Church weighs options after Boy Scouts vote

Under pressure to admit open homosexuals into its ranks and leadership, the Boy Scouts of America decided May 23 to allow youths with known same-sex attraction to participate in its programs. However, media misreporting on the BSA compromise has muddied the waters, while Catholic leaders try to evaluate the policy and counsel against reaction.

“The secular media keeps saying that ‘open and avowed homosexuals’ can now be [youth] members,” Bishop Robert Guglielmone, episcopal liaison for the National Catholic Committee on Scouting (NCCS) told Our Sunday Visitor. “They keep using that term over and over and over again, but that’s not true. It’s an error.”

Need to evaluate

Cautioning Catholics against reacting to the media narrative, Bishop Guglielmone, of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., said Catholics have to take time to evaluate and understand the actual policy first.

“It is certainly going to create some challenges for us in the Catholic Church, and some other chartering organizations as well,” he said. “But if the policy as presented is adhered to, then we can deal with this.”

The new BSA policy resolution, affirmed by 61.5 percent of representatives at the National Council meeting in Grapevine, Texas, explicitly bans adults who are “open and avowed homosexuals” from joining as leaders and volunteers.

The resolution still bans homosexual conduct among youths: “Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”

In this context, the new policy states: “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”

Catholics are still absorbing the significance of the decision and what it means for its relationship with the BSA, which has 2.7 million youths and a million adult leaders.

Mixed reaction

The new BSA policy is consistent with Catholic teaching and overdue, said Jesuit Father James Martin, editor-at-large for America magazine, and a former Cub and Webelos Scout.

“The Catechism calls us to treat gays and lesbians with respect, sensitivity and compassion,” Father Martin told OSV. “More to the point, the Catechism calls us to reject ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ and [the former youth policy] seems to be a pretty clear sign of unjust discrimination.”

He emphasized the point that the BSA’s policy does not endorse homosexual behavior, but is simply “acceptance of the fact that [some Scouts] are gay adolescents.”

However, Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, disagreed that the previous policy was intrinsically unjust.

“I don’t see how justice requires allowing a gay youth to alter the atmosphere of a troop by talking about his homosexuality,” Whelan, a lay Catholic, told OSV. “The Catholic Church obviously did not believe that the previous policy was unjust. The BSA obviously does not believe that the previous policy was unjust, as the proposal that it floated in January would have allowed Catholic troops to continue to bar openly gay youth members.”

Whelan said that he believes that the BSA’s membership change put it “on a direct path to openly gay adult leaders” by setting up two different standards [youth and adult] for membership on the basis of sexual orientation.

“The BSA has undermined its constitutional ground [Boy Scouts of America v. Dale] for maintaining its bar on openly gay leaders, and it is essentially inviting litigation by gay activists to knock out that bar.”

Whelan also pointed out that the BSA has given “no serious attention” to the practical consequences of the change on the troop level, such as what tenting policies are allowed. Boy Scout troops have a two-deep leadership requirement for adults, but not for youth leaders in Boy Scout troops that include youth ages 10-17. Another question is what happens when a Scout turns 18, is no longer a youth member, but wants to become an adult leader.

Father Martin said assuming youth open about having same-sex attraction would be predators was “unjust stereotype.”

He pointed out that parents concerned about the policy should understand that Catholic schools and Church groups — which do not bar youth with same-sex attraction from membership — send youth on field trips and overnight excursions.

“You obviously have young people who have homosexual orientations in Catholic schools, so why would it pose a problem for any other Catholic-sponsored organization?” he said. “Those kids aren’t supposed to be having sexual activity anyway: straight or gay.”

Church’s influence

The Catholic bishops have had mixed reactions.

Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., said in a statement the BSA policy change had forced his diocese to “prayerfully reconsider whether a continued partnership with the BSA will be possible.”

A statement from the Archdiocese of Denver, headed by Archbishop Samuel Aquila, also struck a cautionary note, emphasizing that while the archdiocese will continue to allow parish-chartered Scout troops, “we will be steadfast in articulating a Christian understanding of human dignity and sexuality.”

The National Catholic Committee on Scouting also stated that it will be studying the policy and its effects, in conjunction with local bishops and diocesan scouting committees, before it goes into effect Jan. 1.

“We have half a million Catholic youth involved in the Boy Scouts of America. No matter what the Church does in partnership with the BSA, many of our Catholic youth are going to remain,” Bishop Guglielmone said.

“If we pull out, then there is no Catholic voice in the movement for the kids who are going to stay.”

He also emphasized that homosexual youths are already in the Scouting program, but currently can’t talk about it if they are to remain in the program. The Church regards Scouting as part of its youth ministry, so it has to address the challenge of how to minister to youth who have same-sex attraction or who are still “trying to make sense of their own sexual identity.”

Bishop Guglielmone explained that the Church still has the ability to considerably influence the program. The NCCS has seats on the committees that determine Scouting’s values and can see from the inside the direction Scouting will take.

Also, as a chartering organization, he said, the Church has the right for local bishops and local pastors to make sure troops chartered with Catholic churches “choose leaders whose whole approach is in sync with the Church.”

For now, the BSA says its official position is that the matter of homosexuals in Scouting is closed, even though homosexual activists say this marks only the beginning. But the Catholic Church is keeping an eye on developments, and while it is concerned, Bishop Guglielmone said the BSA has not yet crossed the Rubicon.

“If BSA were to indicate that homosexual conduct was acceptable, and we had to accept members youth or adults who were engaged in homosexual relationships, I don’t see how we would be able to deal with this,” he said. 

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from New York.