by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Recently, I visited a kindergarten class in one of our parochial schools. I shared with these cute 5-year-olds that my best teacher in all my years in school was my kindergarten teacher. In fact, she was so good that I am in frequent contact with her till this day.
The students were impressed but their teacher even more so! I imagined the teacher calculating in her mind: “The archbishop is almost 68. His kindergarten teacher must be 100!”
After allowing the class to marvel at the fact that I had kept in touch with my kindergarten teacher all these years, I confessed she also happened to be my mother.
While Mom was an exceptional teacher, I did not learn everything that I needed to know in kindergarten. Fortunately, in her maternal role she has continued to teach and mentor me until this day. For instance, she frequently tells me that my Leaven columns are too long!
My mother taught me the most important principle of economics: “Don’t spend more money than you earn!” She was a financial genius figuring a way to support our family on a Catholic elementary school salary during the 1950s and ’60s! She gave me a love for literature by reading to my brother and me at night some of the great classics like “Tom Sawyer.”
Mom expanded our vocabulary and capacity to spell by playing word games. Even today, when I beat her at a game of Scrabble, she reminds me that my victory was made possible because she taught me so well.
She gave my brother and me her own enthusiasm for history and geography. Current events — like the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, space exploration, the Second Vatican Council, etc. — were frequently part of our dinner conversation.
I can never remember doubting that I was loved. At the same time, my mother instilled in my brother and me a responsibility to develop and use the gifts God had entrusted to us for the good of others.
Mom taught us the importance of family bonds and the gift of our extended family. We were encouraged not to take ourselves too seriously and to cultivate a good sense of humor. Despite whatever catastrophic events were happening in the world around us, there was always joy in our home.
First and foremost, Mom taught her sons to place God first in our lives. She gave us a love for the Eucharist by her personal witness of sacrificing sleep in order to be able to participate in Mass daily. Mom taught us authentic humility and the wideness of God’s mercy by her example of frequent confession. Although I did not always appreciate it at the time, Mom instilled in us a devotion to Mary by praying the family rosary every night.
She taught us the importance of personal integrity and striving to live a virtuous life not only for our own personal happiness, but as the foundation for building healthy and enduring friendships.
I was reminded of all this not only by the recent observance of Mother’s Day, but also some of the criticism that I received over my decision to transition our afterschool programs for girls and young women from Girl Scouts to American Heritage Girls. Some of my critics accused me of being a misogynist and having a fear of strong women.
I have been extraordinarily blessed in my priesthood with the opportunity to minister with many brilliant and virtuous women. Currently, half of our archdiocesan cabinet is made up of some very talented and, I daresay, strong women. I am in awe of what St. John Paul II termed the feminine genius. I treasure the beautiful friendships with so many heroic women of faith that my priesthood has afforded me.
I understand the strong negative reaction by some to my decision to bring a respectful and gradual end to the partnership that our parishes have enjoyed for many decades with Girl Scouts. So many women had such a positive experience with Girl Scouting. It was an important part of their formation as young women.
My concerns have never been about our local Girl Scout troops and their leadership. Those leading our Girl Scout troops in our parishes are great women of virtue and faith. They are women very much like my own mother.
My concern was with the national and international leadership of Girl Scouts that have embraced what I believe to be a false feminism. I will not in this space go into all of the concerns that our youth ministry office identified with the Girl Scouts national curriculum, the recommended supplemental materials and the entanglement of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts with International Planned Parenthood.
Suffice it to say, if after years of dialogue regarding our concerns, Girl Scouts USA still chooses to promote Margaret Sanger, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, etc., as great role models of strong and heroic women, then in my estimation it was time for us to part company.
For example, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood — the largest abortion provider in the United States — considered marriage a type of slavery, sexual promiscuity as the ultimate freedom, and eugenics as prudent public policy. She not only believed that there were too many children, but, in particular, there were too many poor children.
Girl Scouts USA has every right to develop and promulgate the curriculum they choose. At the same time, our church has every right to choose the afterschool youth programs that best complement the virtues and values we strive to cultivate in our youth and that match our understanding of the dignity of the human person.
American Heritage Girls not only provides opportunities for developing life and leadership skills, but it is Christ-centered. It reinforces our efforts to give young people the greatest possible gift — friendship with Jesus.
In St. Louis, I am still known to my mother’s former students as Mrs. Naumann’s son. This to me is a more precious title than archbishop. Louise Naumann is not only an incredible mother, but she has influenced for the better the lives of hundreds of young people that she taught.
I want to give our girls and young women the opportunity to develop the faith life and the virtues that will give them happiness and inner peace, while at the same time equipping them to make a positive impact on our culture and society. Our world needs more Louise Naumanns, not Margaret Sangers.