A history of the friction between the Girl Scouts and the Catholic Church

Last Monday, May 1, 2017, the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., issued a statement explaining its decision to cut ties with the Girl Scouts. The archdiocese plans to transition from an affiliation with the Girl Scouts of the United States of America to a Christian program, the American Heritage Girl, adding to the politically charged saga between the Girl Scouts and the church.

For decades, the Girl Scouts have been subject to criticism for what some take to be the organization’s liberal positions on sexuality, birth control and abortion and for its promotion of the work of pro-choice feminists such as Betty Friedan, Margaret Sanger and Gloria Steinem. Officially, Girl Scouts USA takes no stance on issues related to sexuality, birth control or abortion.

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In addition, the Girl Scouts have a general policy of inclusion, meaning they allow the participation of L.G.B.T. youth and troop leaders, which has caused some controversy as well.

Despite recent criticism, the Girl Scouts boasts of its relationship with the Catholic Church on its website. Of the organization’s 3.2 million members, which includes both scouts and volunteers, 500,000 were Catholic as of 2013.

World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts

In recent years, Girl Scouts USA has come under particular scrutiny for its association with organizations whose missions conflict with church teaching. This includes past partnerships with organizations like Amnesty International, Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. (Both Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders provide contraception to aid recipients. Oxfam supports access to safe abortion services, and Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders condone abortion in cases of rape.)

The Girl Scouts boasts of its relationship with the Catholic Church on its website.

The primary source of concern for Catholic officials has been the Girl Scouts’ affiliation with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). Several outlets have published articles linking WAGGGS to pro-choice organizations like International Planned Parenthood and exposing its members’ efforts to promote sexual health and reproductive rights.

WAGGGS has acknowledged that through some of its member organizations, as well as in its own communications, it has advocated for women’s “sexual and reproductive health/rights.” The organization emphasizes its dedication to the well-being of marginalized girls and it takes no stance on abortion, but WAGGGS has limited authority over the positions of its member organizations and the personal positions of its delegates.

Likewise, Girl Scouts USA has a neutral stance on sexuality, contraception and abortion, but it allows individual councils or troops to take positions on these topics if parental consent and other necessary permissions have been obtained.

Girl Scouts USA has said that it is unable to distance itself from WAGGGS or to change any of the organization’s advocacy positions. It contributes over $1 million to WAGGGS each year. According to the Girl Scouts USA website, this money comes from investment income, rather than from revenue generated by troops through dues, cookie sales and registration fees.

Scouts
A Girl Scout from Utah recites the Girl Scout promise prior to Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City Oct. 18. (CNS photo/Erick Rommel)

An incident in 2010 brought attention to Girl Scouts USA’s controversial affiliation with WAGGGS. A brochure titled “Healthy, Happy and Hot,” created by International Planned Parenthood, was found in a room after a meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, at which a delegation of 10 girl scouts were representing WAGGGS. The brochure describes how to have a sex life when H.I.V.-positive and promotes both birth control and abortion. Girl Scouts USA claimed to have had no knowledge of the brochure. Following this incident, pro-life advocates asked the Girl Scouts to disassociate from WAGGGS, after which point mention of Girl Scouts’ participation with the U.N. event was removed from event materials. Over the course of the last two decades, similar concessions have been made to pro-life and religious members of Girl Scouts USA, including the rephrasing of problematic material in the group’s curricula.

American Heritage Girls

The American Heritage Girls was founded in 1995 by the former Girl Scout troop leader Patti Garibray. She decided to form an alternative group for girls in 1993 after the Girl Scouts altered their Girl Scout Promise to make a reference to God optional and to allow the substitution of a different term (Allah, the Creator, etc.) that better suits a scout’s spiritual beliefs. The organization has grown quickly over the past 20 years and now has groups across the country. Its 1,000th group started last January.

This faith-based, scouting-type program is an option for Catholics looking to move away from Girl Scouts USA. However, even this program may not align entirely with Catholic teaching. Its “7C’s of History” badge suggests girls take a trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., which denies evolution. Pope Francis, in agreement with St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, asserted the possibility of both evolution and the big bang in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2014.

