WASHINGTON — Tensions between Girl Scouts’ messaging and Catholic teaching have led to a national boycott of Girl Scout cookies, the ousting of Girl Scouts from parishes and a significant drop in Catholic membership in the Girl Scouts.
Now, a panel of U.S. bishops has released the results of a two-year investigation into Girl Scouts’ problematic messaging, ties to Planned Parenthood and continued advocacy of so-called reproductive rights by the organization’s international affiliate, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). Their findings indicate that the concerns continue to persist, regarding the problematic connections between the Girl Scouts and groups that promote policies contrary to Church teachings on life and sexuality.
The bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth (LMFLY) conducted a study generated from staff research and a dialogue with Girl Scouts, producing a seven-page Q-and-A resource for Catholics available on the USCCB webpage since April 2. While the resource is intended to provide guidance to dioceses, it leaves many unanswered questions about future Catholic participation in Girl Scouts’ programs.
Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) has an official policy of neutrality on sexuality, contraception and abortion. Yet concerned parents nationwide contend that neutrality has been compromised by the GSUSA’s use of abortion-rights activists as role models on GSUSA’s online resources and in program materials the girls use.
The Church has also taken notice of the disconnect between Catholic teaching and GSUSA practices. In June 2011, Bishop James Conley, then-auxiliary bishop of the Denver Archdiocese, wrote a column in his archdiocesan paper cautioning families about Girl Scouts’ and WAGGGS’ presentation of sexuality, “choice” and reproductive issues. In January 2012, Father Gerald Weymes, the pastor of St. Timothy Catholic Parish in Chantilly, Va., outside of Washington, halted Girl Scouts’ participation through the parish and school.
On March 17 of this year, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catholic Formation of Youth issued a statement on Girl Scouts, saying “diligent research” had revealed “many troublesome areas of disagreement.”
Less than a month later, the bishops’ committee released its study, pointing out that it was “not exhaustive” but attempted to address Girl Scouts’ relationship with Planned Parenthood, GSUSA’s relationship with WAGGGS, GSUSA’s policy on sexuality, contraception and abortion and the organization’s programmatic content and resources.
The bishops’ committee remained neutral on future offerings of Girl Scouts at the parish level, because that authority rests with the local bishop. However, in a section outlining ways “to promote, foster and safeguard Catholic scouting for boys and girls,” the panel did recognize the freedom of local dioceses to begin “formalizing relationships with complementary or alternative” organizations. Such groups include American Heritage Girls, Challenge Girls and Little Flowers Girls Club.
While the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth’s resource guide describes the dialogue with Girls Scouts as “pleasant, informative and respectful,” it confirms that numerous concerns remain unresolved.
GSUSA reported it “has no official relationship with Planned Parenthood,” but its local councils and troops may partner with Planned Parenthood — a possibility that the bishops’ panel called a “serious concern.”
The bishops’ panel “recognized to be morally objectionable” any type of promotion of “‘sexual and reproductive health/rights’ … especially since the phrase often includes abortion,” and it found some of WAGGGS’ positions to be “objectionable based on Catholic teaching and the natural moral law” with respect to such promotion.
Since “GSUSA is an active and supportive member of WAGGGS,” the report continued, and “each year, GSUSA contributes over one million unrestricted dollars in membership dues to WAGGGS,” GSUSA does not have “the ability or purview to criticize, explicitly distance itself from or change particular advocacy positions within WAGGGS.”
GSUSA clarified that it uses “investment income, not membership dues” to pay for WAGGGS’ million-dollar annual membership fee and that revenue from “cookie sales stays with the local council.” It’s not clear, however, whether GSUSA’s financial disclosure to the bishops included the royalties and licensing-fee payments that GSUSA receives for each box of cookies sold.
For local dioceses wishing to continue offering Girl Scouts, the bishops’ panel offered guidelines for consideration, pointing out that “use of programming materials at the Catholic troop level would be expected to include appropriate review by Church authority” and recommending troops “avoid programming and initiatives that are not in accord with Catholic teaching.”
Issues to be considered in relation to a local council should include “how the local council is involved with WAGGGS” and “whether local councils would respect Catholic troops’ right to formally distance themselves from WAGGGS.”
The bishops’ committee recommended “girls can choose not to wear the WAGGGS pin, and … participation and specific fundraising for WAGGGS can be discouraged,” possibly including involvement in World Thinking Day, a WAGGGS fundraising event with donations going to the Juliette Low World Friendship Fund, which finances WAGGGS-related activities.
Rather than participating in WAGGGS’ activities, the bishops’ panel suggested troops could pray for girls around the world, promote alternative activities that “foster awareness of authentic channels of outreach and service” and “in general promote alternative activities and service in accord with the authentic dignity and vocation of women.”
Catholic critics of the Girl Scouts doubt this suggested approach is feasible.
“I don’t think Catholics should try to refashion the Girl Scouts’ values and priorities — they are who they are,” said Mary Hasson, a fellow in the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Catholic Studies Program. “The question is: Are the Girl Scouts’ values — typified by their million-dollar support for WAGGGS and their chosen role models (think Nancy Pelosi) — compatible with Catholic values? I would say No.”
The number of Catholics participating in Girl Scouts has plummeted in recent years. In 2011, Robert McCarty, executive director of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM), the organization that oversees scouting for Catholics, estimated 700,000 Catholics participating in Girl Scouts. In April 2014, Catholic News Service reported that Catholic participation is estimated at 400,000.
The bishops’ panel offered several suggestions to keep Catholic girls in Girl Scouts, including strengthening connections between scouting, youth ministry and religious-education programs or developing a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between a diocese and a council asserting that “every Catholic troop is free from any programming or activities contrary to the Catholic faith.”
Catholics who have objected to the same problems identified by the bishops’ panel contest the idea that it’s possible to develop a valid compromise or that Catholics can withdraw their membership from WAGGGS, given the interlinked organizational structure of the organization at the national and international level, the automatic membership in WAGGGS of all Girl Scouts, as stated on WAGGGS’ website, and the fact that “GSUSA is an active and supportive member in WAGGGS,” according to the bishops’ panel.
“The idea that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with a local council will insulate Catholic Girl Scouts from the multitude of conflicts within the program and the tenets of our faith is a false assurance,” said Ann Saladin of St. Louis. Saladin, whose daughter was a fourth-generation Girl Scout, is the founder of MyGirlScoutCouncil.com.
“Additionally, there’s something amiss in fighting so hard to keep our girls in a secular organization while making efforts to protect them from elements of the organization.”
Said Saladin, “The funding and membership numbers of GSUSA and WAGGGS are strengthened, even with the most vigilant troop leaders, so Catholic complicity in the troubling messaging of GSUSA and WAGGGS is firmly in place as long as Catholic girls are Girl Scouts.”
Brigid Curtis Ayer writes from