A window on reform

The Catholic lay group, Voice of the Faithful, now one year old, is refining its message of change amid sharp controversy over its role

It was a year ago this month that Voice of the Faithful was born in suburban Boston, as Catholics gathered to share their hurt and outrage over mounting revelations of clergy sexual abuse. Voice has since gained national and international prominence as a lay organization seeking to reshape a church culture it feels is at the root of the crisis.

In the process, it has stirred sharp controversy - among the hierarchy and other Catholics - over what kind of change it has in mind. Yet it continues to strike a responsive chord among Catholics across the US. The grass-roots group is growing rapidly in perhaps the most significant way - in local parishes, from Long Island, New York, to Nashville, Tenn., to Santa Barbara, Calif.

"Three months ago we had about

60 chapters, and now we are up to about 140," says Jim Post, the Boston University professor who is Voice president. "We're adding five to 10 a week."

Bringing about change in the Catholic church, however, means dialogue with the hierarchy, and in that, the group has often been stymied. Some bishops clearly see them as confrontational and are wary of their intentions; eight have banned local parish Voice members from meeting on church property. When issuing his ban last fall, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., went so far as to call Voice "antichurch and, ultimately, anti-Catholic."

About a dozen other bishops, however, have held sessions with local chapters, Dr. Post says.

To many US Catholics, this is a moment of opportunity for the church - a time to move beyond the passive "pray, pay, and obey" attitude toward parishioners to embrace their talents and expertise in parish and diocesan decisionmaking. The mismanagement of the clergy-abuse crisis, they say, shows unprecedented need for greater openness, participation, and accountability.

But Voice faces a stark reality - Catholic lay movements created outside the institutional structure of the church have a poor historical record in spurring reform. And its founders, though loyal Catholics long active in parish work, ran into trouble early on with revolutionary language calling for a "Continental Congress" to counterbalance the hierarchy. Voice is now defining a more moderate strategy for its most controversial goal - to shape structural change in the church.

Still, there are those who question the approach and claim they have a hidden agenda to change church doctrine. A small group of traditional Catholics in Boston have formed Faithful Voice to counter Voice of the Faithful's work, and set up a website "to expose the underpinnings" of Voice, which they assert is made up of "cafeteria Catholics" who hold heretical views.

Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine, is perhaps their most vocal critic. "There is certainly a place for a group like Voice, but it would have to leave behind all the dissent being spread through its events and chapters," he says.

Despite the group's statement that it seeks no change in church doctrines, Mr. Hudson insists Voice wants to do away with celibacy and modify church teachings on sexuality. That is clear, he says, because chapters regularly invite Catholic theologians to speak who have such views. "I'm keeping track of this all over the country - I get reports on a weekly basis," he adds.

Voice members say church historians and theologians are invited as part of the process of educating themselves on canon law, church history and teachings as a basis for lay involvement.

"We have members from a broad spectrum but are committed to a centrist philosophy," says Post. "We keep the three goals squarely in front of us and are what we say we are: Catholics who love the church and are determined to make a difference."

Hudson says he agrees with them on the need for more lay expertise in management, finances, and communications. And he's accepted an invitation to speak next week to the Voice chapter in northern New Jersey.

The controversy swirls around the ambiguity of "structural change." Paul Lakeland, chairman of religious studies at Fairfield University and an expert on the laity, says that aim does raise the serious issue of authority in the church, and thus can imply radical change.

"That makes them more radical than they present themselves, and even more radical than some bishops criticize them for being," he suggests.

Cardinal Bernard Law kept Voice at arm's length for months and finally met with them once. His successor, Bishop Richard Lennon, said he plans to meet with them but has been unwilling to set a date. (The archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment.) A major irritant has been the creation of a Voice of Compassion fund to take donations from Catholics who did not want to contribute to the Archbishop's Annual Appeal. Voice offered the funds to Catholic Charities, bypassing the archdiocese.

Now they are attempting to calm the fears by reaching consensus on what they mean by change. A draft paper published on the Voice website was also sent to all US bishops inviting comment; a revision will be published this month. The Voice strategy emphasizes active and meaningful engagement of laypeople at the parish level, and working up to the diocesan level.

"We've turned the anger and outrage into a positive campaign for change, reached out to survivors of abuse, and found a way to help, and created a great conversation among more than 25,000 Catholics," Post says.

Now it's a question of the Parish Voices engaging in dialogue at the local level, according to local priorities.

In Nashville, Tenn., for example, they are working toward creation of a pastoral council of clergy and laypeople at the diocesan level, says Jim Zralek, a retiree who is chapter co-leader along with a young woman lawyer. They've met twice with Bishop Edward Kmiec, who promised to work toward having a council in place by the fall.

"We've asked that 75 percent of the council members be elected by people in the parish - that's a bit revolutionary," Zralek, a former priest, admits.

Catholics in Santa Barbara, Calif., formed a chapter of Voice last September. "One of the appealing things was the aim of Voice to be mainstream and not have an ideological platform," says Peter Kruse, a retired corporate lawyer.

His chapter is helping to spur implementation of "Safeguard the Children," the Los Angeles archdiocese's system to ensure that all parishes know what to do in the event of an abuse incident.

"Guidelines were issued but follow-through has been spotty," Mr. Kruse says. "We've put together a program for the 10 parishes in our region - providing speakers and resources - and invited pastors and members of parish councils, saying, 'Here's input to help you in implementation.' "

They've also responded to the archdiocese's recently published financial reports to encourage similar transparency and accountability at the parish level.

Bishop Thomas Curry, who heads the region, welcomes the chapter's efforts. "They're very good and involved Catholics; they represent a fairly broad segment of people, and their primary interest is not so much in a particular platform but in involving the laity in figuring out how we should move ahead," he says.

"Most of us are absolutely in agreement that we have to have more lay involvement in the organization and management of the church," the bishop adds.

On Long Island - where a grand jury just this week released a report accusing the diocese of Rockville Centre of systematically protecting scores of abusive priests - Voice has many parish groups and an incorporated regional group of about 1,000 members.

But Bishop William Murphy, formerly of Boston, was one of the first bishops to issue a ban on Voice meetings on church property. And he rejected the group's request to meet on questions of financial openness and accountability.

Dan Bartley, a financial consultant who is a director of the regional group, says his hope is that "if we keep on task and remain prayerful and committed, eventually our support will be so strong it will be difficult for the bishop to resist."

Along with efforts at the parish and diocesan levels, Post says Voice hopes to work closely with the office at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that is charged with auditing the bishops' implementation of their new charter to protect children. Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI official who heads the new office, met with Post during her recent visit to the Boston archdiocese.

Voice's survival is far from assured, but members say their commitment remains high and they are in for the long haul.

"To bring change at the parish level requires a much more long-term perspective than they might have had to begin with," Dr. Lakeland says. "But the typical Voice member is a very substantial presence in his or her parish - and there are a lot of them."

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