Scouting in the balance

Archbishop Aquila

I was dismayed to learn this past January that the Boy Scouts of America decided to end their practice of more than 100 years that allowed only boys to be members. They did this by permitting transgender boys to join troops, that is, girls who struggle with gender dysphoria and are living as though they are boys.

When he founded the Boy Scouts in 1908, Robert Baden-Powell envisioned it as a way of forming boys into men. He also readily acknowledged that the boys in the troop help form each other under the direction of the leader. “Scouting,” he said, “is a game for boys under the leadership of boys under the direction of a man.”

The Boy Scouts of America also recently decided to allow boys and leaders with same-sex attraction as members. These decisions are social experiments that are rationalized away without accounting for the impact on the clear majority of boys who do not have gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction. Indeed, it is not hard to see that there will be lasting consequences for current and future generations of American boys as they try to understand their own sexuality in their formative years.

These decisions have been part of the Boy Scouts’ slow retreat in the face of the secular culture’s advancement of an LGBTQ agenda. At the same time, the Boy Scouts have insisted that they will allow Church-sponsored troops to only accept boys, to continue to run troops in accord with the faith, and to defend these scout units in any resulting lawsuits.

In response, churches who charter scouting groups have been faced with the difficult decision of whether to continue to be affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America. Some dioceses have decided to disaffiliate completely, while others think that, at least in the case of the Boy Scouts, adequate protections exist for affiliation to continue.

Many have asked what I have decided to do in the Archdiocese of Denver, since these decisions are contrary to the natural law and the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Before I answer that question, there are two points I want to make. First, discussions about sexual attraction, orientation, and lifestyle choices have no place in scouting. These are issues that parents need to address, both through their own example and by teaching their children. Second, the Church is absolutely committed to the dignity of the human person, the understanding of man and woman as made for each other, the virtue of chastity and the protection of children, especially from different forms of abuse, which includes enabling and/or encouraging gender dysphoria.

I have been contemplating the jarring words of Jesus about leading the innocent into sin. The Lord tells us in the Gospel of Luke, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk. 17:1-2). We must be very careful about the example and witness we give to others, especially children. To expose them to immorality and/or material inappropriate for their level of maturity, without the full knowledge and consent of parents, is scandalous to them and wrong for us. Doing so also contradicts two of the principles of the Scout Oath – doing our “duty to God” and remaining “morally straight.”

Despite these recent decisions, I also realize that the core elements of Boy Scouting remain praiseworthy and that hundreds of men and boys in the Archdiocese have been positively impacted by their Boy Scout formation.

While it would simplify matters to ask all scouting groups sponsored by parishes to disaffiliate from their respective national organizations, I decided to consult with those who lead many of the Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops of the Archdiocese. Following that discussion, I decided that such a decision could produce unfortunate consequences and fall short of presenting the courageous witness Christ calls us to give.

For over 100 years the Boy Scouts have provided meaningful formation that, to quote a scout master whom I recently met with, “transforms doofuses into leaders.” This formation is not limited to Catholic boys only. The troops and packs sponsored by our parishes are open to non-Catholic boys and leaders who desire to be part of the scouts and are not opposed to the Catholic character of the group. In effect, these troops and packs are not only forming Catholics, promoting virtue, but they are also sharing the Gospel with others, i.e., evangelizing. Further, I believe that disaffiliation, while it makes a strong statement, would make a winner out of the secular culture and its agenda, and losers out of the Boy Scouts and the Church.

While I fear that the Boy Scouts may make another decision that will necessitate disaffiliation, I am not going to move in that direction at this time. Instead, I am calling for all scouting groups sponsored by our parishes, including the Girl Scouts, to reinforce their commitment to forming boys and girls into virtuous Christian young adults.

Ultimately, the decision for a parish to charter or affiliate with a scouting organization falls under the authority of the pastor, who must weigh the risks this could present to his parish. I ask for all those involved in Catholic scouting to respect the decisions made by their pastors.

For those groups that are supported by pastors and who continue to be affiliated in the Archdiocese of Denver, I am establishing the following requirements:

• To present the best witness to scouts and anyone encountered in scouting activities, all leaders must adhere to the Code of Conduct of the Archdiocese of Denver, specifically:

o Have a positive and supportive attitude toward the Catholic Church, her teachings, and her work.

o Refrain from approving, promoting or engaging in any conduct or lifestyle considered to be in contradiction with Catholic doctrine or morals.

o Promote the dignity of the human person and expressions of human sexuality that accord with the natural law, and therefore with Catholic teaching.

• To promote the best possible environment for their formation, all scouts must:

o Have a positive and supportive attitude toward the Catholic Church, her teachings, and her work.

o Refrain from conduct or living a lifestyle considered to be in contradiction with Catholic doctrine or morals.

o Respect their own personal dignity and that of others.

It is my earnest desire that this decision will facilitate the promotion of all that is good and virtuous in scouting. Additionally, all of us need to pray for the strengthening of the moral foundations of our society, especially those institutions that provide formation to youth.

Finally, for those who are seeking acceptable alternatives to the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts that capture the essence of scouting, I would like to suggest some organizations that currently are not problematic. They are: American Heritage Girls, Little Flowers’ Girls Clubs, the Federation of North American Explorers, Columbian Squires, Trail Life USA, and Fraternus. Information on these groups can be obtained from Michelle Peters in the Evangelization and Family Life Ministry office by calling 303-715-3252.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.