The Boy Scouts were a huge part of my personal formation. At the age of nine I joined the Cubs, becoming successively a Bear and Webelo, and doing the usual Cub activities. This culminated with my entrance into the Boy Scouts proper in 1971. Rising through the ranks to Eagle Scout six years later, I acquired the skills and merit badges required of each, and joined the Order of the Arrow. This was an extremely important process for a lad with only two parents and an elder brother in the depths of Hollywood. Hikes and camping in such places as Cherry Valley, Circle X Ranch, Firestone, Griffith Park, Lake Arrowhead, and the Angeles National Forest taught me more about nature than I could ever have learned on Sunset Boulevard (though I never made it to the Scouting Mecca of Philmont until after leaving the program). Presentations at Scout-o-ramas taught me how to give lectures and answer questions. More than that, the skills of leadership were instilled in me as I went from patrol leader to senior patrol leader to junior assistant scoutmaster. The ethics of the Scout Oath and Law remain with me to this day, as does the knowledge acquired in those very merit badges — from Bookbinding to Citizenship in the World. There was also the knowledge that Scouting is a world-wide movement, reinforced by encounters with local Lithuanian, Polish, Czech, and Russian Scouts-in-Exile formations. We were taught not only about the stirring history of the BSA (and the mysterious story of the Unknown Scout), but about Scouting’s illustrious founder, Lord Baden-Powell. Patriotism of the standard mythic variety was very much a part of the program: amongst other things I learned as a Tenderfoot a very detailed history of the American Flag. Moreover, with the Coulombes Scouting was very much a family affair, with my father serving actively on the troop committee, my brother preceding me in Eagle-hood, and four of his sons following us in that status.
While many American Catholic writers of a traditionalist bent denounce Scouting as a sort of “white Masonry,” claiming that the BSA’s take on “A Scout is Reverent” and the practice of “Scout’s Own” at Camporees and Jamborees leads inevitably to indifferentism, this was not my experience. Both of my troops (now, alas, defunct) — 363, Blessed Sacrament, and 810, Precious Blood, were Catholic troops. One Sunday a month was Scout Sunday, upon which we would attend Mass as a body and provide the altar boys. We went on annual Scout retreats together, and marched in things like the Guadalupe Procession. The Scoutmasters (363’s Dick Flock and 810’s Leo Martin, please pray for the repose of their souls) pushed us to earn both the Ad Altare Dei and Pope Pius XII Catholic Scouting awards — two of the many religious awards the program provides. Our religious life as Scouts was supervised by the National and Archdiocesan Committees on Catholic Scouting, the former of which belongs to an International Conference. There are even two Servants of God associated with Catholic Scouting: Stephen Kaszap and Frank Parater.
As will be understood from all of this, Scouting has had a huge influence on me. While my participation ended when I left for college in 1978, my interest has continued. Above all, I learned about the many ways in which the BSA differs from Scouting as a whole and from Baden-Powells own, admittedly Anglo-centric vision. His idea, after all, was born from his experiences at the Siege of Mafeking during the Boer War, when he organized boys to act as runners and scouts in order to relieve men to fight. It was very much a part of the spirit that created such organizations as the Legion of Frontiersmen, the Imperial Federation League, and the Primrose League; one of B-P’s later books was fittingly named Young Knights of the Empire. His friend Kipling’s works played a role in the stories and ceremonies B-P devised for the movement (few American Cubs today will recognize in “Akela,” the Cub name for a good leader, a character from the Jungle Books). When the BSA was being organized, all of the Imperial trappings had to be removed and replaced with American and Indian trappings — the substitution of Eagle Scout for Queen’s Scout, as an example, and the reference to the Monarch in the oath. But what were also discarded were the patronage of St. George and the invocation of the spirit of Chivalry for Scouting that played such a role in B-P’s thinking, as with his frequent references to Scouts as “modern knights.”
There is another glaring difference between the BSA and European Scouting. On the Mother Continent, Scouting early shattered along ideological lines — in each country one finds Scout organizations adhering to various religious and political beliefs. In 1920, Fr. Jacques Sevin, S.J., a friend of B-P, organized the Scouts de France and two years later the International Conference of Catholic Scouting, which is today a recognized affiliate of the World Headquarters in Geneva. This body soon picked up member organizations throughout Europe and Latin America. With B-P’s blessing, Fr. Sevin (declared a Venerable in 2012) developed a unique sort of spirituality for Catholic Scouts, bringing the British versions’ ideal of Chivalry back to its Catholic roots, so to speak. But Catholic Scouting began to fragment after World War II and especially Vatican II. So today one also finds the International Union of Scouts of Europe, the International Confederation of European Scouts, the Unitary Scouts of France, Europa Scouts, and Scouts of the Holy Cross.
