ROME – Popular mythology notwithstanding, most Catholic bishops, like other sorts of managers and leaders, don’t usually go looking for fights. Much of the time, their prime directive is simply to get through the day with as few new headaches as possible.
Thus when Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, decided to pick a fight with the Girl Scouts, he knew a major migraine was on the way.
“The Girl Scouts are kind of an iconic institution, and certainly not one I was relishing distancing ourselves from,” he told Crux on May 5.
Recently, Naumann announced that parishes in his archdiocese would stop hosting Girl Scout troops, moving instead to an affiliation with the American Heritage Girls, a Christian alternative founded in 1995 when the Girl Scouts started allowing members to stop using the word “God” and, reportedly, discouraged prayers at meetings.
Naumann says he made the move because the Girl Scouts internationally support legalized abortion around the world, and hold up as role models for young women figures such as Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of Planned Parenthood.
He says the American Heritage Girls, for that reason, are a better Catholic alternative.
“The role models it holds up are really leaders of faith and saints, not the Margaret Sangers of this world,” he said.
Naumann told Crux he believes his tiff with the Girl Scouts is indicative of a broader cultural trend.
“We face an increasingly hostile secular culture, which really is promoting things very different from the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our vision of the human person, the dignity of the human person,” he said.
“We’re going to have to be much more vigilant as Christians and as Catholics about with whom we partner and who we invite in, particularly with regard to the formation of our young people,” Naumann said.
The 67-year-old archbishop, who was named to Kansas City in 2005, also said he’s been dismayed by some of the fallout from his decision.
“Some of the reaction we’ve gotten is almost like, ‘How could you dare do this?’” he said.
“It’s as if, not only do they [the Girl Scouts] have a right to their own vision of the human person and marriage and family life, but we have an obligation to turn our young people over to them to be formed in these values.”
Quite clearly, Naumann isn’t buying that any such obligation exists.
Naumann spoke to Crux about his decision by video link from Kansas City on May 5.
The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: For a lot of people, the Girl Scouts are as American as mom and apple pie, so they must find this decision incomprehensible. Can you explain what your logic was?
Naumann: You’re right, the Girl Scouts are kind of an iconic institution, and certainly not one I was relishing distancing ourselves from. It’s been a process over several years. Our Youth Ministry office here has been in dialogue with the national leadership of the Girl Scouts. We’ve had increasing concerns about the materials that have been produced at the national level, as well as the fact that the American Girl Scouts give $1 million a year to the international organization, which unfortunately in several parts of the world promotes the legalization of abortion as well as contraceptives.
That said, I love our local Girl Scout leaders. They’re some of the most incredible women, and they’ve done great and heroic work in trying to help form young women into great leaders. Unfortunately, some of the anthropology that’s in a lot of the materials is very contrary to our view of the human person. You see this very clearly in some of the role models they hold up for young women, such as Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood) or Betty Friedan (an early feminist pioneer and champion of abortion rights.)
There was one woman by the name of Josefina López who wrote a play they refer to in their materials, and if you read that play, its depiction of marriage is like it’s an enslavement. We felt that these sorts of figures, Gloria Steinem and others, are not the role models we want to hold up to our young women. I have to say that the Girl Scouts, when we would object to some of these things, such as the Josefina López play, they removed it from their materials, but at a certain point we felt that we really don’t want to partner with an organization that we’re constantly having to monitor in terms of what kinds of materials they’re giving to our young people.
We saw an opportunity to move to American Heritage Girls, which we think works much better in terms of what we’re trying to do in terms of forming disciples for Jesus Christ. It’s very Christ-centered. It holds up the same virtues we’re trying to promote with young women, and it gives them the life skills and the leadership skills. The role models it holds up are really leaders of faith and saints, not the Margaret Sangers of this world.
Can you step us through the process you followed before you arrived at this judgement call?
I would say it’s been five years, probably closer to seven years, that we’ve been in dialogue with the Girl Scouts. Our Youth Ministry office is headed by Deacon Dana Nearmyer, and they went through a long process. We actually had listening sessions with the Girl Scouts, and the local leaders here were invited to tell them about some of the concerns we were seeing, and what we wanted to happen at the local level. We also took this to our Presbyteral Council several times, to tell them what the issues were …
The Presbyteral Council would be a group of priests in the archdiocese who represent all the priests, yes?
