Another Perspective

The Pope and the Boy Scouts

A papal tribute to a valuable character-forming association.

By 7.12.07

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It was good to read that Pope Benedict sent a message of support to the Scout movement on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. August 1 marks the centenary of the first Scout camp, organized by Sir Robert (later Lord) Baden-Powell on the island of Brownsea, in England.

Popes and Scouting do not seem to have a great deal in common at first glance. But Popes, especially Popes as formidably intellectual as Benedict, do not make statements on a whim. This pronouncement may be seen as part of the Pope's ongoing campaign against moral relativism, a campaign which he appears to have identified as the most important cause to be fought in the modern age, and a campaign part of whose target is inevitably Western decadence.

Boy Scouts, and the values which the Scouting movement inculcates, have attracted the admiration of great men from the movement's earliest days. Its beginnings were Edwardian, and it has preserved much of the best of that sunny and admirable period of Western civilization.

Baden-Powell, though not a senior commander, had become a popular hero by his skillful defense of Mafeking during the Boer War with about 800 men when it was besieged by a force twelve times that number. He had made searchlights from tin cans and soup from locusts, and resurrected an ancient muzzle-loading cannon being used a gate-post and pressed it into service to supplement his scanty artillery. With his many earlier adventures as a soldier and spy in wild parts of the world, and his relish for such sports as pig-sticking and hog-hunting, he was a living advertisement for the fact that West could beat the rest at their own games.

Kipling was closely associated with publicizing Scouting in its first days, though he seemed to see it as a military organization or a training-school for junior spies. Winston Churchill paid tribute to Scouting in 1938, saying:

The three most famous generals I have known in my life won no great battles over the foreign foe. Yet their names, which all begin with a B, are household words. They are General Booth, General Botha and General Baden-Powell. To General Booth we owe the Salvation Army; to General Botha, United South Africa; and to General Baden-Powell, the Boy Scout Movement.

In this uncertain world one cannot be sure of much. But it seems probable that one or two hundred years hence, or it may be more, these three monuments that we have seen set up in our lifetime will still proclaim the fame of their founders, not in the silent testimony of bronze or stone, but as institutions guiding and shaping the lives and thoughts of men.


In a letter addressed to Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, president of the French bishops' conference, Pope Benedict stated:
For one century, through play, action, adventure, contact with nature, life as a team and in service to others, you offer an integral formation to anyone who joins the Scouts. Inspired by the Gospels, scouting is not only a place for authentic human growth, but also a place of strong Christian values and true moral and spiritual growth, as with any authentic way of holiness.

The sense of responsibility that permeates Scout education leads to a life of charity and the desire to serve one's neighbor, in the image of Christ the servant, based on the grace offered by Christ, in a special way through the sacraments of the Eucharist and forgiveness.


The Pontiff encouraged the brotherhood of the Scouts, "which is a part of its original ideal and makes up, above all for young generations, a witness of that which is the body of Christ, within which, according to the image of St. Paul, all are called to fulfill a mission wherever they are, to rejoice in another's progress and to support their brothers in times of difficulty. I thank the Lord for all the fruits that, throughout these last 100 years, the Scouts have offered."

He encouraged Catholic Scouts to go forward on their path, offering "to boys and girls of today an education that forms them with a strong personality, based on Christ and willing to live for the high ideals of faith and human solidarity."

Benedict XVI's message ends with advice from Baden-Powell: "Be faithful to your Scout promise, even when you are no longer young, and may God help you to do so!

"When man seeks to be faithful to his promises, the Lord himself strengthens his steps."

I WAS NEVER A SCOUT myself, but I was active in a rather similar youth organization, and can testify that the value to me and those I knew was incalculably great. As well as teaching valuable aspects of character such as teamwork, self-reliance and friendship, scouting skills and discipline have saved many lives and enriched many more. As early as the First World War, Boy Scouts in Britain were serving as air-raid wardens, and Sea-Scouts are said to have manned some of the boats that went to Dunkirk. They were promoting environmental conservation decades before Greens were heard of.

I don't know if John Smeaton, the Glasgow airport baggage-handler who tacked the burning Jeepster Jihadist and later issued the memorable warning to terrorists: "Coom ta Glasgie an' we'll set aboot ye!" was a former Scout, but I am sure that Baden-Powell would have approved of him heartily.

It is an interesting exercise to imagine the attitude of latter-day world leaders to Scouting. I don't mean just in regard to the obvious Scouting requirement of being clean in thought, word and deed, which might trip up Bill Clinton and certain other politicians, but in terms of an overarching attitude of mind, a kind of innocent adventurousness and idealism. Ronald Reagan, I think, in some ways -- the best of ways -- never stopped being a Scout. I can imagine Australian Prime Minister John Howard taking an interest, even accepting honoury Scouting positions and occasionally donning the uniform.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is much harder to imagine in the role -- he was too concerned with an up-to-date image, and discreet dinner-parties for the likes of "Sir" Mick Jagger were more his speed. Present British Prime Minister Gordon Brown seems too dour (Baden-Powell hated those he described as "Swots," which seems a reasonable description of Brown). George Bush? There is something Boy Scout-like about him, and I don't mean this as a derogation. Vladimir Putin? No chance, I think.

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About the Author
Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.