907; and the Southern Baptist-based Royal Ambassadors for boys in grades 1 to 6 that was started in 1908. The Calvinist Cadet Corps and the Royal Ambassadors reportedly have also been seeing more membership inquiries since the Boy Scouts of America’s membership policy change.

Church affiliation

Despite the influx of other scouting organizations at Catholic churches, Bishop Guglielmone is clear that the Boy Scouts’ tenets do not conflict with those of the Church.

“The Church teaching on same-sex attraction is basically that we treat these folks with dignity and respect,” he said. “Certainly, that’s what the policy is saying we should do. It does condemn, very clearly, any kind of sexual acting out.”

Father Dennis O’Rourke, pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church in Cave Creek, Ariz., has voiced his support of Boy Scouts of America throughout the policy shift. He has been an active member of the Boy Scouts of America for more than 50 years.

“I believe in the programs of the Boy Scouts of America,” Father O’Rourke said. “They have a proven track record of forming good citizens who recognize an obligation of duty to God, country and others.”

With its recent changes, the priest said he believes the policy of the Boy Scouts has “only been strengthened.”

“The policy isn’t to allow ‘openly gay’ scouts into the program,” he said. “The phrase ‘openly gay’ indicates an active sex life with those of the same sex. (The policy) is to prohibit dismissing scouts who have same-sex attraction.”

“The prohibition on any sexual contact outside marriage is still in place,” Father O’Rourke added. “That includes gay and straight members — adults and youths. The programs are such that scouts ordinarily won’t have the opportunity to discuss their sexual attraction unless they, themselves, initiate the discussion. The way I read it, the only way a same-sex attracted youth can be dismissed is when it becomes active within the scouting program.”

The challenge for the Boy Scouts this year, Bishop Guglielmone said, will be to stay committed to the new policy.

“I think people are fearful that folks would not live up to it,” he said. But “we believe that the attraction in itself is not wrong, but any kind of action based on the attraction is unacceptable.”

Anna Maria Basquez writes from Colorado.