Catholic disapproval

In 2012 Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, launched an official inquiry into Girl Scouts USA and Catholic scouting. The inquiry seems to have been spurred on by the group’s links to organizations that differ from church teaching, especially its association with WAGGGS. In February of that year, the five-part series “Girl Scouts: Mission Aborted,” which rebuking the Girl Scouts’ ties to Planned Parenthood, ran on EWTN.

"Does one policy with which you can’t agree prevent you from being involved in broader coalitions?"

Several former girl scout leaders, disheartened by what they saw as unconvincing neutrality on the part of the Girl Scouts, began blogs to reveal the ways the organization was failing its girls, including “Girl Scouts, Why Not?,” “100 Questions for the Girl Scouts” and “mygirlscoutcouncil.com.” Popular blogs for Catholic women, like “Women of Grace” likewise began assailing Girl Scouts USA for its connection to pro-choice organizations. Activists have used social media campaigns to boycott Girl Scout cookie sales. Under pressure from parents, some Catholic parishes began disassociating with the Girl Scouts, disbanding troops and refusing the use of parish space for meetings. Because of the grassroots nature of the resistance to Girl Scouts USA, it is hard to gauge the size of the movement.

Some Catholic leaders have expressed public support for Girl Scouts. Robert McCarty, former executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, told The Washington Post: “It’s the whole thing of guilt by association. Does one policy with which you can’t agree prevent you from being involved in broader coalitions? My position is that the only way you can advocate for the church’s position is to be engaged in the dialogue.” He also suggested that any perceived violations of the Girl Scouts were unintentional and were usually rectified.

“I don’t think any of this material was intentionally mean-spirited,” Mr. McCarty told the Associated Press. “I think a lot of it was lack of attention.”

On April 2, 2014, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a report resulting from its inquiry, in which they cited WAGGGS’s support of “sexual and reproductive health/rights” as a problematic aspect of Girl Scouts’ current affiliation with the international organization. The Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth “recognized to be morally objectionable any type of promotion, advocacy, or education on ‘sexual and reproductive health/rights’ as this phrase is commonly understood, especially since the phrase often includes abortion.”

The report suggested that concerned parents discourage their girl scouts from participating in WAGGGS events and fundraising and stated that individual girl scouts can choose not to wear their WAGGGS pins. Moreover, the committee urged clear communication and strong parental involvement at the local level. They suggested that, instead of associating with WAGGGS, “troops might encourage prayer for girls and young women around the world” and “propose concrete initiatives and projects of service and solidarity” that work to affirm “the authentic dignity and vocation of women.”

Overall, the committee report stated that the bishop conference’s interactions with the Girl Scouts were “pleasant, informative and respectful,” and the report left any broad policy recommendation regarding future association with Girl Scouts USA to the local bishops.

On Feb. 18, 2016, Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis created the Catholic Committee for Girls Formation. In a letter to priests, scout leaders and other Catholics, Archbishop Carlson urged a severance from the Girl Scouts, which he said promotes values that conflict with church teaching. He intended for the committee to demonstrate “ongoing commitment to educating and forming all young women.”

This brings us to May 1, 2017, when Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., made public his decision to transition his archdiocese from Girl Scouts USA to the American Heritage Girls. In his letter, Archbishop Naumann explained that this difficult decision was based on hundreds of hours of research. He described Girl Scouts USA’s financial contributions to WAGGGS as well as the organization’s use of pro-choice role models, claiming that these women “not only do not reflect our Catholic worldview but stand in stark opposition to what we believe.”

“To follow Jesus and his Gospel will often require us to be counter-cultural,” Archbishop Naumann wrote. “With the promotion by Girl Scouts USA of programs and materials reflective of many of the troubling trends in our secular culture, they are no longer a compatible partner in helping us form young women with the virtues and values of the Gospel.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 months 1 week ago

Why does an organization which empowers girls with life skills become a partisan, political issue?

Tim O'Leary
6 months 1 week ago

Beth - The Scouts were initially intended to inculcate the Christian concept of manhood into young men (later added Girl guides/scouts), promoting Christian morality and wholesome activities for young people. Founder Baden-Powell in 1917 wrote "Scouting is nothing less than applied Christianity." But, they have been under siege from liberal activists (the ACLU and most recently the LGBT activists) to separate from all Christian ideas of morality. They have recently caved, and their decline in numbers will necessarily follow (note the recent news from the Mormon Church - just the tip of the iceberg). Then, following the same pattern of mainline Protestant churches in recent decades, those who remain will be more liberal, and the shift leftward will accelerate, resulting in an even more rapid decline. Boy Scouts of America had declined from 3.2M in 2003 to 2.3M in 2015. With the Mormon news, they will probably be under 2M by 2018.

