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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Reclaiming their church


Jim Muller is accustomed to being dismissed as either presumptuous or naive.

That is certainly how many viewed him when he first brought three American and three Russian doctors together in 1980 to try to end the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Good luck storming the Kremlin and the Pentagon armed with good intentions, the skeptics scoffed.

It wasn't until 1985, when the by-then 135,000-member International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War won the Nobel Peace Prize, that the idea that committed individuals could influence the policies of powerful institutions began to sound as pragmatic as it did idealistic.

It should be no surprise, then, to find this Harvard cardiologist at the heart of a spontaneous movement by Roman Catholics to reclaim a deeply wounded church.

''It's the same situation,'' says the Massachusetts General Hospital physician. ''Then, the people were disenfranchised from nuclear policy. Here, the people are denied a voice in the policies of their own church.''

Cardinal Bernard F. Law would have been better served these last painful weeks in the company not of sycophantic subordinates but of a newly empowered laity. Let the media be preoccupied with the deathwatch on Lake Street. Muller's group has moved beyond the fate of a single, flawed prelate to a future shaped by the Voice of the Faithful, the name adopted by a group of men and women determined to be heard in the post-Law era that is sure to come.

Whether Law resigns this week is beside the point for this burgeoning movement that began in the parish hall of St. John the Evangelist Church is Wellesley. The cardinal is not ''the church.'' They are. ''We don't have to ask anybody if we can organize,'' Muller says of the thousands of e-mails of support pouring in to from around the world and the participation of laity from parishes throughout Eastern Massachusetts.

''The faithful are designated by Vatican II to have a meaningful voice in the church; it just didn't create a mechanism. We will.''

The group hopes to attract 5,000 Catholics to its conference on the church crisis in July at the Hynes Convention Center.

In contrast to the mood at the chancery, the atmosphere at Voice of the Faithful meetings resembles a birthing class more than a wake. One-hundred or so regulars gather on Monday nights not to mourn but to midwife a more inclusive, less hierarchical church. Their focus - to help the victims of sexual abuse, to support priests of integrity, and to reform an organization that gives so little voice to those in the pews - means they leave the most contentious issues confronting Catholicism at the door.

These meetings are not about the ordination of women or the celibacy of priests. The goal is to find consensus on the fundamental role of the laity. ''There are important issues we will have to confront as a church, but now is the time to come together to strengthen the voice of the people,'' says Muller.

It is the same model the Soviet and American physicians used two decades ago. Their focus on a nonpartisan message about the futility of nuclear war meant remaining silent on the plight of Russian Jews and the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. ''The peace movement would have fallen apart if we'd lost our focus,'' says Muller. ''There are issues now that divide us, but we are united in having a democratic forum to air those differences. We have to create the structure first,'' says Muller.

To begin to move forward, the group is looking back for guidance to several periods in church history when power was less concentrated in the hands of the hierarchy. ''Cardinal Law fell victim to absolute power,'' in Muller's view, a view echoed in a letter written 115 years ago by Lord Acton. ''Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,'' he wrote. His subject? The Roman Catholic Church.

Eileen McNamara can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 4/14/2002.
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