For several years now, concerns have run through Catholic circles over the Girl Scouts’ partnerships and programming that pro-lifers and Catholic observers have been arguing are diametrically opposed to the Church’s moral teachings on life and family.
Officials with Girl Scouts USA and local troop councils have consistently said those critiques are inaccurate, arguing that they have no affiliations with organizations like Planned Parenthood, and that troops’ activities are planned locally, with no pressure from outside interest groups.
However, the Girl Scouts are under renewed scrutiny in the wake of St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson releasing, on Feb. 18, what is arguably the strongest-worded statement to date on the topic. The Archdiocese of St. Louis provided a letter written by the archbishop as well as an online resource that outlines the case against the Girl Scouts.
“Girl Scouts is exhibiting a troubling pattern of behavior and it is clear to me that as they move in the ways of the world it is becoming increasingly incompatible with our Catholic values,” wrote Archbishop Carlson, who urged pastors who have allowed Girl Scout troops to meet at their parishes to discuss other alternatives with troop leaders, including joining overtly Christian groups like American Heritage Girls or the Little Flowers’ Girls Club.
Areas of concern
While acknowledging the long history of cooperation between Girl Scouts and the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, joining a list of other critical observers, documented several examples to argue that Girls Scouts USA’s leadership has embraced social issues that are opposed to Catholic moral teachings, with those stances trickling down to the local level.
For example, the Girl Scouts, on Instagram and Twitter, celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer that legalized same-sex marriage as one of their top moments of 2015. In curriculum materials, Girl Scouts have highlighted individuals as role models who espouse values that are inconsistent with Catholic principles, such as Gloria Steinem, the feminist activist who supports legalized abortion.
Also, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a 2014 statement that followed an inquiry into the Girl Scouts, noted that Girl Scouts USA does not prohibit local councils or troops from forming partnerships with organizations like Planned Parenthood. The bishops conference urged vigilance and clear communication between diocesan leaders and local scouting councils.
Increasingly, the Archdiocese of St. Louis says the Girl Scouts have also embraced the transgender issue, noting that Girl Scouts USA refused to accept a $100,000 gift that was pledged with the stipulation that the organization “wouldn’t support transgender girls.” Instead, Girl Scouts used the national media attention to raise over $300,000 with the tagline that Girl Scouts is “for every girl.”
On its online resource, the archdiocese stated: “As Girl Scouts continues to increase their presence on social media in an effort to reach young women, we are saddened that what our young women will often find is in conflict with our Catholic faith.”
Ann Saladin, a St. Louis resident who has written about Catholic concerns with the Girl Scouts on her website, MyGirlScoutCouncil.com, told Our Sunday Visitor that she already is seeing the archbishop’s statement having a big impact.
“I see it as a game-changer,” Saladin said, “in terms of how he presented it, but also the concerns he presented. It’s all very current.”
Saladin, a mother of young daughters whose oldest daughter was involved in Girl Scouts, said local pastors already have been meeting with troop leaders and encouraging them to look at alternative groups, as the archbishop suggested.
“The local impact is very direct,” Saladin said. “But I would also add that the way in which Archbishop Carlson and the Catholic Youth Apostolate presented the concerns, with the letter and accompanying resource, that was all set up and put into place to not only educate the laity of the archdiocese but to also provide a blueprint for other bishops and other dioceses so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Other dioceses in the United States have expressed similar concerns. In February 2015, Bishop James Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, then of the state’s Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, recommended parents to consider enrolling their daughters in American Heritage Girls. Last fall, Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colorado, also advised young Catholic girls to consider joining “other groups that espouse authentic Catholic teachings and virtues.”
American Heritage Girls reports its membership has been growing by 42 percent a year, and that it has more than 970 troops across the United States and more than 42,000 members across the globe. A representative of the Little Flowers Girls’ Club said she estimated its membership to be between 6,000 and 7,000 girls. Meanwhile, Saladin said her research indicates that the Girl Scouts has lost one-third of its membership over the last 10 years.
“Every year in the last decade, their membership has dropped,” Saladin said. “It makes no sense why they are promoting these kinds of ideas.”
Bonnie Barczykowski, the CEO of Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri, told OSV in an emailed statement that many troop leaders at Catholic parishes have considered alternatives and have decided to remain with the Girl Scouts. Barczykowski said there are more than 4,000 girls in Girl Scout troops within Catholic schools and parishes in eastern Missouri. She added that there are troops in 106 Catholic schools.
“Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri has enjoyed a history of cooperation with the Archdiocese of St. Louis for almost 100 years,” Barczykowski said. “We value our long-standing partnerships across many religions. These faith-formation opportunities complement our leadership programs and support Girl Scouts in developing courage, confidence and character so they may positively impact our world.”
Barczykowski also said that Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri has no partnership with Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Girl Scouts USA, the national organization, also told OSV in an email that Girl Scouts USA has no relationship with Planned Parenthood and does not plan to create one, and added: “We do not take a position or develop materials on issues involving Planned Parenthood, abortion or birth control. We believe these are matters best discussed within the family.”
‘Future of the Church’
A spokesperson for Girl Scouts USA said the organization values diversity and inclusivity, and does not discriminate on grounds such as race, religion or sexual orientation. The spokesperson also said girls would be missing out on the program’s positive benefits if they were to leave the Girl Scouts.
Archbishop Carlson said in his letter that he has disbanded the archdiocesan Catholic Committee on Girl Scouts and formed a new Catholic Committee for Girls Formation that will be charged with ministry to all girls in various organizations.
Saladin praised the archbishop, who has come under fire in some media circles, for his stance.
“He is tasked as the archbishop with upholding the beautiful teachings of our faith and to try to instill those teachings in the youth, who are future of the Church,” Saladin said. “He’s taken the opportunity to shepherd the laity and the youth of his flock, and he has done that in a beautiful, loving way.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
A version of this story appears in the March 20, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on page 5.