Three things bishops should think about before they ban the Girl Scouts

by Michael Sean Winters

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Recently, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, announced that the parishes of his archdiocese will no longer host Girl Scout troops, but instead will host American Heritage Girl troops. This latter group, the archbishop said in his statement, is based on Christian values and is "a better fit" for the parishes of the archdiocese.

To his credit, Naumann said that he engaged the leadership of the Girl Scouts to voice his concerns about the direction their program is taking. As I argued last week, it is a shame the U.S. bishops have not entered similar discussions with LGBT rights groups on the subject of religious liberty exemptions. Even if no "solution" is found, each side will be less likely to demonize the other, be more likely to concede the other side has real concerns, even if one does not share those concerns.

Still, in the case of the Girl Scouts, there was no meeting of the minds.

Naumann cited two specific examples of why the Girl Scouts are incompatible in his statement. The first is ridiculous. He writes: "The national organization, for example, contributes more than a million dollars each year to the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGS), an organization tied to International Planned Parenthood and its advocacy for legislation that includes both contraception and abortion as preventive health care for women."

The fact that an organization or a person is "tied to" a third group that undertakes activities of which we don't approve is not a good reason to sever relations with the first group. In this complex world of ours, we are always only two degrees of separation away from someone who does things that are offensive to the Gospel.

Has the archbishop scrutinized the archdiocese's investments to make sure none of those mutual funds include arms merchants? During the run up to litigation surrounding the Department of Health and Human Services' contraception mandate, it became apparent some dioceses could not sue because they had, unwittingly, included contraception coverage in their insurance.

There are better things to do than make sure no one with whom you interact is "contaminated." This concern for personal purity, and the witch-hunt mentality it requires, is characteristic of the Lepanto Institute. It has criticized Catholic Relief Services because CRS sometimes collaborates with groups that have ties to other groups that may support contraception. For years, the institute has tried to bring down the Catholic Campaign for Human Development because it, too, in its anti-poverty work sometimes collaborates with organizations that do not align with Catholic teaching entirely.

You have to stretch the moral theory against cooperation with evil way too far to have it reach these cases. The Lepanto Institute's tactics of outing people are morally offensive in the extreme. Its Jansenistic concern with the sexual purity of others is ecclesially, and psychologically, unhealthy. Such tactics are a cancer in the church.

Yet, those of us who attend the U.S. bishops' conference meeting every November in Baltimore can attest that Michael Hichborn, president of the Lepanto Institute, parks himself in one of two armchairs at the foot of the big elevator that brings the bishops down from the ballroom where they meet in plenary session. Most of the bishops walk right past, but Naumann, usually accompanied by Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Bishop Robert Finn, the former bishop of Kansas City, Missouri, always stop and visit, and then the group heads off to lunch or coffee or whatever.

The second issue raised by Naumann is more interesting, although it also shows this Jansenistic tendency and the archbishop's lack of imagination. "Margaret Sanger, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem are frequently held up in materials as role models for young Scouts," the archbishop observes. I suppose he must henceforth abstain from any work with Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley: In the early '70s, O'Malley co-chaired a committee on domestic worker wages in Washington, D.C., with Steinem. The horror.

Margaret Sanger, however, is a different kettle of fish. We live at a time when the Democratic Party is forced to rename its “Jefferson-Jackson Day” fundraisers because the two men owned slaves. While there is wide debate about racism in Sanger’s philosophy and work, and it is known that she addressed a meeting of a group affliated with the Klu Klux Klan, perhaps a women’s auxillary to the Klan, when you read her writings, her commitment to eugenics is not in doubt. I took the time to go down to the Library of Congress and read the early issues of the “Birth Control Review” that she started. It is rife with chilling neo-Malthusian nonsense about encouraging the superior sorts to breed and making sure the inferior sorts of people do not. That latter category included the disabled as well as people of color. So, my question to the archbishop: why not let your Catholic girl scouts raise these serious questions about Sanger’s views? They cannot raise those questions now that they have left the organization.

Behind the particulars of the decision to severe ties with the Girl Scouts, there is a worldview at work, and it could not be more at odds with the worldview set forth by Pope Francis in almost every other talk, and most clearly in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The pope wants us to go out into the world, not shut ourselves up in a morally quarantined sacristy. The pope encourages us to get our hands dirty. The pope, and not just this pope but every pope since the Second Vatican Council, has called for evangelization, not ecclesial mummification, as the essential mission of the church.

There is also a misunderstanding of our right relationship with God in evidence in the way Naumann seems to have approached this issue. As Francis said in Egypt, "All of us have the duty to teach coming generations that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, does not need to be protected by men; indeed, it is he who protects them."

Admittedly, the pope was speaking in a wildly different context, but the sentiment is just as important here: Sometimes the culture-warrior bishops act as if they need to protect God, which is ridiculous the moment you think about it.

My friend John Carr often says, "A healthy organization seeks converts, an unhealthy one seeks heretics." He is not only right, his is the stance that better follows the model of Vatican II and of the popes since the council.

Yes, there have been exceptions when Roman officialdom seemed more inclined to hunt down the heretics, but never to the degree that some in the U.S. church take the concern for being contaminated by contact with the impure. Yes, there really are certain organizations with which we should have no business, although working with a group that works with a group that does something bad seems pretty remote cooperation with evil to me.

I do not have any children in Girl Scouts. I do not live in Kansas. Maybe things are really bad out there. But, it strikes me that Naumann's edict will do more harm than good, making the church look narrow and self-obsessed, unhealthy and disengaged, instead of evangelizing, open and pursuing the common good. We shouldn't be afraid of interacting with groups that do a lot of good simply because they disagree with us on something, even something important. We shouldn't feel the need to protect God.

We should, as Francis and his predecessors have said, see evangelization as the heart of the Gospel, not this neo-Jansenistic concern with our own moral purity. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at the Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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