The Boy Scouts of America recently revised its youth membership policy so that young people would not be excluded solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. I am sure you heard the news. Effective 1 January 2014, the revised policy reads:
Youth membership in the Boy Scouts of America is open to all youth who meet the specific membership requirements to join the Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Varsity Scout, Sea Scout, and Venturing programs. Membership in any program of the Boy Scouts of America requires the youth member to (a) subscribe to and abide by the values expressed in the Scout Oath and Scout Law, (b) subscribe to and abide by the precepts of the Declaration of Religious Principle (duty to God), and (c) demonstrate behavior that exemplifies the highest level of good conduct and respect for others and is consistent at all times with the values expressed in the Scout Oath and Scout Law. No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.
This means, at least, that
- A youth will not be prevented from receiving a rank award or religious emblem simply for having a same sex attraction.
- A youth will not need to hide the fact that he has or experiences this attraction, but a youth also will not be encouraged or pressured to disclose publicly the experience of such attraction.
- A youth thinking or knowing he has a homosexual inclination should not be afraid that he will be bullied or expelled by the Scouting community by disclosing his sexual orientation.
I am an Eagle Scout, a Catholic Christian theologian, ecumenist, and a St. George Awardee. I have served on my archdiocesan Committee on Catholic Scouting, as a religious emblems counselor and as chair of religious emblems programs for our archdiocese. My youth experience of scouting was always in a religious-chartered unit, first by a United Methodist Church and then by a Catholic Church. I developed the use of the Bronze Pelican in our diocese as recognition of the use of scouting as Catholic youth ministry. I say all of this just to make clear where I am coming from – for me, scouting and my Catholic Christian faith have always gone hand in hand. They still do.
It all seems very simple to me, so I have to admit I have been shocked and dismayed by some of the very unchristian behavior of some of my fellow Catholics and scouters in response to this decision.
Legally, as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of the BSA to determine its own membership policy (BSA v. Dale, 2000). This was the right legal decision. The right moral decision was for the BSA to make the change that it just did.
Catholic teaching is fairly clear: While sexual activity of any kind would be deemed inappropriate for Scouting-age youth (and this is Scouting’s policy as well), maintaining an unwarranted exclusion of homosexual youth for no other reason than their orientation (or their questioning of their orientation) would constitute an unjust discrimination, and is therefore not allowed. Gays ought to be treated with the same dignity, respect, compassion and sensitivity as all our brothers and sisters. The Church teaches this, unequivocally, without compromising its teaching on sexual activity.
When I was a scout, nobody was checking sexual orientation alongside our merit badges and other rank advancement requirements; nor should they. The new policy simply assures that all young people will have the same access to a safe, positive, patriotic, and religious-friendly organization that can provide them with positive role-modeling, strengthen self confidence and identity, and instill both civic and ethical virtues and values. Who wouldn’t want that?
From a pastoral perspective, it seems to me, all young people need a safe, positive place to grow. Scouting provides that better than any other youth organization I know.
The National Catholic Committee on Scouting issued a clear, articulate and orthodox statement that highlights some important points:
- Scouting is still the best youth-serving program available to all youth
- Any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting
- We should be encouraged that the change in BSA’s youth membership standard is not in conflict with Catholic teaching
- We need to use this opportunity to show our commitment to making Catholic Scouting a safe environment for all youth in which the Catholic faith is taught, practiced and nurtured.
- The Boy Scouts of America does not have an agenda on the matter of sexual orientation, and resolving this complex issue is not the role of the organization, nor may any member use Scouting to promote or advance any social or political position or agenda
- The Scout Oath begins with duty to God, and the Scout Law ends with a Scout’s obligation to be reverent. Those will always remain core values of the Boy Scouts of America. The values set forth in the Scout Oath and Law are fundamental to the BSA and central to teaching young people to make better choices over their lifetimes.
In the chairman’s letter, he mentions the blog of the conservative canonist Edward Peters, which can be found here, and is a good summary from a legal perspective.
One final thought, there is no reason to create renegade scout-like groups – I have had friends in the Royal Rangers, Awanas, American Heritage Girls, and the like, but this is not a genuine Catholic approach in this instance. This kind of fissiparous behavior is cliché of Protestantism (and unjustly so in many cases); it is certainly not a real Catholic response to create our own little scouting ghettos. Official scouting allows adaptation to the vision and values of the chartering organization in such a well-balanced way, that it is no surprise that the vast majority of scout units are sponsored by religious organizations.
Particularly disappointing is the rhetoric of a presbyter from my own home diocese, whose talk of “New Boy Scouts” sounds just a little too much like the rad trad habit of referring to the Roman Rite as the novus ordo… wherein “New” is an epithet that reveals an unhealthy hermeneutic of rupture on the part of the speaker. Any “New” Boy Scouts would in fact be the quasi-Scout groups being proposed around the blogosphere.
More disturbing, however, is the vitriolic commentary making direct connection between homosexuality and predatory behavior. (If you want examples, just look at the comments boards on most discussions regarding this – I will not link to any of them). Scouting maintains a strict two-deep leadership policy, rigorous Youth Protection Training, and besides, the association is statistically and scientifically unfounded. In my experience of scouting and youth ministry, the real problem, if any, has been any gay youth – or even any youth that someone even suspected was gay – being the victim of harassment.
My own Church’s experience with the sexual abuse scandal of recent decades shows that the worst contributing factor was the inadequate human formation received in the oppressive, neo-Jansenist atmosphere of “traditional” 1940’s-1960’s seminary formation. Being more honest about sexuality, rather than suppressing the discussion, is the healthiest move that an organization like this can make, as long as it maintains the reasonable protections and values already highlighted above.
The Boy Scouts have been and remain one of the Church’s best options for youth ministry, and one of our society’s best options for fostering civic and religious responsibility – a rare combination in these times. Support the Scouts, pray for the scouts, and keep the faith. Love God and your neighbor; even the gay ones. It really is that simple.