Can Catholics be friends with the Girl Scouts?

By Michaela Bisienere, a UF College of Journalism & Communications student

Reproductive rights. Gay marriage. Transgender rights. The words themselves can set off audible alarm bells when uttered in the proximity of a Catholic Church.

In February, Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis, Missouri was hearing these alarm bells when he published a letter on the Archdiocese of St. Louis website, instructing parishes and Catholics at large to disassociate themselves from the Girl Scout organization.

In his missive, Carlson sited many reasons for the separation, including the inclusion of transgendered children in the organization, the recognition of feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan as role models for girls, and organizational support of sex education and reproductive rights for women. The Archdiocese website provided extensive information on the subject, including a helpful Q&A section for concerned parents.

The most troubling of Archbishop Carlson’s objections concerned the Girl Scout’s approach to the homosexual and transgender community. Though I may be a little rusty, I recall no faith formation class that urged against all interaction and association with those who live lifestyles that the Catholic Church considers sinful.

As far as I can tell, it is not against the Bible or the Catechism to treat members of the LGBTQ community with tolerance and love.

In fact, Pope Francis has sought greater compassion for all sexual orientations, asking, “”If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” There is a delicate line between endorsing a person’s lifestyle and accepting it without participation, and I have confidence that it is a line young Catholics with a solid foundation of faith and love could navigate gracefully.

Also among the reasons that the Church is opposed to the girl’s leadership organization is it’s honoring of figures such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, a gloomy nod at another tricky subject within the Church: women.

The sphere of modern women’s rights, and the abortion and birth control issues that lie within the broader topic of equality between men and women, is a huge challenge for Catholicism. But there is a compromise within in it, a compromise that elevates women alongside men as leaders who deserve equal pay and more flexible family leave. Abortion is an issue, but as Betty Friedan would agree, it is not the singular issue of women’s rights. The Catholic Church must proceed with caution and avoid sweeping all of these issues under the rug with broad gestures.

The shielding of Catholic girls from secular organizations – be it a Girl Scout troop, book club, or a soccer league – where they may be exposed to individuals of diverse beliefs and backgrounds is an absurd approach. Young, Catholic women are looking at a lifetime of living and working with individuals who hold different, often opposing beliefs. I would love to see the Catholic Church teach its youth to foster a healthy respect and curiosity for cultures, religions and ethics that may be radically different from Catholic teachings, while simultaneously nurturing one’s own faith and rediscovering the value behind it.

As human beings, every single interaction with someone who is different from us is an opportunity to remember and reaffirm our own beliefs. Furthermore, an early effort to shield young women from coming into contact with values that might contradict their own is a failure to teach them how to handle the situation when the time to do so ultimately arises.

“Girl Scouts is exhibiting a troubling pattern of behavior and it is clear to me that as they move in the ways of the world it is becoming increasingly incompatible with our Catholic values,” wrote Carlson.

And herein lies a modern problem of the Catholic Church – rather than focus on teaching its followers how to practice their faith harmoniously among these new incompatible “ways of the world,” on occasions such as this it seeks to separate itself from them and encourage deeper divisions between Catholics and those who are different from them.

The Girl Scout conflict is significant because it is indicative of a much larger problem within the Church: an inability to adapt to threats against its belief and create a new generation of Catholics armed to live alongside these issues rather than play the avoidance game.

As a generational shift toward tolerance rocks our Supreme Court, our political campaigns, our media and our workplaces, the Catholic Church too must learn to adjust or be left behind. I do not call on the Church to forgo their beliefs on these issues, or for any devoted Catholic to compromise them in his or her own lifestyle, worship or relationships.

However, I implore the Church to learn how to coexist with organizations like the Girl Scouts who may not accept those beliefs as their own, to find a less volatile way to enforce its teachings and to emphasize a balance between tolerance and devotion among Catholics around the world. To fail to do so is to truly jeopardize the existence of the Church in the centuries to come.