CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — As a dutiful Roman Catholic, Mildred Feloney drives to Saint Peter Parish here for 8 a.m. mass every morning.
But emblazoned on her bumper is an unmistakable token of dissent: "Keep the Faith, Change the Church."
The commute is old. The sticker on her Camry is new. It's a provocation that signals a profound stir among Catholics in Massachusetts.
Four years ago, the scandal of clergy sexually abusing children rocked this heavily Catholic state and drove a wedge between the hierarchy and laity. Today, that rift over trust has widened into a gulf over values. The reason? Tension between the state's liberalism and the church's conservatism, long compartmentalized by Catholics here, has been pushed into conflict by a series of high-profile issues pitting church and state against each other.
It's a tug of war that's fraying the loyalties of many area Catholics. Some, frustrated by what they characterize as hard-line homilies from their local priests, are shopping around for more-progressive parishes, or leaving church altogether. Others are committed to changing the church from within. They're resisting a culture they say is becoming less inclusive.
"I'm not moving out of this church just because things need to be changed," says Ms. Feloney, who prays in the same front-row pew each morning, but now just as fervently protests many church decisions. "I can't walk out on it; it's my church."
After centuries of unquestioning obedience to their clergy, Catholics saw in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s an invitation to challenge Rome's teachings. Since then, many have formed opinions about divorce or abortion that differ from church doctrine. Yet they still called themselves "good" Catholics.
Today, however, more and more Catholics are struggling to reconcile their faith and their church.
Take Mark Wheeler. He attended mass in Massachusetts for two decades, but says there is no longer a place for him within a parish. He tried to reconnect to his faith a few years ago by trying out two churches in Cambridge, but instead of leaving uplifted, he says he felt discouraged. Now he and his wife aren't sure they want to baptize their newborn twins.
"The message [of Catholicism] at its core is universal and wonderful," he says. "But it's really hard, you look at your kid, and think what if they turn out to be gay or lesbian, and you've gotten them involved in an institution that tells them that's wrong."
That type of hesitation is what drives Feloney's bid for change.
"One thing I hope for my own kids, and any of the young adults I see, is to be able to find a home in a traditional church," she says, "and not stop thinking for themselves."
Her own church, Saint Peter Parish, sits on a pretty, tree-lined corner near Harvard University in the town mocked as "The People's Republic of Cambridge." Yet its Irish roots mean it straddles various class and social views.
In a climate in which fewer than 1 in 5 Catholics in the Boston area regularly attends mass at a parish, according to archdiocese statistics, many say Saint Peter is thriving. The Easter Sunday children's mass last month was bustling and joyful. Pastel balloons floated to the ceiling and an Easter bunny, who entered the church after communion, towered over the priest as he ended mass.
Scenes like that keep parishioner Karen Trainor coming back. Loquacious and friendly, she does not agree with every church decree, but she does not spend her time protesting. Instead, she focuses on life within Saint Peter. "I just don't feel complete if I don't go to church every Sunday," she says.
Her steady attendance in a time of tumult within the archdiocese shows a perseverance among the laity that impresses scholars. "If you think back over the last five years, it has been one shock after another," says James O'Toole, who is writing a book on the history of American Catholic laity. "Why, despite all of that, have people said, 'I am going to stay. I'm not going to let bad leadership drive me out?' "
But for many Catholics in Massachusetts, going to church is not enough anymore. On a recent weekday after mass, Feloney drives to the headquarters of Voice of the Faithful, the group formed in the wake of the sex scandal to try to strengthen the laity's role in the church.
She says the group, for which she volunteers, has helped her wrestle with her spiritual identity.
In 2003, when the state supreme court was to rule on whether gays had the right to marry, Feloney attended a church-sponsored rally opposing gay marriage; she was convinced it was wrong.
But at the rally, she forced herself to listen to the other side. Since then, her state senator, who is gay, has gotten married. Her response has been to learn everything she can about homosexuality, she says.
Today, she balks at the recent decision by Catholic Charities of Boston to close its adoption arm rather than send foster children to households headed by gays. She still isn't sure if gay marriage is OK, but she says that keeping kids from loving homes is "an evil."
An earlier flash point for liberal Catholics was the resignation of a priest named Father Walter Cuenin, who criticized the hierarchy and supported gay rights. Catholics from all over the area drove to his parish in Newton, Mass., to hear his sermons, and many say his removal came because his stances do not align with those of the Vatican.
Some critics also suspect that parishes known for not toeing the orthodox line were more likely to be targets in the recent cost-cutting closure of many churches.
"The priests who do speak out are gone," says Alice Campanella of Voice of the Faithful.
How inclusive the church should be is a topic many Catholics are pondering, and it extends beyond the gay-rights issue. Catholics have aligned with the Democratic Party since the Great Depression, but Republicans have been assertively courting Catholics in recent years. In 1996, Bill Clinton carried the white Catholic vote by 7 percentage points. In 2004, Democratic contender John Kerry lost that group by 13 points - a 20-point swing.
Many Catholics do not fit neatly into the two-party system, favoring liberal causes on immigration and welfare, but agreeing with conservatives on issues of personal morality. But the 2004 debate about Senator Kerry's right to take communion because he supports abortion rights vexed many Catholics who say the church is increasingly drawing lines between liberal ideologies and church doctrines.
"The Catholic hierarchy has become more conservative," says John Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "What we don't know is whether [Catholic voters] will become increasingly conservative, or ... stay swing voters."
Bill Davis, who attends Saint Peter Parish, says he sometimes wonders whether the Vatican is waiting for his generation, mostly a group of "reform Catholics," to simply fade away. "There is the feeling that the church is waiting us out, that we'll die off and there will be a much smaller, but reliably knee-jerk church."
His wife, Chris Tree, expresses a less pessimistic view. "The church has been going on for 2,000 years, and just when it looks like it is going to choke itself," she says, it manages to find its way.
One turning point for many came with the sweeping release of financial information by Cardinal Sean O'Malley last month. It signaled a new direction toward transparency and healing.
Transparency is so important to Feloney that she has joined what is a new trend for many Catholics: shopping for a parish. She still uses the phrase "living in the parish," as if the words "parish" and "neighborhood" were interchangeable. But lately, Feloney has found herself drawn to St. Paul down the street, where the changes she is fighting for with Voice of the Faithful have already been implemented.
"Do I stay [at Saint Peter] and see if I can move change?" she wonders. "Or do I go where they already have it all done?"
For now, she's doing both. She joined Saint Paul two months ago. Her struggle to come to terms with her convictions and her church "leaves me shaking my head sometimes," she says. But "I could never place blame on my faith," she adds. "That is something different than the church."