Similarly, the Girl Scouts became political under pressure from liberal activist feminist groups (No organization that promotes a benign view of the eugenicist Margaret Sanger, who favored abortion especially in racial minorities, should ever be supported by Catholics). The people who have children tend to be more conservative and religious. They will look for organizations that don't contradict their moral teaching. So, the decline will continue.

Dominic Deus
6 months 1 week ago

Beth--When it, the institutional Church, doesn't know what it is talking about! The reason I do not take this seriously is because the Girl Scouts are so obviously virtuous and wise and some of our leadership are so obviously ignorant and foolish. More than anything else, they are generating eye rolls and laughter. They need--Girl Scout cookies!!!

--Dominic

Irene Baldwin
6 months 1 week ago

I have been involved in scouting since I was a girl myself and now with my own daughters as they grow up. The concerns about Girl Scouts supporting family planning etc. are overblown. At least in my experience, on the ground, Scouts really are neutral on these issues.

Regarding that incident with the family planning brochure found in the trash several years ago at an event where WAGGGS participated. First, folks should know that Girl Scouts/Girl Guide programs are different around the world. Here in the US, our oldest scouts are in high school. But in the UK, the birthplace of guiding, Senior Guides are as old as 26 years old. In Mauritania, in North Africa where I served in the Peace Corps, Girl Guides were as old as 30 years old (and women there routinely married and started families when they were still in their teens)

It is completely reasonable for WAGGGs as the pre-eminent global organization supporting woman and girls to participate in UN conferences on the status of women and girls around the world. And it is completely reasonable for the UN Commission to look at family planning and women's health, sine these really are issues of life and death for women in so many countries especially developing nations.

Girl Scouts for years has tried to put the issue of that family planning brochure to bed. The brochure did not come from them; it was discovered by an anti-Girl Scout (and anti-UN) activist who obtained conference credentials. She went through the trash after a meeting she did not attend herself and a meeting in which Girl Scouts and Guides were not the only participants.

People can decide for themselves if they think this incident should put them off scouting, but, to me, its seems like some Catholic bishops first picked a battle then had to find an enemy. I would just say to them, if you truly are concerned about the well-being of Catholic girls, you have more important things to worry about and scouting is not the problem.

Beth Cioffoletti
6 months 1 week ago

Thanks, Irene.

I love seeing girls discover their unique skills for independence and survival a part from a man's agenda. This has been a long time coming and still comes up against resistance under the guise of "morality". Important to recognize this and call it out for what it is: Patriarchy, control of women, fear. Catholic leaders (the bishops) should seek out the wisdom of spiritually mature women before making statements. There are a lot of good women theologians who would be more than willing to help.

Irene Baldwin
6 months ago

Hi Beth. I think there is a real disconnect if anyone thinks Scouting conflicts with Catholic values. My elder daughter received her Girl Scout Gold Award last night. (Her Gold Award project was to create a computer coding/maker club for an aftershool program in a family shelter in the Bronx). Of the 48 girls from Greater NYC receiving the award, 4 of them came from my daughter's very small (50 in her grade) all-girls Catholic school. Something like a quarter of NYC Girl Scout troops are hosted in Catholic parishes and I always saw Girl Scouting as a wonderful vehicle to help Catholic girls give public witness to their faith . Girl Scouting does a really good job of being inclusive and supporting girls from all walks of life while walking the tightrope of avoiding offense to anyone's particular belief system. It's just too bad the Scouts have to constantly manage these kinds of criticisms, it's a distraction from their core work of serving girls.

Mike Evans
6 months 1 week ago

Another pre-emptive strike against women who naturally do not want to grow up just to be barefoot, pregnant and broke. The church has tried often before to flex its muscle against women. They will not be successful this time. Catholic Scout leaders, parishes who sponsor scouting, and parents everywhere are puzzled and amazed.

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