On Good Friday last week, several hundred Roman Catholics gathered outside Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross in a prayer service for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. It was the first time more than 15 years after a major abuse case broke in the media that lay Catholics had ever publicly reached out to this group.
And on Monday nights for the past two months, parishioners from St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, Mass., have gathered with Catholics from other parishes to build consensus for change in the church. Calling themselves Voice of the Faithful, they hope to convene a "Continental Congress of Catholics" later this year to open the way to sharing actively in church governance.
As instances of mishandling of abuse allegations continue to surface across the United States, some people in the pews are transforming their anguish into a longterm commitment to reform. Many Catholics say the sex-abuse scandal is a failure not just of individual clerics but of a hierarchy cloaked in secrecy and too removed from people's lives.
Along with a full response to the victims, they are calling for a greater lay voice in church decisionmaking and a fresh look at issues of the priesthood.
Their goals sound radical for the Catholic Church, but those encouraging reform see themselves as reviving the vision of the Second Vatican Council of the
1960s, which said the church resides in all the people of God. Their grassroots initiatives reflect attitudes not only of a majority of American Catholics, but also those in countries around the globe including traditionally Catholic nations like Ireland and Spain.
Some traditionalists charge that liberals are attempting to take advantage of the crisis for their own activist purposes.
"A lot of people are trying to make ideological hay out of this crisis," says George Weigel, author of "Witness to Hope," a biography of Pope John Paul II. "Some of these calls for what amounts to the protestantizing of the Catholic church are the result of people on an ideological joy ride."
But while some initiatives do come from the ranks of long-time activists, many of those speaking up are engaging for the first time. "We are completely mainstream Catholics we are almost all new to this," says Jim Muller, a doctor who is a leader of Voice of the Faithful.
Surveys have long shown that American Catholics favor more participatory decisionmaking in the church. According to a 1999 special report of the National Catholic Reporter, two-thirds want more democracy at the parish level, 60 percent favor more at the diocesan level, and 55 percent want participatory decisionmaking at the Vatican.
Such views have often led to accusations that Americans are out of step with the rest of the church. But a 1996 study of attitudes toward reform in seven countries showed remarkable consistency.
A majority in every country polled from Poland to Italy to the Philippines supported the election of bishops. The countries with the most reform-minded Catholics on all issues were Germany, Spain, and Ireland. Some 80 percent of Spanish and Irish Catholics, for example, favor married priests and about 70 percent supported ordination of women.
Mandatory celibacy has surfaced nationally as an issue, not because it is seen as a cause of sex abuse, but because it narrows the pool of priesthood candidates and affects church culture.
"The church is limited to drawing from the thinnest slice of the population for ... its most important ministry," says the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame. Today, Catholics have climbed the economic ladder and have more employment options than in the past, and celibacy no longer has the same cultural support. One result, he says, is that some clerics haven't really chosen celibacy, but just accepted it as a condition of being a priest. Some 20,000 have left the priesthood to marry.
American attitudes have shifted dramatically on this issue, says Anthony Padovano, president of CORPUS, a national association for an inclusive priesthood. "When we started 30 years ago, one-third of Catholics favored a married priesthood; now it runs about 75 percent."
One key reason is the dwindling number of priests, which leaves many Catholics without the sacraments on a regular basis. "There is a massive shortage everywhere about 50 percent of the parishes in the Catholic world do not have a pastor," says Padovano.
During the past 15 years, the hierarchies in Canada, Brazil, and Indonesia have asked for a married priesthood, he says. (Priests, and even some popes, married up until the 11th century. And recently, the Catholic Church has welcomed married Episcopal priests who convert.)
US Catholic support for women's ordination has varied, from 53 to 63 percent. These positions on opening the priesthood are contrary to current teachings, and John Paul II has mandated they not be discussed. (Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles surprised everyone last week by proposing a discussion of celibacy.)
"We have to make a distinction between those issues the bishops have control over and those they don't," cautions the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly, and author of books on the Vatican and US hierarchy.
While bishops have no authority to change ordination, "they can do better at listening to the people, at using their priests' and diocesan pastoral councils more effectively," he adds. "There can be reform in attitudes, behavior, and style."
Indeed, just after Vatican II and the civil rights, peace, and women's movements US bishops launched a consultative process with the laity. Some 800,000 Catholics testified during two years of hearings, leading to a 1976 national conference on justice in society and in the church. A reconsideration of celibacy, the male-only clergy, and a lay role in decisionmaking were among issues raised.
Two years later, however, the newly chosen pope took a more traditional approach, and bishops distanced themselves from the conference. But the process gave birth to the reform movement in 1978 with the formation of Call to Action in Chicago. CTA took on issues from decent benefits for workers in church-run institutions to peace and anti-poverty efforts.
In 1991, it joined with other reform groups like CORPUS, the Women's Ordination Conference, and the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church to create Catholic Organizations for Renewal. Their "call for reform" targeted financial openness, academic freedom, and participation in the selection of local bishops, as well as incorporating women in decisionmaking and opening up the priesthood.
CTA founder Dan Daley says relations between hierarchy and laity have retrogressed, partly because "this pope has appointed many bishops who don't have that sense that the church is from below as well as from above. This sad scandal dramatically portrays the need for accountability to the people.
Mr. Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, rejects structural reform. But bishops could consult more with "responsible and mature laity" on questions like oversight of seminaries, he says. "And the Vatican needs to consult with lay people more extensively on the appointment of bishops."
Meanwhile, the global reform movement has grown to include the European Network-Church on the Move, involving more than 20 organizations, and the International We Are Church Movement.
"We Are Church" began in Austria in 1995 when lay and ordained Catholics initiated a petition drive for reforms in the spirit of Vatican II. They quickly garnered more than 2 million signatures in Austria and Germany, and the group now has representatives in some 40 countries.
During international bishops' synods in Rome in 1999 and 2001, they held "shadow synods" nearby and presented their recommendations to the Vatican. No bishops accepted their invitation to meet.
"There's not a direct dialogue, but we found that our website ... was very much used by the Vatican," says Christian Weisner, of We Are Church in Germany. And after a German Catholic newspaper recently carried a public forum on We Are Church, the group heard from people in Rome, quietly indicating support.
No one envisions the church as a democracy, nor expects change from this pope. Traditionalists are confident the next pope chosen will carry on his legacy. What's needed, they say, is simply a recommitment to holiness and discipline.
"This is at root a profound spiritual crisis. Men who believe they are what the church says they are, icons of Jesus Christ, simply do not behave that way," says Weigel. "It's a problem of inadequately formed priests."
Others suggest church leaders need to pay attention to the "sense of the faithful," one source of church authority. Well before the current crisis, the National Catholic Reporter study identified trends of declining support for church leaders and a shift of moral authority to the individual.
New groups like the Coalition of Concerned Catholics, who held the Good Friday service, and Voice of the Faithful are taking on responsibility for promoting greater openness and change. They are determined not to let the situation return to "business as usual," as it has in the past.
At Monday's meeting, the Wellesley group agreed on a healing and reconciliation service for April 26 and worked on plans for the congress. "We need some kind of representative structure for the laity," Dr. Muller says. He was a founding member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which grew to 160,000 physicians in 50 countries and won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. "There is," he says, "immense energy and hopefulness that real change can occur."