The Boy Scouts, Gay Youth and Catholic Teaching

It's hard to preach "Good News" when you're making news for fighting the wrong battles. At a time when Pope Francis is breathing new life into the church with his humility and inclusive posture, U.S. bishops should take a cue from Rome.
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Catholic Church officials are responding to the Boy Scout's recent policy change to drop its ban on openly gay youth with reactions that range from measured to needlessly alarmist and offensive.

A Catholic pastor in Washington state claims the message sent to Catholic scouts would be "cruel and abusive," and is pulling his parish out of the organization. Father Derek Lappe, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea parish in Bremerton, Wash., wrote in an angry and at times bizarre letter to parishioners that same-sex attraction can result from "lack of interest in sport," "extreme shyness" and mothers who were "needy and demanding," among other widely discredited theories.

Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va., fired off a statement that lectured the Boy Scouts for caving to "political causes at the cost of its moral integrity." The Scouts' history of denying gay young men the same opportunities as their heterosexual fathers and brothers, Bishop Loverde wistfully said, demonstrated "principled and steadfast resolve."

Toxic messages sent to gay youth are particularly hurtful coming from ministers called to model the compassion of Christ. There is not a sentence in Bishop Loverde's statement about the need to treat gay and lesbian youth with dignity, despite the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity," and that "every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

You have to wonder if these religious leaders have read any research about gay youth and suicide. A study in the journal Pediatrics found that gay and lesbian youth were more likely to attempt suicide when they were in social environments that offered little support compared to situations in which they had positive networks that affirmed their humanity (including gay-straight alliances and anti-bullying policies specifically protecting gays and lesbian students in schools).

Most Americans know it's not a "political cause" to want gay children to grow up in a country where they don't feel stigmatized or excluded. Bishop Loverde said he will now decide whether the diocese should end its association with the Boy Scouts in order to preserve "the Church's teaching on the authentic meaning of human sexuality."

Why the alarmist reaction? The Boy Scouts have not endorsed same-sex marriage, birth control, abortion or gay sex, all of which the church teaches is sinful. But Catholic teaching does not exile gay and lesbian Catholics to remote islands. You can find many gay Catholics in Mass on Sunday, leading parish committees and even (if perhaps less acknowledged) in the priesthood. In a 1997 pastoral letter, "Always Our Children," U.S. Catholic bishops wrote: "God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is a homosexual." A policy that makes room for gay scouts should not be considered at odds with church teaching. If gay Catholics can find a home in the church, why can't gay youth be accepted in the Boy Scouts?

In contrast to Bishop Loverde's embattled posture, the National Catholic Committee on Scouting has a more sober response. "We should be encouraged that the change in BSA's youth membership standard is not in conflict with Catholic teaching," wrote Edward Martin, the organization's national chairman. "Any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting. The Boy Scouts of America does not have an agenda on the matter of sexual orientation, and resolving this complex issue is not the role of the organization, nor may any member use Scouting to promote or advance any social or political position or agenda." The national committee includes a bishop who is a liaison from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the statement cited a church canon lawyer popular with conservatives who wrote that while he disagrees with the decision it does not violate church doctrine.

The Boy Scouts of America has correctly reasoned, if many years after most institutions, that denying someone an opportunity solely on the basis of sexuality is morally repugnant in the 21st century. Catholic bishops have a right to pour millions of dollars into fighting same-sex civil marriage, even as most Americans and a majority of Catholics find this lobbying misguided and now support civil marriage equality. But apocalyptic denunciations of a policy change that has nothing to do with gay marriage or sex reflects a rather startling preoccupation with policing sexuality, especially for an institution that continues to lose moral credibility for protecting clergy who sexually abused children.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently made headlines for acknowledging that the Catholic Church must do a better job reaching out to gays and lesbians. The church tries its "darnedest to make sure we're not anti-anybody," the folksy cardinal promised. Softer rhetoric is nice, but Catholic dioceses that cut ties with the Boy Scouts will make the church look like a bully.

At a time when Pope Francis is breathing new life into the church with his humility and inclusive posture (he recently criticized Catholic leaders who make it hard for single mothers and others to receive the sacraments), U.S. bishops should take a cue from Rome.

Or maybe even the Gospels? Jesus rebuked the religious establishment of his day for their exclusive, self-congratulatory piety. Those well-versed in the letter of the law, he taught, often smother its spirit. In a zeal to protect the faith, some hunker down and see threats where there are none and replace a joyful Christian message with a dour defensiveness. This is a recipe for disaster for a church that is trying to stem the tide of U.S. Catholics leaving the faith and embark on a "new evangelization."

It's hard to preach "Good News" when you're making news for fighting the wrong battles.

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