Catholic Scouting or Catholics in Scouting?

[This is an expanded version of a blog post first published on this web site on February 21, 2014 and later taken down because, frankly, it didn’t say very much!]

At home I have a book entitled Scouting for Catholics: Adding the Supernatural. This book was, I think, first published in the early 1940s, although according to this “Brief Chronicle of US Catholic Scouting” there was a similarly-titled work published in 1928. The book’s history is beyond the scope of this blog post, however — I want, instead, to consider the term “Catholic scouting” and what it means.

In the United States, and in the Anglo-Saxon world in general, the preference has been to have a single national scouting association. In Canada, for example, scouting is monopolized by Scouts Canada, and a similar situation prevails in the United States. Oddly enough, in Great Britain itself there are a number of “alternative” associations but (and this will be important later) they tend not to be confessional. In fact the British member association of the FSE was forced out of the larger FSE movement at least in part because it rejected the confessional nature of the FSE (while the FSE is open to non-Catholic Christians, an individual unit cannot have a mixed religious identity).

The above has implications for the meaning of the term “Catholic scouting.” If a country has a single national scouting association, and this association is privileged in law, then “Catholic scouting” means nothing more than “Catholic members in scouting“; at best it means the ability to have a Catholic unit within a non-confessional scouting association. The book mentioned in the first paragraph (Scouting for Catholics) recommends that exact approach — Catholics should be members of Catholic units; Catholics should have their own distinctive units within the single association.

In 1926 Lord Baden-Powell was asked about the place of religion in scouting. His response: “It does not come in at all. It is already there. It is a fundamental factor underlying scouting and guiding.” Now one can, I think, respectfully differ from our founder on this point — not that scouting can exist without a religious basis, but the degree to which that religious basis is already there — but there is an important truth here. Can a scouting program truly be said to have a religious basis if religion must be added to it? Or should religion be integrated into the program from the very beginning? Scouting for Catholics includes a lot of advice about how Catholicism can be added to an existing program, one might say “tacked on.” For example, a period of reflection before the Blessed Sacrament might be recommended prior to making the promise. This is all well and good, but again, it is simply adding Catholicism to a program developed without Catholicism in mind. (It is true that Baden-Powell sought the advice of then-Archbishop Bourne and the Benedictines of Downside Abbey before publishing Scouting for Boys but the Catholic influence on the work is not immediately apparent; furthermore mainstream scouting in the United States has never used Baden-Powell’s original program anyway.) Why not a program developed with Catholicism in mind in the first place?

With all this in mind, I would like to consider an article published on the web site of the UIGSE-FSE: Catholic Scouting or Catholics in Scouting? [PDF].

The author points out what has already been noted above, namely the preference for a single national scouting association (the author’s term is “unique”) throughout in the Anglo-Saxon world (Great Britain, Canada, and the United States). On the other hand, European countries (apart from the UK) have tended to have separate scouting associations for separate confessions. In France, for example, we see scouting associations with a Catholic identity (the FSE or as it is known in France, the AGSE, is one of these). So while in the United States, or Canada, the term “Catholic scouting” is generally used to apply to Catholic members in scouting associations of whatever stripe, in Europe it refers to the type of scouting practiced by associations with a Catholic identity. Little wonder since Catholic scouting associations in the USA are relatively new and have a tiny footprint in comparison to mainstream scouting.

So tiny is the footprint of American Catholic scouting associations that many if not most Catholics have never heard of them, and when faithful Catholic families are looking for “alternatives” to mainstream scouting for their children, non-scouting programs and organizations (such as Blue Knights, Columbian Squires, Kepha, Troops of St. George, etc.) are suggested in response. (Please note that I am not debating the relative merit of these programs; I am simply pointing out that they’re not scouting.)

So we are left with the term “Catholic scouting” and two possible definitions of it: One, Catholic members, individually or by unit, in a non-confessional scouting association, and two, a Catholic scouting association. I think it’s pretty clear that the second definition is a better fit. We might speak of Catholic computer programmers but not Catholic computer programming; Catholic physicians and Catholic nurses but not Catholic medicine; and Catholic scientists but not Catholic science. Similarly, if one is a member of a non-confessional scouting association, then he is a Catholic scout but he is not practicing Catholic scouting, rather he is practicing (just) scouting. We can try to Catholicize science, medicine, even computer programming, even scouting; but since these things were not built from the ground up as specifically Catholic endeavors, they are not specifically Catholic.

The question of whether families should allow their children to be involved is, of course, a separate one — and like the question of the provenance of Scouting for Catholics, beyond the scope of this blog post, or any blog post for that matter. And parents will have to decide for themselves anyway — as a layman I have no authority and (for better or worse) we’re long past the era in which faithful Catholics obeyed their shepherds in the choices they made for their families. No bishop could tell his flock to pull their children from mainstream scouting and expect to be obeyed (which is one reason why lamentations about a lack of episcopal backbone are wrongheaded). But what a layman can do, what a parish priest can do, what a bishop can do, is offer an alternative. I am not of the mind that staying in this organization or that is always the best option.

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