Catholics Mixed on Boy Scouts’ Move to ‘Family Scouting’ Model

The organization says it can admit girls and maintain single-sex environments in troops and packs, but others have doubts.

(photo: Anthony Berenyi/

As the fourth major change to its membership requirements in as many years, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has now opened up its traditional Cub Scout packs to girls and will also create a program similar to Boy Scout troops for them.

Some Catholics have welcomed BSA’s board of directors’ unanimous decision as a historic opportunity for girls to benefit from its prestigious scouting program, but others are concerned that the membership change is the organization’s latest — and likely not the last — capitulation to gender ideology, after controversial earlier decisions to allow youth and adult members who identify as “gay” or “transgender.”

Starting in 2018, families will be able to sign up both their sons and daughters for Cub Scouts, which serves children between the ages of 6 to 11. The BSA said existing Cub Scout packs with their sponsoring organizations may choose to do any of the three options: establish a parallel all-girls pack, establish a coed pack of single-gender girl dens and boy dens, or remain an all-boy pack.

The organization plans to roll out in 2019 a parallel program to the Boy Scout troop for older girls (ages 11-18) that will allow them to earn the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the scouting program for 105 years.

“This unique approach allows the organization to maintain the integrity of the single-gender model while also meeting the needs of today’s families,” BSA stated in its Oct. 11 announcement.

BSA did not provide the Register with any further details on its plans for the scouting program.

Changing family demographics and household economics played a role in the membership decision, according to BSA, where membership stands at 2.3 million youth and adults.

The organization’s announcement cited Pew Research data, published in 2015, which showed families are busier than ever, most parents are working, and there are more single-parent households than ever before. It noted that other demographics such as Hispanic and Asian households “prefer to participate in activities as a family.” BSA’s surveys of parents not involved in scouting showed approximately 9 out of 10 would be “interested” in the programs if girls were able to join.

One membership factor the BSA did not mention is the ongoing attrition of youth and adult members in the wake of other recent changes in membership policies. BSA’s membership suffered gradual declines during years of public criticism over its former ban on youth and adult leaders with same-sex attractions.

But youth membership in scouting units has declined nearly 15% from 2012, when it totaled 2.7 million youth in traditional scouting units. In 2013, BSA opened membership to same-sex-attracted youth, followed by admitting same-sex-attracted adult leaders (2015) and then transgender youth (January 2017).


New Era of ‘Family-Based Scouting’

The BSA’s decision to admit girls into its programs has not generated the same kind of serious reservations as the previous decisions to admit same-sex-attracted youth and adults to membership or girls who identify as boys. The National Catholic Committee on Scouting’s executive committee simply announced it accepted the BSA’s girl membership proposal.

George Sparks, the NCCS’ national chairman, told the Register that the organization did not have an objection to BSA’s proposal to admitting girls into traditional pack and troop units, while maintaining single-gender programming, since the vast majority of Catholic youth-ministry programs are already coed.

Sparks said the BSA wants to have a model of “family scouting” that brings both parents and children into its programs as a family. From the Church’s point of view, packs and troops chartered by Catholic parishes are part of a “youth-ministry program” that allows the parish to minister to people who otherwise do not engage in their other youth programs.

“They’ve [BSA] found there’s a great desire to have girls getting the same kind of activities and leadership development available to them,” Sparks said. He added that the Church will also have an opportunity to form girls who enter into the program with the religious training they already provide Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.

Gary Thome, the charter organization representative at a large Catholic parish in Houston, told the Register that his parish sees the scouting program as “playing an important role in the integral formation of our youth.”

“We remain closely connected to parish life by making prayer, religious emblems and service to our parish ministries an integral part of how we do things,” he said.

Thome said he agreed with BSA’s reasoning behind opening up its traditional pack and troop programs to girls, while retaining the single-sex environment.

“First, they want to provide a character formation program for girls. Second, they want to be family-friendly and allow families to have boys and girls activities at the same time and place,” he said.

Thome said his parish added an American Heritage Girls troop, a Christian-based program that serves girls 5-18, which meets at the same time as their Cub pack to respond to such needs.


Maintaining Complementarity

However, Thome explained the single-gender environment was vital and that boys and girls should have programs designed for them specifically.

