Bishops Search for Condoms in Cookie Boxes

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is having a Saturday Night Live moment. Emboldened by the Vatican’s hostile takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the gentlemen have shown their prowess by choosing to investigate the Girl Scouts of the USA. Which would be comical—first the nuns, now the Girl Scouts—if the goal were not so pernicious and the outcome so damaging, especially to the bishops.

The tactics against the girls and the women are taken from one playbook, the goal of intimidation is the same, and the pushback in both cases is distracting from more pressing problems at hand. Still, you wonder who does their public relations, as the bishops are now about as popular as a recession.

The apparent goal of this exercise of “investigating” gender female persons is to set up and enforce a male-defined model of girlhood/womanhood. A Vatican-, or in this case, USCCB-launched investigation is what Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, calls the equivalent of a grand jury investigation. There is the presumption that something is wrong, not something right, that there is guilt to be uncovered, not virtue to be unleashed. What is wrong seems to be women and girls thinking for themselves and acting for the common good.

What boggles the mind is why the Roman Catholic Church would be so presumptuous as to investigate what does not belong to it. Granted, some Scout troops meet at Catholic churches, but that does not make them Catholic entities any more than the Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets in the same basement. In the case of the Scouts, the supposed connections with groups that support reproductive justice are, for the most part, links to websites where girls can find further information on issues, hardly a ringing endorsement of the groups’ missions. Sex education is not an integral part of scouting; that is something left to families. What is really at issue here is that women and girls involved in the Girl Scouts do not ask permission of ecclesial men to live as responsible citizens of a global world.

Girl Scouts USA belongs to the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, about ten million strong in 145 countries. In a July 2012 conference in Chicago, WAGGGS will discuss the UN Millennium Development Goals. Those include the elimination of poverty, universal primary education, gender equality, reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and malaria, environmental sustainability, and the development of a global partnership for development, a blueprint for just living in the 21st century. The Episcopal Church USA adopted a resolution at its 74th General Convention to support the goals. Perhaps they will be investigated next.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is hardly leaving the Girl Scouts quaking in their boots. Their reasoned and patient replies to accusations that they shouldn’t have to answer demonstrate their mission: “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.” Would that the bishops follow suit. 

Several parallels with the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious lay bare the playbook here. The LCWR “doctrinal investigation” was Rome-based, undertaken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Girl Scout “investigation” is U.S.-based sleuthing led by the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth chaired by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. Both cases are based on longterm reporting by conservative Catholics, both lay and clerical, of the groups’ supposed sins. This is a cottage industry that includes the Eternal Word Television Network and random ecclesial busy bodies who apparently report to Rome and to the USCCB on a regular basis.

What mystifies me is that with all of the economic, racial, and war-related issues at hand the bishops still choose to take on these girls and women. Gone are the days when governments, businesses, and armies worried much about what the bishops had to say. Here are the days when disgraced bishops are deposed and indicted for the sexual crimes and cover-ups that have come to define contemporary Catholicism. By contrast, nuns and Girl Scouts are powerful symbols and equally powerful advocates for justice and peace. So in a sense the bishops have really taken on those who are shaping the culture.

The bishops fretted in both cases about sex and gender, especially reproductive justice. The straw that broke the camel’s back for the nuns was the support some of them showed for a more inclusive health care policy. For the Scouts, it was the organization’s public acceptance of a transgender child into a Colorado troop. Underneath those decisions lurks the fact that nuns, not bishops, were seen as normatively Catholic, and even though a quarter of all Girl Scouts are Catholic, they didn’t consult the bishops before doing the right thing. Who would, given the men’s handling of abuse cases?

In each instance, the Roman Catholic Church is backing a concrete alternative. For the LCWR, the kowtowing Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious is already canonically chartered and accepting members. For those who find the Girl Scouts too rich for their blood, there are the multi-religious American Heritage Girls and the Little Flowers Girls’ Club already in place. These groups function much like the Girl Scouts and Brownies they seek to replace but with far more explicit conservative ideology.

Curiously, for a church that tends to keep pubescent people in single-sex groups, another alternative is Venturing, a youth development program sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America for girls and boys age 14-21. The Boy Scouts are an avowedly anti-gay group that demands faith in God, not in just any higher power. The Girl Scouts modified their pledge several years ago to accommodate growing religious pluralism.

The investigations are meant in large part to intimidate since they really don’t have much of a direct impact. Intimidation happens in small ways—a few nuns self-censor, the leaders of the Girl Scouts redact a few publications. But just as most nuns are going about their business undaunted, the Girl Scouts will gather 100,000+ strong for “Girl Scouts Rock the Mall” in Washington DC on the 9th of June. They hope to set a world record for the biggest sing-along in history. Their new theme song says it all: “Girl Scout ignite a dream, ignite your hope, ignite the world on fire.” Now that ought to be enough to make the bishops tremble in unison. The contrast between the girls and “the big boys” will be vivid that day.

My favorite local troop just got back from a horseback-riding overnight. They have cleaned up a local park and planted trees near the Chesapeake Bay. They took in a women’s basketball game and donned period costumes to guide visitors at a C and O Canal park. For the international Girl Scout Thinking Day, when troops learn about girls in other countries, this group studied Liberia where Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 with Tawakul Karman of Yemen. They are preparing to be good citizens and leaders of a globalized world that the bishops can scarcely imagine.

The crowd on the Mall in Washington will be festive on this the 100th anniversary of the group’s founding by Juliette Gordon Low. They have reason to celebrate. Just as women’s religious congregations have empowered countless women, the Girl Scouts, founded by a woman whose estranged husband left the bulk of his estate to his mistress, have instilled “courage, confidence and character” in millions of girls. God knows they need it in the current culture where women’s well being is threatened on many sides.

I expect to see some nuns, former nuns, and friends of nuns on the Mall that day when I lift my voice as a former Girl Scout. History will record that in 2012 the Girl Scouts and nuns were living values the bishops could only mouth while they searched in vain for condoms in the cookie boxes.

mhunt@hers.com'

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.