Right, most are elected by their brother priests, and ours is based on regions. We also took it to our Pastoral Council, which is made up of lay leaders, who kind of represent the different regions. We got a lot of input, a lot of consultation, with this. We tried particularly to reach out to the local Girl Scout leaders with these listening sessions to tell them our concerns and to get their feedback. It’s been a long process.
Then there’s this dialogue I had … I talked at one point, it was about an hour-long conversation, with the head of Girl Scouts USA. Deacon Dana has met with other levels of their leadership.
Eventually, we wrote to the bishops’ conference and to the committee on marriage and family, expressing our concerns. They did their own review of the Girl Scouts and expressed some concerns, but they said that ultimately, it’s up to the local bishop to decide what he wants to do in his diocese.
A lot of people may look at this and view it as a reactionary move, reflecting an arch-conservative ideology. How do you see it?
We feel that all of our programming, for young people particularly, has to be consistent and has to have the same objectives in mind. Our objectives with our young people are to facilitate that they develop a relationship with Jesus Christ, a friendship with him, and also that they have a love for his bride, the Church.
Yes, we want young women to develop their talents fully, and to open up all sorts of opportunities for leadership and service for them, but also to realize that marriage and family are very important, and that the whole culture and society is built on the importance of marriage and family life. These were some of things at the national level that were really lacking, we thought, in some of the materials that are being produced in the “Journey” series.
Deacon Dana read every piece of material, and examined the web site. We just thought in the end there were too many red flags, too many things that aren’t consistent. Plus, in the end, American Heritage Girls really provides us with a great alternative for our young women.
Do you think this situation is an index of something deeper, which is that in an increasingly secular world Catholics are going to have to be careful about the kinds of relationships they have in order not to be subtly drawn in to sacrificing their beliefs?
I think it certainly represents broader cultural issues. We face an increasingly hostile secular culture, which really is promoting things very different from the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our vision of the human person, the dignity of the human person. I think there’s been a conscious effort on the part of those who have this different vision to take over some of these iconic groups, like the Girl Scouts. We have some concerns about the Boy Scouts too, although they’re structured differently and they haven’t quite gone down the path the Girl Scouts have.
I think that with a lot of these institutions, those that have this different worldview have been shrewd, in a sense, in trying to take them over in terms of leadership and then to reorient them to form young people in ways that are contrary. It’s kind of contrary, some of the reaction we’ve gotten is almost like, ‘How could you dare do this?’ It’s as if not only do they have a right to their own vision of the human person and marriage and family life, but we have an obligation to turn our young people over to them to be formed in these values.
We’re going to have to be much more vigilant as Christians and as Catholics about with whom we partner and who we invite in, particularly with regard to the formation of our young people.
You’ve pulled away from the Girl Scouts because you believe they promote abortion and contraception. But what about groups that promote the death penalty, or the arms trade, or environmental abuse? Will you also be vigilant about affiliation with them?
Absolutely, those are important issues as well. I would say that the issues that pertain to family life, to marriage, to the dignity and sanctity of human life, do have a priority in our Catholic social teaching. Those are kind of foundational issues for us.
Of course, the death penalty is important. I’ve testified before our state legislature on it. Just to give you a little bit of my own personal history, my father was murdered before I was born. My mother was pregnant with me when it happened. I’ve testified against the death penalty, how that’s not a solution, how it doesn’t really help families like mine that were victimized. It’s not that those aren’t important issues.
I would say, however, in terms of the magnitude of things, abortion is a much more important issue, simply because of the sheer number of innocent lives that are taken every year in our culture. We want our young people to be informed with the mind of the Church in all these areas, but I think that the culture war, unfortunately, in our country in many ways has come out of the sexual revolution, of a different anthropology, a different view of family life and marriage and human sexuality, and those issues I think touch most profoundly on things for our young people, those are the areas in which they’re deeply engaged at this point in their life. I think they demand special care and attention.