“Boys and girls lead differently, follow directions differently and express their emotions differently,” he said.

Bill Donaghy, a curriculum specialist at the Theology of the Body Institute, told the Register that he would be concerned if BSA did not adapt its educational program for girls. He pointed out that St. John Paul II’s theology of the body illuminates boys and girls have complementary differences and strengths, not just on a physiological level, but on a psychological, emotional and social level as well, and their formation has to take that into account.

“You have to meet them where they are,” said Donaghy.

Donaghy explained the best educators take this insight into account when they teach boys and girls.

“Education is meant to draw these great mysteries out and to be attentive and speak to that difference,” he said.

However, gender ideology treats male and female as simply interchangeable, which does a disservice to girls and boys, Donaghy said, particularly as they get older.

Maintaining the single-sex environment, he said, involves much more than a question of adolescents going out to the woods camping. He said the environment allows adult mentors to engage girls and boys in deep conversations and gives them the opportunity to express themselves far more freely in front of their peers than they would in front of the opposite sex, due to a heightened sense of vulnerability.

He added girls also need a “safe space now more than ever,” where they can bond with other girls as sisters and together grow in virtue to become the women they were meant to become. Boys also need those opportunities to learn from older men how to place their strength and bodies at the service of others, particularly in defense of the vulnerable, and uphold the dignity of women.

“Single-sex conversation can be very fruitful,” he said; however, when the opposite sex is introduced, “the conversation and the environment changes.”


Girl Scouts Opposed

The national Girl Scouts of America, and local Girl Scouts councils, pushed back on the BSA’s aim to recruit girls by advocating their traditional single-gender approach.

“We are disappointed that Boy Scouts of America has chosen to open its program to girls in contravention of its charter, rather than focusing on the 90% of American boys not being served by Boy Scouts,” Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. “We believe strongly in the importance of the safe, all-girl, girl-led and girl-friendly environment that Girl Scouts provides.” 

The Girl Scouts of Western New York emphasized that message, but also slammed the BSA for being “historically slow to adapt to changing cultural norms.”

However, changing cultural norms in Girl Scouts may be one of the factors for parents wanting girls to receive the same kind of character formation as Boy Scouts.

Jenne O’Neill, a Catholic mother of four, told the Register that her two sons joined a Cub Scout pack in Wahoo, Nebraska, and have experienced more memorable activities than she did in the Girl Scouts. While some women enjoyed their experiences and even achieved the “Gold Award,” she relayed that most of her female acquaintances from various parts of the country shared they did not feel they had the same kind of formation and fun as the Boy Scouts had.

O’Neill added that Girl Scouts is a sensitive subject among the local group of Catholic moms because some councils and troops get involved with Planned Parenthood and other objectionable issues. She did not have any hope that the Girl Scouts would change their tune or improve their program.

“I feel it would be more empowering to women if the girls learned the same stuff as the boys,” she said, adding that boys would benefit by not underestimating the capabilities of girls who have not had the same kind of practical skills and experience in the Girl Scouts.

“Let’s see what happens,” she said. “I don’t see any apocalyptic event coming from it.”


The Wrong Approach?

Margaret DeMarco, a Catholic mother of five in Canandaigua, New York, however, said BSA’s decision to admit girls into its traditional all-boy programs had discouraged her from considering the Cub and Boy Scout programs.

“There’s no way on earth that I can put them in an organization that can’t understand what its name means,” she said.

DeMarco said she would have no problem in principle with the Boy Scouts developing an all-girl program if girls already did not have a complementary scouting organization. She said BSA could have tried to work with Girl Scouts to improve its own program. Telling girls they should “join the Boy Scouts as a girl” did not seem to be a message of female empowerment.

The fact that this decision followed so quickly after three other BSA membership changes, she said, made her think “this is another attempt to blur the lines between male and female.”

DeMarco does not hold out any hope that the BSA’s single-gender programming would survive by continuing to adapt to every cultural trend. Because the broader culture thinks male and female are interchangeable, she believes mixed troops and packs will become the eventual norm.

“Our culture talks about celebrating differences,” she said. “We’re supposed to all do that. Well, why don’t we start with the very basic difference between male and female, instead of saying that for a woman to be empowered she needs to join a man’s organization?”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.