For years, the biggest faith groups in the Boy Scouts Mormons, Catholics and Methodists supported the organization’s ban on openly gay members. When the ban went to court, some Scout leaders testified that being gay was understood to have immoral connotations.
Yet a week after the Boy Scouts voted to end the ban on openly gay boys, two of those religious denominations (the Catholic and Mormon churches) issued statements saying, in a nutshell, not only did they have no major problem with the lifting of this ban, but actually, lifting it is more in keeping with their beliefs. The Methodists’ reaction was a bit tamer, saying that they weren’t consulted sufficiently but were still staying in scouting.
Experts say the Scout vote embodies the struggle going on today in traditional religion over homosexuality. There is a strong desire and effort to be more welcoming — and even affirming — of some equal rights, but not to back off completely. But that’s proving tricky to do.
The Boy Scout debate highlighted the way religious conservatives — like much of society in general — have begun, in recent decades, to say that being gay is a biological orientation, not a rebellious and changeable behavior. That led to quite a new distinction between homsexuality and “homosexual conduct” that was absent in Boy Scout documents for decades. It also led to the new policy, which now allows a boy just contemplating his sexuality to join the Scouts and forbids a gay man who may be sexually active.
Which leads to a question: Can you affirm the complete human dignity and equal stature of someone while simultaneously saying one of their basic attributes makes them an undesirable role model?
The complex terrain for religious traditionalists was evident in a statement released Thursday by the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, the body advising Catholic dioceses on the new policy.
It says the new policy is “not in conflict with Catholic teaching,” and that the teaching says gay people “are to be treated with the same dignity due all human beings created by God.” But it also says Catholics could have voted against lifting the ban and that would have been fine, too. If it’s only moral to welcome gay boys, how is it equally moral to ban them?
“You’re seeing the struggle between two Catholic doctrines. One that says ‘homosexual activity is always and everywhere wrong,’ and second that, ‘human dignity is always and everywhere important,’” said the Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America.
John Grabowski, a moral theologian at Catholic University of America, said the committee was “trying to strike a balance.”
“The Catholic Church’s position has been that no human being should suffer discrimination as far as their basic human rights [on topics like housing and employment]. But is there a basic human right to be a member of the Boy Scouts?”
But the slope between affirming the total equality of a gay boy and then asserting the lesser status of a gay man is clearly slippery to some. Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest groups of Scouts, said after the vote that a resolution urging Baptist-run troops to leave the Boy Scouts will pass easily at its convention next week.
“With this policy change, the Boy Scouts’ values are contradictory to the basic values of our local churches,” spokesman Roger Oldham told CNN.
The spokeswoman for the top U.S. Catholic body, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said after the vote that the conference wouldn’t be commenting and referred people to the Catholic Committee. The chair of that committee, Edward Martin, said he couldn’t comment on how discussion on the ban had changed since he hadn’t been focused on the membership debate until very recently. A spokeswoman for the Washington archdiocese said she wouldn’t comment on the topic or make any archdiocesan officials available to do so either.
Regardless, the language on homosexuality has changed in traditional faiths.
Grabowski noted that the Vatican issued a paper in 1975 that made a distinction between being gay and same-sex sexual behavior. That was affirmed in 1986 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict. However Pope Benedict said in a 2010 book that even celibate gay men shouldn’t be priests because their sexual orientation is “contrary to the essence of what God originally willed.”
A Mormon Church spokesman on Friday offered the Church’s first official comment since the vote, saying the new policy was a reinforcement of “century-old core values,” and that sexual orientation was never a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join. Scouting is the main youth program for Mormons; almost all congregations have troops.
However advocates for full GLBT equality say the Mormon policy has been akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and that it wasn’t possible to remain easily if one was openly gay.
The language in the Mormon’s basic handbook, dating back to the 1970s and ’80s called “homosexuality” a transgression — with no distinction about actual sex — and as recently as 2006, said someone who has same-sex “thoughts or feelings” should be helped with “the process of repentance.”
Later editions began to focus on “behavior,” and the 2010 Mormon handbook is the first to state explicitly that a gay person “if worthy and qualified in every other way” may have full rights and privileges in regular worship life.
These distinctions were appearing in the Boy Scouts as well. In a brief by the Scouts for a 2000 Supreme Court case challenging the ban, the organization noted that there is no effort to learn of Scouts’ sexuality. However, it said, “for most of Scouting’s history, no one could have had any doubt on the organization’s view on homosexuality.” Witnesses in a separate 1998 case in California testified “that adult leaders routinely are trained to inform boys that homosexuality is not ‘morally straight.’”
The new Boy Scout policy approved last month says the group “has no agenda” on the topic of homosexuality.
And in recent years, both the Mormon Church and top Catholic leaders — including Pope Francis — have been approving of civil unions that would protect things like wills and hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples.
Can religious conservatives hold this middle ground?
“That’s a tough sell, especially in our contemporary society. We’ve bought into the idea that if you’re not sexually expressive you can’t be a happy individual,” Grabowski said. “The bishops are more focused and more invested in trying to engage — to this point, very unsuccessfully — the debate on same-sex marriage. This is much closer to home.”