As churches debate scouting in U.S., in Italy it's a Catholic affair

As churches debate scouting in U.S., in Italy it’s a Catholic affair

As churches debate scouting in U.S., in Italy it’s a Catholic affair

Boy and girl scouts in Italy at the Assembly of the Italian Association of Catholic Guides and Scouts of Europe. (Credit: Curtesy of AIGSEC.)

While the U.S. struggles with co-ed scouting, Italy's had it for a half-century with full support from the Catholic Church.

ROME – Controversy continues to strike the Boy Scouts of America, as the more than 100-year-old institution struggles to adapt to the modern-day world by integrating girls into its programs and enacting ‘LGBTQ-inclusive’ policies.

Today, religious institutions in the U.S. are debating whether to continue working with the Scouts. The Mormon Church has already announced its intention to sever ties in 2019. Other controversies over the Girl Scouts led Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas to announce that his parishes will stop hosting troops, affiliating instead with the Christian alternative American Heritage Girls.

Other representatives of the Catholic Church in America, which is involved with less than 8 percent of scout activities, have also voiced their objection regarding the new policies.

As scouting becomes a new battlefield for clashing ideologies, a look at the Italian boy scout reality can offer some perspective, especially concerning Catholic involvement. The Church in Italy oversees, and is actively involved in, more than 97 percent of scouting activities.

“The tight relationship with the parishes is a peculiarity that distinguishes [Boy Scouts in Italy] even in the European context,” said Father Paolo La Terra, General Assistant of the Italian Association of Catholic Guides and Scouts of Europe, AIGSEC, a Catholic guiding and scouting association in Italy.

Almost 50 years have passed since girls were admitted into Italian scout groups, and while tensions arose early on, today the practice is widely accepted and fully integrated into dioceses across Italy.

The situation is flipped when it comes to homosexuality, where Italy arguably is on a different page than the United States in developing programs that cater to a changing moral landscape.

Girls in the Boy Scouts

When the Boy Scouts of America announced last month it would be eliminating the word “boy” from its name, social media was full of differing opinions, with some welcoming the change as long overdue and others voicing opposition or confusion. The name change came after a move in 2015 to allow girls to be part of scouting activities.

This decision was not well received by the Girl Scouts of America, a completely separate organization, which sees in it an attempt to steal their female recruits in light of sexual abuse scandals and falling membership.

“We are disappointed that Boy Scouts of America has chosen to open its program to girls in contravention of its charter, rather than focusing on the 90 percent of American boys not being served by Boy Scouts,” Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of the Girl Scouts, said in a statement.

Many Catholics have welcomed the inclusion of girls in the BSA, mostly due to ethical concerns regarding the Girl Scouts’ association with Planned Parenthood. While some girl scout groups have partnered with the family planning group, the GSA has denied any collaboration at a national level.

Other concerns had to do with the Girl Scouts’ perceived excessive focus on cookie sales and lack of rigorous structure. Some have purported to be alarmed by what the union of girls and boys will mean for the BSA’s methodology and values, inspired by its founder Robert Baden-Powell.

These very same concerns were at the base of a debate that took place within the Italian scouting world back in the early ’70s. Spurred by the air of change and inclusion that overran Europe in 1968, the Italian Catholic Scout Association for boys (Asci) and the Italian Guide Association for girls (Agi) decided to meld together into one mixed group, Agesci, in 1974.

Today, Agesci is the largest scout association in Italy with nearly 200,000 members. By comparison, its secular counterpart, Cngei, only counts about 12,000 members.

Young girl scouts who lived through the change described it as a shift from “a reality made of flowers, dances and table centers to one made of animals, fighting games and bravery challenges.” At the beginning it was trial and error. A decision to have adolescent girls and boys together in mixed “squadrons,” small sub-groups that often share the same tent, was quickly retracted.

The key word was “diarchy,” meaning guaranteeing female and male leadership in every age group, both with equal responsibility.

“For future educators, young girls and teenagers, it was a school that helped them understand that from there on, in the work world and in the family, they would never have to be second to anyone,” writes journalist and former scout Orsola Vetri in the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana.

“We were with friends, brothers, male colleagues, all of us responsible in any situation,” she wrote.

Not everyone was on board. Those who opposed the union of the two groups on both sides founded the Italian Association of Catholic Guides and Scouts of Europe, AIGSEC, the second largest scout association in Italy with over 20,000 members.

“This model was not convincing,” said La Terra, who is the Church representative in AIGSEC and nominated by the Italian Bishops’ Conference, in an interview with Crux. This group offers a more strictly divided approach between the sexes, though it’s open to both. Girls and boys are kept separate at a young age and the more they grow, the more activities they have together.

AIGSEC also adopts a diarchy method, where the male and female leaders work equally in partnership with the spiritual assistant for the group.

Scouting is thriving in Italy, with memberships growing every year, while remaining a fully Catholic reality. It’s hard to find a parish on the peninsula that does not have its own scouting group. Yet, while Italy was quick to adapt to changing tides when it came to the inclusion of women in scouting, the road is still long for addressing the wave of gender ideologies hitting the Old Continent.

Italian scouts prepare for new challenges

The Italian scouts’ unpreparedness for new challenges concerning sexuality was made even more clear during the Staranzano case, named after the town in northern Italy where the events took place.

A head scout of Agesci, Marco Di Just, celebrated a civil union with his male partner Luca Bortolotto in the summer of 2017, leading the local parish priest to ask him “in conscience” to step down from his role.

Openly homosexual scout leaders are not admitted in Italy, and homosexuality in general in the scouts is more tolerated than approved.

The assistant pastor, who was present at the marriage ceremony, opposed the decision, and the Agesci regional representatives supported Di Just on Facebook.

In response, the local Bishop of Gorizia, Carlo Roberto Maria Redaelli, wrote a long letter asking whether there were any “aspects of grace” in the case and calling all interested parties to discernment.

“We are before new and complex issues where the ecclesial reflection is still at its early stages or anyway not fully matured, opinions are not in agreement, pastoral practices are not yet well defined,” the bishop wrote.

In 2014, over 30,000 scouts signed a document called “The Charter of Courage,” encouraging Agesci and the Church to be more inclusive not just toward homosexuality but also divorced and civilly remarried adult members.

La Terra told Crux that the issue is being raised more frequently during scout assemblies than in the past.

“Our point of reference remains always the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” he said. “One thing is respect of the person, but another is when that person needs to occupy an educational role.”

In the United States, by way of contrast, the BSA lifted its ban on scouts with same-sex attractions and allowed them to be leaders two years later. In 2017, the boy scouts began admitting girls who identified as boys in the program.

While Italy can offer a frame of reference for the U.S. to look 50 years down the line toward what a mixed scouting system looks like, Italian scouts also may be keeping their eyes on developments with LGBTQ issues across the Atlantic.

“In Italy, still, certain phenomena have not yet manifested themselves in an evident way as in America,” La Torre observed, “but what happens in America, after 10 years, comes over here.”

Meanwhile, during the general assembly of AIGSEC last week, the head of the Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, called Catholic scouts to join Pope Francis in a Church “that does not fear to be contaminated, but inserts itself in the arduous march of humanity as a whole.”

The bishop’s call for a Catholicism prone to welcoming and inclusion could be interpreted as a sign for Italian scouting to broaden its horizons, and young scouts have stated that they are inspired by Francis’s perceived opening toward homosexuality.

Though scouting in Italy is still going strong, “the tempest is drawing near,” La Torre said grimly. “We will have to find out how good we will be in facing it.”

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