I was a Girl Scout. My daughter is a Girl Scout. As Catholics, we are stunned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ decision to investigate an organization that we both deeply love.
It is tempting to laugh off this news as further evidence of how profoundly out of touch many of our bishops are with the lives and concerns of the people who fill their pews. But the hierarchy’s attempt to exert pressure on an organization that has helped millions of girls grow into strong, self-reliant and public-spirited women is only the most recent episode in an increasingly troubling sequence of events.
In March of 2010, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine authorized a statement critiquing “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” by Sister Elizabeth Johnson, one of this country’s leading Catholic theologians. In compiling the report on a three-year-old book the bishops violated their own guidelines about communicating with a theologian whose work is under investigation, according to reports. Johnson said she was never invited to discuss the book with the bishops.
In January 2012, after years of pressure from Catholic bishops across the United States, Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it would no longer provide grants that have allowed Planned Parenthood to provide mammograms to women who could not afford them. The decision was reversed after a public outcry.
In February, embroiled in a controversy with the Obama administration over the coverage of contraception in the Affordable Care Act, the bishops supported legislation that would have allowed any employer who voiced a moral objection to the use of contraception to avoid including it in employee’s health coverage. Had the “Blunt Amendment” passed, it potentially could have deprived millions of women of access to contraception—including many women who use “birth control” pills for non-contraceptive purposes.
In April, the Vatican censured the Leadership Conference on Women Religious, which represents the great majority of nuns in the United States, stripping it of its autonomy, and placing it in a kind of receivership under Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle. The report criticizes the sisters –many of whom spend their lives in service to the poor and marginalized-- for not spending enough time promoting Catholic doctrine on abortion.
And now the bishops have trained their attention on the Girls Scouts, thanks to a persistent campaign of innuendo by conservative interest groups. These critics now demand the Scouts refrain from informing young women about the work of the Sierra Club, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam, because these groups believe that it is not immoral to use artificial contraception. That the bishops take the allegations of these fringe groups seriously is evidence of their eagerness to exert control over women’s lives.
In each of these instances, the bishops have behaved as though concerns over doctrinal integrity or religious liberty excuses them from considering the consequences of their actions: a brilliant theologian may be marginalized; poor women may not receive the mammograms that might save their lives; millions of U.S. citizens may be denied access to much-needed medicines; the needy may lose their greatest friends within the U. S Catholic Church, and girls may be instructed not to join an organization that will help them to grow into proud and self-reliant women. All this because the bishops have picked up the scent of doctrinal error, discernible only to them and their political allies.
The bishops may not acknowledge it, but our church’s moral authority has been weakened by their pursuit of an agenda that demonstrates a passion for power, rather than for service, and a willingness to put women’s lives and ministries at risk to achieve their political ends. At first glance it may seem that the hierarchy’s investigation of the Girl Scouts provides an opportunity to have a good laugh at the bishops’ expense. But it is women and girls who are paying the price.
Marianne T. Duddy-Burke is executive director of DignityUSA, the leading organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Catholics, their families, friends and allies.