But cutting across ideological lines of that sort was a division of another kind in each country — as social mores changed tremendously during and after the 1960s, and more and more people became urbanized. B-P’s view of boyhood came to seem outdated — not to say sexist — to many of the boomers, and these demanded an “updating” of Scouting. Continental Scouting produced more splits to accommodate this, but even the Commonwealth was affected — hence the emergence of the Baden-Powell Scouts, who joined with similar organizations elsewhere in the World Federation of Independent Scouts. Were this not enough, the Order of World Scouts which emerged from an early leadership struggle with B-P has expanded tremendously in recent years across the globe — though not the US, thus far.
Through all of this excitement, the Boy Scouts of America has managed to avoid these innumerable schisms. But the BSA has not been unaffected by the same forces. Beginning in 1972, there have been periodic attempts to “modernize” the organization. One of the biggest changes since then has been the inclusion of women in leadership positions, given that the proliferation of broken homes has led to an explosion in the number of fatherless boys. Inevitably, this has had the effect of altering Scouting life to some extent. The BSA insistence that its members and leaders maintain belief in some sort of God has led to increased agitation against the Scouts from atheists and those politicians and media creatures friendly to them. But the movement may have met its Waterloo in this country over the issue of “Gay Rights.”
The decade in which a boy may participate in the program (8-18) are extremely important years, in which the adult slowly emerges from the child. Sexuality is of course one element of the maturing personality, but it is only one — and not one that Scouting generally addresses. All the others, so well summed up in the Scout Law, need to be cultivated — and never more than in a society that despises them all. But in recent decades, American society has increasingly demanded that individuals be categorized strictly in terms of their sexual tastes. For the Catholic, as for Jews and all self-professed Christians in general until not so long ago, this is tantamount to defining people purely in terms of their sins. The Scouts barred youths and leaders who openly described themselves as homosexual. For the former such a self-description could in any case only lead to disruption within a troop. For the latter, especially given the dangers of ephebophilia admission of such would be disastrous.
Nevertheless, as construction of quasi-ethnic group status on the basis of behavior gained political momentum, various engines of governmental and private power began to assault the Scouts for this policy. At last, after years of legal battles, loss of funding, and bad press, the BSA threw in the towel to a degree, and on May 23, 2013 allowed self-described gay youths to enter the program, while continuing the ban on such adults. The Mormon Church accepted the caveat and endorsed the move. That this action is insufficient for the BSA’s opponents was proved six days later when the California State Senate approved 27-9 The “Youth Equality Act, which would require that tax-exempt organizations — including student groups or sports and activity groups organized through public or private schools — would be barred from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The bill’s author specifically cites the barring of gay adults from the program.
So what of the Catholic response to the change in policy? It has been divided. I asked a devout Catholic friend of mine who is a paid Scout professional what he thought of it, and his response amazed me: “The Catechism of the Catholic Church separates this issue into two areas: 1) acts, 2) people. Homosexual acts are wrong. However, homosexuals themselves are people who deserve our love. In fact, Paragraph 2358 in the Catechism states: ‘They [homosexuals] must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.’ So actually having the ban on homosexuals is inconsistent with the teachings of the Church.” Interesting reasoning, to say the least — in this area, of course, the Catechism accepts the conflation of those with Same Sex Attraction with their disability. By such an interpretation, too, one could not keep openly practicing homosexuals out of the priesthood. It certainly means they cannot be kept out of adult leadership positions in the BSA.
The official response has been much more scattershot. As with many, perhaps most, of the diocesan Scout Committees, Los Angeles’ declared that “For the time being, CCSALA is not issuing a specific statement on the recent policy change.” The website refers enquirers to two documents on the National Committees website. The first document concludes that “Since the change in policy will not take effect until January 1, 2014, the National Catholic Committee on Scouting has adequate time to study its effects. The NCCS will determine how it may impact Catholic chartered Scout units and activities. In doing so, we will work within the teachings of our Catholic Faith and with the various local bishops and their diocesan scouting committees.” The second, an open letter from national; chairman Edward Martin, echoed my friend’s comment: “We should be encouraged that the change in BSA’s youth membership standard is not in conflict with Catholic teaching.” To those who did not see things quite that way, Martin declared “Our youth don’t want to leave Scouting. Scouting is still the best program around. Catholic Scouters like you are still very much needed. Let’s continue this important journey together!”
