Catholic college takes on the church's crisis

At Boston College, a two-year initiative seeks to engage Catholics in sorting through the sex-abuse scandal

Amid a clergy sexual-abuse scandal that has dragged on for nine months, Catholics in Boston are again taking the lead to seek healing for the American church.

Parishioners here last March created a significant lay movement, Voice of the Faithful, which has attracted 25,000 members across the US. And now Boston College – the region's premier Catholic educational institution – has launched a bold two-year initiative to engage the entire Catholic community in grappling with the complex issues that will shape the church's future.

Catholic colleges and universities across the country have responded in various ways to the scandal, but none has taken as seriously the responsibility to help the broader community sort through the challenges. By drawing on religious and intellectual resources in an open setting, the program aims to transform a sense of betrayal into hope and an opportunity for renewal.

"The current situation calls for healing, and healing requires not only work of the heart but also work of the mind," says the Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., Boston College (BC) president.

The ambitious program of regular lectures, panels, and workshops – called "Church in the 21st Century" – will explore three main issues: the roles and relationships of lay men and women, priests, and bishops; issues of sexuality among Catholics in American culture; and challenges of living and handing the faith on to the next generation.

At last week's opening event, Father Leahy acknowledged the initiative may generate controversy and disagreement. "Faithful Catholics hold different opinions about many important matters," he told the crowd of about 4,000. "When that happens, we need to remind ourselves that ... a university is committed to open discussion and the objective consideration of the wide variety of opinions...."

The fairly liberal school has locked horns in the past with conservative Cardinal Bernard Law, whose archdiocesan headquarters are located across the road from the campus. And after the scandal mushroomed last spring, the cardinal dropped his plans to attend the commencement.

Leahy decided on the initiative when it became clear last May that Catholics of all ages – including traditional donors for the archdiocese – had lost faith in the hierarchy, says Jack Dunn, college spokesman.

Indeed, at the opening event – carried by satellite to alumni gatherings and other colleges across the US – prominent businessman and philanthropist Jack Connors Jr., a former close adviser to Cardinal Law, offered the bluntest assessment:

"Those church leaders who have made a series of bad judgments may continue to hold onto their titles, but they will be leaders in title only," he said. He recommended that Catholics redirect their financial support.

Leahy has emphasized that the aim of the initiative is not dissent but to bring the still-anguished Catholic community together in the search for solutions and to rebuild trust. One goal, he says, is to help Catholics become more informed about core teachings, and clearer about what they believe.

Kevin Meme, a senior at the school, sees the program as formally addressing issues that have long been under discussion in dorm rooms. An economics major, he is on a student subcommittee to help plan the events.

"It's a chance to clear the air and also to explain church teachings often not well understood by students," he says.

Leading Catholic theologians and authors are being invited to speak, scholarly papers will be published, and small-group discussion fostered across the city. No decision has yet been made on whether the college will issue specific recommendations during the two years.

BC's initiative is being applauded on campuses across the US, though other schools are not likely to follow suit.

"It's a very good idea. Hopefully, they are in a position to speak boldly or offer a vision that involves thinking outside the box," says Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington. "That's what universities should do, and bishops should welcome the initiative."

Georgetown is also a Jesuit-run school, but only 57 percent of students are Catholic, and the crisis is being addressed largely by professors in class.

"This kind of study is admirable – frankly, I was jealous when they announced it!" says Terrence Tilley, theology chairman at the University of Dayton, in Ohio. "The center of creative theology in the Roman Catholic Church is now in the universities more than in the seminaries."

He sees plenty of room for discussing controversial issues without going beyond limits of church tradition.

For example, "people say the church is not a democracy; well, we elect the pope democratically among the cardinals, and we used to elect bishops democratically – the first bishop in the US was elected by his priests, and until the 19th century, very few bishops were appointed by Rome," Dr. Tilley adds. "Of course, doctrine is not established by vote, but there's no reason governance can't be democratic."

Dayton's theology department is holding its own colloquium this week on women's ordination, but it's tied to a colleague's research not directly to the crisis, Tilley says.

Not everyone has as broad a sense of what the situation calls for. At the conservative Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, the scandal hasn't spurred special activities. The school has one of the largest programs of theology majors, says spokesman Tom Sofio, but expected that the bishops would take care of policies that needed changing.

"The university continued doing what it usually does – teach the church's teachings and traditions so students can go out and be effective religious-education instructors and youth ministers," he adds.

At other campuses, there are deep concerns, but those haven't spurred student initiatives as have other issues. Colleges have taken a low-key approach:

• Last week, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles held an educational forum on the crisis, and over the year it will likely be addressed in a series of events reenvisioning the school's Catholic mission and identity, says spokesman Ken Swisher.

• At the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., a consortium of nine seminaries (three of them Catholic), they've held ecumenical discussions on sexual-abuse issues. "The scandal is a wakeup call, making all of the schools focus more seriously on ensuring that 'formation' classes deal with critical issues of sexuality and boundaries" in relationships, says James Donahue, GTU president.

• The Rev. Bernard Lee, vice chancellor of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Tex., says "there's a feeling ... of being chastened – sad, angry, and embarrassed," but students he's met with in small groups this fall are more immediately concerned with 9/11 issues and the possible war with Iraq.

In fact, contrary to Boston and elsewhere, the annual appeal for funds in the heavily Hispanic archdiocese has surpassed its goal. Hispanics, who represent a rapidly rising proportion of US Catholics, have tended to be more supportive of the hierarchy during the crisis, including in Boston.

• Even American Catholicism's most prominent university, Notre Dame, is taking a quiet approach. Last spring, a special mass and a campus talk were devoted to the crisis. A campus committee formed to consider the university's response sent US bishops a private document of recommendations prior to their Dallas meeting in June. Next month, a one-day symposium will be held on "Restoring Trust."

"We are taking on some of the same issues on a smaller and more-informal scale" – in the classroom and occasional special events, says John Cavadini, chair of the theology department.

But all see value in the BC program, despite some risks. "The biggest risk is that they do their job well and then are ignored or derided," Tilley says.

Yet he sees greater risks if the issues aren't faced squarely and publicly. "If bishops continue to lose credibility, there is a very serious danger of long-term erosion, with more Catholics worshipping God through the liturgies of tennis and golf on Sunday morning."

At the center of the crisis in Boston, taking the initiative seems imperative. "Until the underlying issues that caused this are addressed, they will never go away," says Mr. Dunn. "People want the truth, and there seems to be no willingness on the part of Catholics to let go of this until there is some resolution."

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