Every since the gay Boy Scouts earthquake, many Catholics have been asking canon law expert Edward Peters to fill a role he has clearly stated he has no desire to play -- that of a prophet.
"I'm no good at predicting the future. My only concern is with the BSA policy as written," said Peters, reached by email during a busy week. "That policy does not conflict with the church's teachings on homosexuality or homosexual persons."
Right now, it's logical for parish leaders and Catholic parents to be asking two questions, in the tense aftermath of the recent Boy Scouts of America declaration: "No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone."
Question No. 1: Should Catholic organizations continue to sponsor Boy Scout troops? Question No. 2: May Catholic groups or parents cut their ties to the Boy Scouts?
However, the nervous partisans in these debates keep asking Peters variations on questions that boil down to this: "What if?"
For example, "What if gay-rights groups sue troop sponsors seeking the acceptance of gays and lesbians as Boy Scout leaders?" Or there is this one: "What if openly gay Scouts want to date each other?"
How Catholics respond will be crucial, since Catholic organizations sponsor more than 8,000 Boy Scout troops or packs. Other religious organizations will also pay close attention to these debates, since Catholic teachings on related topics are so specific.
Peters' views have been circulated widely, after he posted detailed essays on his "In the Light of the Law" website. He teaches canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
For Catholics, he wrote, the key is not to be pulled into speculation, but to seek a logical and compassionate application of all church teachings linked to homosexuality.
"First, the Church's absolute rejection of homosexual acts and her description of same-sex attraction as objectively 'disordered' ... is not subject to question among Catholics. Second, the Church calls on persons who experience same-sex attraction 'to fulfill God's will in their lives' ... and to practice chastity," he noted. As for all unmarried persons, this means, "complete continence."
Catholic teachings, he added, also warn society to avoid "every sign of unjust discrimination" against those who experience same-sex attraction.
The line between orientation and behavior is crucial, due to a clarification issued by the Boy Scouts: "Any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting."
This firm statement, Peters argued online, "seems wholly in line with sound Catholic teaching against sexual activity outside of marriage and stands in welcome contrast to the indifference toward premarital sex shown by some other youth organizations. ... Aside from youth programs expressly oriented toward chastity, I know of no other secular organization that so clearly declares all sexual conduct by its youth members to be contrary to its values as does the Boy Scouts."
At this point, Peters thinks it would be premature to reject the Boy Scouts, although it would not be wrong for cautious Catholics to cut those ties.
Meanwhile, another key player in ecumenical discussions of this issue -- the new leader of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission -- is concerned that the Boy Scouts have adopted "highly politicized" language that defines personal identity in terms of sexual orientation. This could affect how the Boy Scouts approach marriage and family.
"Churches have the ability to distinguish between penitents and seekers, and to articulate concepts of sin, etc.," said the Rev. Russell Moore, via email, while drawing these kinds of moral lines is a challenge for the Scouts. This new homosexuality policy may mean the "Scouts will have little ability to speak of, as normative sexuality expressed only in terms of conjugal marriage and family."
Once again, said Peters, it's hard to predict what will happen as this policy is implemented, attacked and defended. However, Catholics must clearly communicate to Scouting leaders that the church cannot accept mixed signals about marriage.
"Again, I'm not good at guessing which way things will play out," he said. "But the principles for a Catholic approach here are pretty clear. Persons of the same sex cannot marry, so conduct implying that they can marry is either forbidden outright or is at least strongly discouraged on the grounds of prudence."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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