Despite Martin’s assurance that all would be well, some Catholics thought otherwise. Parishes in Bremerton, Washington; Crystal Lake, Illinois; Escondido, California; and elsewhere dropped their sponsorship of Scout troops. The Bishop of Arlington, Virginia strongly condemned the move. But in all likelihood the National Committee and so most diocese will find they can accept the change — at least until gay adult leaders are forced upon the program.
But until then, what of Catholic parents clerics who cannot accept the change — or of the rest, when the inevitable admission of the adults occurs? One alternative, of course is to withdraw one’s children and do nothing — but that, in my opinion is a terrible idea. Scouting not only gets boys out into the wild and gives them all my family and I received, it does so with their fathers. In this age of gender-bending and confusion, it has never been more important for this to happen.
So then, what to do? Well, for those who would like to see a version of the BSA program as it has been up until now, a number of parents, scouts and scouters are seeking to create a new alternative. Onmyhonor.net has scheduled a Leadership Convention for September of this year that intends to launch said alternative.
But what if someone wants a more specifically Catholic Scouting program? A Texas academic, Dr. Taylor Marshall, has formed the Catholic Scouts of St. George. They have already started a number of troops around the country. In his manifesto, Dr. Marshall makes clear that the new organization is to be entirely “Catholic and acknowledge every jot and tittle of the magisterium of the Church — and be in full communion with the Holy Father.” Thus there will a lot more of B-P’s emphasis on Chivalry and St. George.
There is also an existing organization, the Federation of North-American Explorers (FNE). Based in Canada, it has as of this writing one established branch in the US, with several groups now in formation — including one in theremote rural outpost of Richmond, New Hampshire. FNE offers single-gender scouting for both boys and girls, with troops strictly separated along gender lines. Affiliated with the Federation of Scouts of Europe, it brings Fr. Sevin’s vision of Catholic Scouting to North America. Although devoted to St. George, they claim Christ the King and Our Lady as their special patrons. Given that they have no historical ties at all to the BSA, their program might be considered either more foreign or more integrally Catholic than what long-term Scouters have been used to.
I love the BSA. No one understands more than me the desire to remain within it. Debts owed, memories treasured, and opportunities created hang heavily upon me. But those Catholics who value their Faith and its place in their children’s lives must put reality above nostalgia. Otherwise, we become like our Anglican friends in Forward in Faith, desperately seeking to find some magic formula whereby they may practice orthodoxy within a body that utterly rejects it. Many of them eventually saw the writing on the wall, and served as a large part of the foundation for the British Anglican Ordinariate.
Indeed, the plight of the Anglo-Catholics within the tottering Anglican Communion is a very apt simile for what awaits Catholics in the BSA. Undoubtedly the ban on gay adults will fall, to be followed by that on Atheists, and who know after that. Large chunks of Catholics will find that they can live with the latest changes, but will leave at the next — at which point some will, most won’t. The process will continue until whatever is left of the Catholic element in the BSA will resemble a grotesque Scouting version of Affirming Catholicism. Fortunately, instead of the stakes being one’s immortal soul, as in the Church version, the only thing to be lost here is a decent formation of young men — well, perhaps they are not that different.
Whatever betides, the day of the BSA as a big tent welcoming all on the basis of a vague patriotic, moral, and theistic unity is fast waning. Catholics are not the only religious body affected by this move; the Southern Baptists and various other groups have voiced their disapproval. I suppose that in ten years the Scouting scene in this country will be as fragmented as in Europe. It only remains for Catholic families to decide which of the alternative groups best fit their needs.
For myself, I shall miss the old BSA I grew up with — and the America it represented. In my day, most Scout office buildings were decorated with prints of paintings by Norman Rockwell. But the world they represented is vanished; they are like proud regimental colors laid up in an Anglican church with a lady vicar. Although our memories are precious, we cannot stay in them. We must live in the present and examine the practical alternatives available, and ready ourselves for the future by choosing one and throwing ourselves into it. Dark as the days to come nay be, it is always best — as any true scout knows — to Be Prepared.