ST. LOUIS — In the wake of its decision to allow biological girls who identify as boys to join its organization, the Boy Scouts of America is assuring its faith-based partners that they will be able to operate their programs consistent with their religious beliefs.
But some Catholic officials are voicing concerns about the Boy Scouts’ new policy and the direction in which the organization is headed.
“There are still some unanswered questions,” said Brian Miller, executive director of the Catholic Youth Apostolate for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Miller told the Register that his biggest concern is not so much how the policy change affects Catholic dioceses that sponsor Boy Scouts programs, but rather the unsound message it sends to youth who suffer from gender-identity disorder. Miller contrasted the new policy with the Boy Scouts’ longtime requirement that scouts obey their duty to God.
“You can’t talk about duty to God and not live your duty to God,” said Miller, who accused the Boy Scouts of “some hypocrisy.”
On Jan. 30, after years of mounting pressure from homosexual-rights organizations, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it would allow biological girls who identify as boys to enroll in scouting programs.
The policy follows other accommodations the Boy Scouts have taken in recent years. In 2013, the Boy Scouts lifted the ban on homosexual members. In 2015, the Boy Scouts allowed homosexuals to serve as troop masters. The policy also comes shortly after the mother of a 9-year-old New Jersey girl who identifies as a boy threatened to file a discrimination complaint against the Boy Scouts of America for banning her child from a Cub Scout unit.
In a video statement, Boy Scouts CEO Michael Surbaugh said the new policy was to go into effect immediately.
“Communities and state laws are now interpreting gender identity differently than society did in the past. And these new laws vary widely from state to state,” Surbaugh said, adding that the previous policy of referring to birth certificates as the reference point for sex is “no longer sufficient.”
“Our organization’s local councils will help find units that can provide for the best interest of the child,” Surbaugh said.
The National Catholic Committee on Scouting said it expects the new policy to have “no impact” on the operations and programs in Catholic-chartered units.
The NCCS, a committee of Catholic laity and clergy that serves as an advisory body to the Boy Scouts of America, said the Boy Scouts stipulated that religious partners will continue “to have the right to make decisions for their units based on their religious beliefs.”
The Catholic committee explained that scouting serves the Catholic Church through a charter concept, which is similar to a franchise. A Boy Scout troop chartered to a Catholic parish, for example, is owned by the parish. The committee says the Boy Scouts’ chartered organizations maintain the right to uphold their own moral standards within the units they charter.
In a Feb. 8 advisory, the NCCS added that local Catholic-sponsored units can still establish membership guidelines that follow Catholic teaching. A Catholic-sponsored unit can also recommend that a youth would be better off with another unit, such as one that may accommodate modern gender theory. The Catholic committee added that the policy also does not change anything relative to the camping rules of the Boy Scouts of America or Catholic youth-protection policies.
Both statements were signed by George Sparks, national chairman of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, and Father Kevin Smith, a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York, who serves as the national chaplain of Catholic scouting.
Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, South Carolina, the episcopal liaison between Catholic scouting and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, approved the statement.
Religious Beliefs Respected
In a fact sheet explaining the policy, the Boy Scouts of America said religious partners will continue to have the right to make decisions based on their religious beliefs and that the organization will work with families to find local scouting troops that best fit their children’s needs.
While apparently respecting the prerogatives of religious members, Miller, of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said the Boy Scouts policy still does a disservice to youth.
“What does it do for the youth that they think they’re helping? It only confirms them in their confusion,” Miller said. “We have compassion for all the kids who suffer from gender dysphoria, but we also want to make sure we’re serving their best interests, which is getting them the help and love that they need.”
In a prepared statement, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, while adding that it would remain in dialogue with the Boy Scouts, emphasized that the new policy is “the latest in a troubling pattern of behavior” exhibited by the organization, which the archdiocese said is a clear indication that the Boy Scouts are “becoming increasingly incompatible with our Catholic values.”
Some other bishops have also reached that conclusion. Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck, North Dakota, himself a former scout, told his diocese to disaffiliate from the Boy Scouts after its 2015 decision to allow homosexual troop masters to serve.
“I regret my decision, but, in conscience as the Chief Shepherd of the Diocese of Bismarck, I cannot permit our Catholic institutions to accept and participate directly or indirectly in any organization which has policies and methods which contradict the authoritative moral teachings of the Catholic Church,” Bishop Kagan wrote.
Meanwhile, other bishops have taken a more optimistic approach.
After that 2015 policy change, several bishops — including Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois — released statements indicating that they still believed the Boy Scouts can benefit youth and respect the religious freedom of Catholic sponsors, even while the national organization embraces a more socially permissive agenda.
In his statement, Bishop Kagan recommended some Christian alternatives to the Boy Scouts, such as the Federation of North American Explorers, the Columbian Squires and Trail Life USA. Meanwhile, Bishop Guglielmone recommended “cautious optimism,” arguing after the 2015 policy change that Catholic-chartered Boy Scouts units were “the only way we can have a direct influence” on Catholic youth involved in scouting.
St. Louis’ Miller said recent discussions between the U.S. bishops’ conference and legal counsel had highlighted a need to adopt some changes in local Catholic Boy Scouts unit charters, “to make it a little more clear that we are protected, so it’s not just a verbal acceptance, but in writing,” said Miller, who added, however, that it is becoming harder to entrust the formation of Catholic youth to secular organizations, whether that be Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or any other group.
“We have to continue to look at the programs our youth are in, the messages that they’re hearing from them,” Miller said. “I think we have to teach our kids to be in the world but not of the world, to have a real Christian worldview and mindset. The more we can continue to teach them that, the better off we’re going to be as a Church.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.