When someone first assked me whether I heard that the American bishops were investigating the Girl Scouts, I thought he was pulling my leg. Later that day, I heard remarks: "First the nuns, now the Girl Scouts. I guess it means the church does not want any independent women!" (with an allusion to the Girl Scouts' motto of supporting "girls of courage, confidence and character."). When I finally read the news reports that there was, indeed, an 'official inquiry' into the Girl Scouts led by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne as chairman of the Bishops' Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, I was perplexed by the published remarks in The Washington Post that there were some questions about the Girl Scouts' links to the Sierra Club, Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders! It seems these three groups do not have the same position on contraception as Catholic official teaching. I mused if that meant that I should cancel my own membership in the Sierra Club or that the Jesuit Refugee Service should sever any relation (crucial for them in their work) to Doctors Without Borders!
I have come to realize that there has been a long-standing animus against the Girl Scouts by right-wing Christian groups, including Catholic ones. More than a decade ago, Kathryn Jean Lopez of The National Review wrote: "The Girl Scouts' leaders hope to make their youthful charges the shock troops of an ongoing feminist revolution". That the Girl Scouts allowed non-Christians to substitute Buddha or Allah in their oath about serving "God" got attacked by Focus on the Family in 1995. Cathy Ruse of The Family Research Council alleged that the organization is "pushing promiscuous sex on the girls." The popular right-wing website, WorldNetDaily, has accused the Girl Scouts of promoting 'lesbianism' and 'paganism'. Recently the conservative Catholic EWTN network aired a program attacking the Girl Scouts.
The gist of this concerted effort, since the spring of 2010, to attack the organization had to do with a meeting held under United Nations' auspices which brought together representatives of The Girl Scouts, Unicef's Working Group on Girls, Girls Learn International and The Grail. Some time after that meeting ended, Sharon Slater, a pro-life advocate, entered the room where the meeting had been held (other groups had also earlier met in that room) and found a copy of a Planned Parenthood sex guide brochure, " Healthy, Happy and Hot" which encouraged masturbation, use of birth control devises etc. Clearly, the brochure is counter to Christian views on healthy, moral sexuality. The Girl Scouts have denied that they had anything to do with the brochure. None of the girls attending the meeting claimed to have seen it.
But the right wing blogospehere of Concerned Women of America and The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute ( C-Fam) have been insistent in keeping the alleged story alive. C-Fam, on its web site, says it sees itself as a watchdog against U.N. incursions on our national sovereignty, of U.N. attempts to subvert American and Catholic morality. C-Fam's vision is " the preservation of international law by discrediting socially radical policies at the United Nations and other international institutions.". Another target of those who attack the Girl Scouts is its membership in The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts ( which includes 145 different organizations), The world association does countenance contraception. C-Fam claims there are close ties between the Girl Scouts and Planned Parenthood ( something both organizations deny). C-Fam notes that, in 2004, the Great Plains Council of Girl Scouts hired Beverly Nolte as their C.E.O. Previously, Nolte held marketing and lobbying positions with Planned Parenthood of Nebraska. A competitive joker in the pack is that right-wing Christian groups, in 1995, formed their own competitor to the Girl Scouts, American Heritage Girls. Their group is only open to Judaeo-Christians.
Perhaps, the most bizarre attack on the Girl Scouts occurred earlier this year when Representative Bob Morris (who represents Fort Wayne) circulated a letter to his fellow Republican members of the Indiana House demanding that they not pass a resolution congratulating The Girl Scouts on their hundredth anniversary. Morris, a devout and conservative Catholic, echoes various comments about the Girl Scouts found in the right-wing blogosphere. He alleges that they are a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood, allow and promote homosexuality. At one point, he excoriates the fact that Michelle Obama is the honorary chairwoman of The Girl Scouts (as every first lady has been!) and, then, snidely, calls her a notorious pro-abortionism. One can only be puzzled, in 2012, by Morris' allegations that Girl Scouts somehow favor communism!
Denver Auxiliary Bishop James Conley warned parents that "membership in the Girl Scouts could carry the danger of making their daughters more receptive to the pro-abortion agenda." The pastor of Saint Timothy's Catholic Church in Chillity, Virginia summarily told scout leaders they could no longer use the church or parochial school facilities after the current school year, not offering any public explanation! The Girl Scouts, in point of fact, take no position on abortion or contraception. A blogger in a Catholic diocesan newspaper had this to say: "If we as Catholics really believe abortion and contraception are against God's laws and the teaching of the church, then how can we partner with a secular organization that will not take a stand on these issues ?"
The Girl Scouts have forthrightly said, in a Feb.28 newsletter, that the Girl Scouts does not have a relationship or partnership with Planned Parenthood and does not plan to create one. It said it did not participate in the development or distribution of a Planned Parenthood brochure mysteriously found at a 2010 United Nations' event. Parents and volunteer troop members in Catholic churches, they said, have total control of the Girl Scouts' programming which their girls receive. As Michelle Tompkins from Girl Scouts notes in that newsletter: "While Girl Scouting encourages girls to think on their own, Girl Scouts learn to think on their own under the close guidance of the parents who are our trusted volunteers." Tompkins laments: "I know we're a big part of the culture wars. For us, there's an overarching sadness to it. We're just trying to further girls' leadership."
The new C.E.O. of The Girl Scouts, Anna Maria Chavez, a Catholic, has been cooperating as closely as she can with the investigation to continue and enhance a partnership between the Girl Scouts and Catholic parishes which dates since the time of Cardinal Gibbons. 500,000 of the Girl Scouts are Catholic. The Executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, Robert mcCarty, put up a web page debunking false rumors about the Girl Scouts (he too has recently come under attack in the right wing blogosphere). McCarty likens the Girl Scouts' participation in the international scouting group to the Vatican's reepresentation vis-a-vis The United Nations which does not always agree with or support everything that happens in the U.N. "It's the whole thing of guilt by association. Does one policy with which you can not agree prevent you from being involved in a broader coalition. My position is that the only way you can advocate for the church's position is to be engaged in dialogue."
But, as a May 10th article in The Washington Post put it: "There is a strong push among some bishops to ensure that no church organization has even remote connections to doctrinally problematic groups. And conservatives do not seem assuaged by the re-assurances" by people like McCarty.So, a lot more is at stake in this controversy. Will the church remain the church ( which, as James Joyce put it, means 'Here comes everybody') or will it become a mere stand-alone sect of only the like-minded (betraying its calling). In the end, as McCarty put it, "The only way you can advocate for the church's position is to be involved in the dialogue." In a pluralist society, he got that right for, in a religiously and philosophically and politically pluralist society, that is the only way the cookie really crumbles! I do hope the Catholic Church avoids getting further entangled in the culture wars. It makes defending our bishops so much more difficult.
John A. Coleman