Keeping the faith, changing the church

Thousands of Catholics around the world enlist in a quietly gathering revolution

Every Monday night now a crowd packs the large parish hall and spills over into the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church here. Catholics from across Boston come to share their anguish over the clergy abuse scandal and to join the mushrooming lay movement called Voice of the Faithful (VOTF).

One recent Monday, they listened intently to Susan Renahan tell her story of abuse by a trusted priest beginning when she was 11, and how it drove her from the church.

"You are having your own 9/11 – you've been betrayed just as we were," she said, "and I stand beside you as you take back the church."

And, indeed, taking back the church was the next order of what is considered a rather revolutionary business for a group of the faithful. The gathering turned to progress reports on its three goals: to support victims, to support priests of integrity, and to shape institutional change in the church.

Though the Boston area is at the center of the storm in the unfolding crisis, these people believe it can also be the fulcrum for reshaping a troubled hierarchical institution.

"Over 200 years ago, when there was an abuse of power through 'taxation without representation,' Bostonians spurred a revolution with the Tea Party," Jim Muller, a physician and a founding member of the group, told the crowd. "We need to do that again. This crisis has revealed another abuse of power born of autocracy, and what is needed is a representative structure for the laity."

Though the idea of taking on the entrenched hierarchy of such a vast and globally powerful institution as the Roman Catholic Church is revolutionary and daunting, these aren't firebrand reformers. VOTF is the creation of devout mainstream Catholics – people in the pews – who believe a more responsible lay role in open collaboration with the hierarchy is essential to restoring the trust that's been lost.

The VOTF vision has struck a chord with Catholics far beyond Boston. In four months, more than 8,500 in the US and other countries have signed on to its email list, and dozens of parishes want help in replicating the effort.

VOTF members here have been meeting since January. Their motto is "keep the faith, change the church," but they find that that process is changing their own lives. Three of the founding members are examples of how matters of faith take precedence.

Dr. Muller, a cardiologist who likes to play bass guitar in a Beatles band (his wife on drums), now is up late responding to hundreds of emails and on call for interviews with the media.

Jim Post, who teaches management at Boston University, has no time for gardening these days as he tackles the real-life organizational challenges he normally writes books about. His job with VOTF is creating a "financial voice" for the movement.

Mary Calcaterra, whose life has revolved around family, no longer has time to cook meals and has "put everything else on hold" except her job as a hospice nurse, so she can lead the outreach to the abused.

Others are staffing working groups planning a "continental congress" of some 5,000 Catholics on July 20, and setting up teams to respond to requests from other US parishes.

Past efforts at church reform have made minimal headway. "Our attempts at democracy or consultation since Vatican II have been limping," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a social scientist who has studied church governance. Each parish and diocese are supposed to have an elected pastoral council and a finance council. But these are strictly advisory, and priests "don't get training in this kind of collaboration," he adds. "The trouble with democracy is it takes up too many evenings."

VOTF leaders are overwhelmed with the rapid growth of the group and the demands it makes on their lives, but their commitment appears unflagging.

At the recent Monday meeting, after prayer and singing, Ms. Calcaterra, VOTF vice president, invited first-timers to share why they'd come. A nun – close to a family whose son is one of the alleged victims of Paul Shanley, a priest charged with raping a Massachusetts boy in 1983 – came to find a way "out of the chaos developing in our church." Another person had a desire to support victims of abuse, a third wanted to "reach out to our young people who are in a deep quandary" over the church scandal.

The devout Calcaterra understands the pain. Having attended parochial schools from kindergarten through college and having served her local parish in many roles, she's been deeply shaken by the scandal.

"It's so discordant with my image of church and threatens every aspect of our lives except core beliefs," she says. "We failed to pick up the gauntlet after Vatican II and now we must take responsibility."

The slender, auburn-haired grandmother is also concerned for her own seven children, who "are not feeling good about the church and are [staying] a step away, reserving judgment." It's an added incentive for her work. "I haven't cooked a meal in weeks," she says, as she and her husband put their energies into the movement.

Calcaterra's primary concern is the working group for victims and their families. The group has spent hours listening to the shattering experiences of abuse survivors and searching for ways to help them heal. VOTF is considering giving resources to survivor groups that have supported their peers for years and are overwhelmed by many more victims coming forward.

"There is terrible sadness and shame in having to acknowledge what has happened in our church family, and no one likes to talk about family business in public," she says of the scandal. "But we have to do this – to face it with truth and integrity."

Openness and accountability

As a pattern of secrecy and coverup has surfaced in the handling of abuse allegations, critics have accused the hierarchy of responding like corporate rather than spiritual leaders. But they even fall far short on that score, says Dr. Post, co-author of an influential book on the role of business in society.

Good institutional leaders, he says, know that intangible assets are worth more than tangible assets, and that the main challenge is to manage relationships with all those who have a stake in the institution. "There's been an abysmal failure at that: Did anyone consult with a local parish to see if it would accept someone with a past history of abuse?" he asks. "And they've squandered the intangible assets of moral authority, good will, and confidence of the faithful."

Now lay Catholics have to restore a church that stands for values, including transparency and accountability, he says. "To do this, we need to exercise our financial voice – we are not cash cows here to be milked."

"People don't want their money to go to legal fees and spin control," he adds, but they do want to support social programs. Some 75 to 90 percent of Catholics surveyed at VOTF meetings or on its website have said they don't plan to contribute to the Cardinal's Appeal, the annual archdiocese fundraising campaign that began this month. More than 20 percent of contributions go for administrative and discretionary purposes, he says.

So VOTF's finance committee is developing options for a tax-deductible fund that would provide a transparent and accountable alternative. It could be set up within a month, says Post, and it could be "a long-term opportunity to build a new base for Catholic philanthropy."

Jim Muller's busy life as a cardiologist and innovator in medical technology hasn't kept him from wholehearted commitment to the project. As a lifelong Catholic and graduate of Notre Dame University, he feels he has no alternative. "Unchecked power almost always goes astray in human history," he says, and the laity – 99 percent of the church – needs now to provide that check.

"The laity can give the church a better understanding of sexuality, of representative democracy, of the equality of women," Muller told the Monday gathering. This isn't his first foray into activism. After doing research in Russia as a medical student, he became a founder of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, which grew to over 250,000 members in and won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

From discussion to action

He's applied his experience with consensus building to VOTF, and is credited with turning a discussion group into an effective participatory process.

"He seems to have a gift for motivating and organizing, and I never see him doubt that things can be done," says his wife, Kathleen. Such conviction will be crucial if the group is to be sustained over the long haul. They expect that the kind of change they have in mind could take years.

Others aren't so sure about the prospects. "Working for structural change is a difficult endeavor, and an organization is always open to the criticism, 'Who do they represent - people in the pews or angry elites?'" says Father Reese. "These kind of efforts can disintegrate if the bishops start to put some reforms in place – or if there is no response at all."

Those in the movement say that this time, it's the people in the pews who are angry. At a recent meeting of the Archdiocese Pastoral Council, someone spoke up about the activity of VOTF and its "Keep the faith, change the church" motto. Cardinal Bernard Law listened intently, and then wanted to know, "What does that mean, 'change the church'?"

That's exactly the question VOTF members would like to sit down and talk with him about.

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