Throwing out the Boy Scouts, N.D. bishop hurts, not protects youth

by Patrick Whelan

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In the same week that Pope Francis spoke publicly about offering a new welcome back to the Church for remarried Catholics and their children, a bishop in North Dakota was offering a message of a different kind.  Bishop David Kagan issued a public letter stating, "Effective immediately, the Catholic Church of the Diocese of Bismarck and each and every one of its parishes, schools and other institutions is formally disaffiliated with and from the Boy Scouts of America.”  For good measure, he offered detailed instructions for Catholic boys regarding other organizations they could join that were more to his liking.

What was the reason for punishing all the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts in his diocese?  He was angry at the national Boy Scouts of America for altering their policy regarding the exclusion of leaders with a same-gender attraction.  Bishop Kagan rationalized his actions by saying that he cannot permit Catholic institutions to participate in organizations that have “policies and methods (that) contradict the authoritative moral teachings of the Catholic Church.”

The three Scout troops being kicked out of their parishes include Troop 1089 of Corpus Christi Church in Bismarck, a parish with a website that has a banner headline reading, “All are welcome!” Their bulletin proudly advertises Monday night Scout meetings in the parish hall. Like Troop 1089, Troop 1054 meets on Monday nights during the school year.  1054 is the only troop in Mandan, North Dakota. They have been in continuous operation since 1955, with nearly 40 active Scouts. Another troop and five Cub Scout packs will also be turned away.

Bishop Kagan’s concern is that a gay person may someday become a leader in one of these Catholic-sponsored troops. But people who are homosexuals already serve with distinction in many walks of life, including within the Church.

What would Catholic boys have to lose if they were to follow Bishop Kagan’s advice?  My son and I are members of a large troop in Central Massachusetts, and last year I led a group of 13 boys through a year of preparation for the Catholic Scouting medal, the Ad Altare Dei Award. Our group represented the largest in the state, and worked diligently through the entire school year to help these boys master the Catholic sacraments and a better understanding of their faith. This year my son became the only Scout in our town to earn the advanced Catholic Scouting medal, the Pope Pius XII Award. Bishop Kagan appears to be saying that the remote possibility of a gay person becoming a Scoutmaster overshadows the universe of good that comes from boys camping together, learning together, and growing together in an understanding of their faith.

The bishop has remained silent since his letter was released, and did not respond when I wrote to him.  He has not articulated any specific moral teaching of the Church that might be violated by the new Scout policy, and his actions directly contradict the clear intent of Pope Francis when he articulated last year the Church’s stance on welcoming gay people into full participation in the life of the Church.

If the pope can say,“Who am I to judge?” when speaking of the good intentions of such a Catholic leader, Bishop Kagan would seem to be on shaky ground going after the Boy Scouts. 

The story may have a happy ending.  The Scoutmaster of Troop 1054 told me that the outpouring of support locally and from across the country has been “truly amazing and very much appreciated. I'm glad to see Scouting is still alive and well.”  He said that a local service organization had stepped up and offered to charter the troop and to bring more material support to all their activities.  “While we are sad to end the 66 year relationship with the Catholic church, we are excited about the opportunities in the future,” he added.

Pope Francis has ushered in a new era in the Church: “No closed doors!” he said to divorced and remarried Catholics.  A fully inclusive Boy Scouts of America, with their focus on character formation and a capacity for reverence, will be around long after Bishop Kagan is gone.

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