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Spotlight Report

Law seeks to curb organizing by laity

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/27/2002

A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful
Cardinal Bernard F. Law is cracking down on efforts by lay Catholics to organize in Greater Boston, ordering priests not to cooperate with an evolving coalition of parish leaders.

In a move that has stunned the most loyal core of church activists, parish council members who are generally more traditional and deferential than members of reform groups, Law instructed his top aide to tell priests that a proposed association of parish councils is ''superfluous and potentially divisive'' and that laypeople must live out their desire for equality ''within the hierarchical structure of the church.''

''The archbishop [Law] does not endorse or recognize the proposed association,'' Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Boston, wrote in a letter faxed to all priests Thursday night. ''As pastor or parochial vicar, you are not to join, foster or promote this endeavor among your parish pastoral council members or the community of the faithful at large.''

The letter appears to be part of a broader church effort to rein in advocates of change who have been energized by the clergy sexual abuse crisis roiling the church. Last week, Edyvean summoned the leader of a nascent priests' alliance for a talking-to at the chancery, and some regional bishops have begun meeting with other organizers of the priests' forum in discussions that some are describing as ''reprimands'' and others are describing simply as exchanges of information.

At the Vatican this week, the US cardinals spelled out no role for the laity in the communique they issued in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, although at a news conference they said that omission was an oversight. The communique did order pastors ''publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent.''

The proposed association of parish pastoral councils is the most moderate of a variety of lay organizations that have sprung up because of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, including groups that are organizing protests and vigils and financial boycotts, and the Wellesley-based Voice of the Faithful, a fast-growing organization that is garnering national attention as it pushes for a greater laity input in the church.

The association of parish councils is the brainchild of David W. Zizik, vice chairman of the parish pastoral council at St. Theresa Church in Sherborn. Zizik is no radical - he studied theology as an undergraduate at Boston College, traveled on a pilgrimage to Rome with Law, is studying part-time for a master's degree in ministry at the archdiocesan seminary while working as a lawyer, and has been critical of groups that have held protests or news conferences about the clergy sexual abuse situation.

Zizik had consulted with a canon lawyer before putting together the proposed association, and then last Saturday floated it by\e-mail to a group of priests, laypeople, and theologians.

In the e-mail, he said: ''The absence of meaningful relationships between laity and hierarchy within our Church, and the presence of what appears to be a culture of insularity and secrecy within the hierarchy, are matters that lay faithful should and must be concerned with, because they have contributed directly to the creation of the child abuse problem within our Church and, unless remedied, will continue to cause damage to the Church in the future.''

He wrote that he envisioned the association as a means for communicating the concerns of laypeople to their archbishop, writing ''if we are thoughtful, constructive, and prayerful, and remain faithful to our Catholic faith and tradition, I believe that we can accomplish something meaningful within our Church.''

The archdiocese has not expressed its opposition to him; in fact Zizik never got a response to a letter he sent Law in early March suggesting greater consultation with laypeople, and he only learned of Law's concern about the proposed association when a reporter called.

''It's astounding to me that this church seems to be so afraid of dialogue with its own members, people who love it and who would give almost anything to see the church get back on track,'' Zizik said. ''This is a church that's supposed to invite the disenfranchised in - Jesus invited prostitutes and tax cheats - so it's almost bizarre to see the response of our church leadership. There is a pathology in our church that needs to be rooted out, and people are going to begin to vote with their feet if we don't do something about it.''

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

Edyvean said in his letter that the appropriate representation for ''the people of God of the archdiocese'' is the archdiocesan pastoral council, an existing panel of laypeople, nuns, and priests, and suggested that the appropriate representation for priests is on the Presbyteral Council. Edyvean said ''discussions have begun'' to make those groups more effective.

But lay leaders say the archdiocesan pastoral council has operated in virtual secrecy and does not represent the broad cross-section of church leaders, and priests have voiced similar complaints about the Presbyteral Council, which they say has largely been a forum for Law to talk but not listen. Law canceled the last meeting of the council.

A specialist on canon law said Law is within his rights to oppose the association of parish councils because parish councils are supposed to exist within parishes as advisory boards to pastors.

''Everything in that letter is true and canonically accurate, but of course it's a judgment call as to whether this association is superfluous and potentially divisive,'' said the Rev. James A. Coriden, a professor of theology at Washington Theological Union, who said he has never heard of an attempt by parish council leaders to organize across a diocese. But Coriden says canon law also grants lay Catholics a freedom of assembly within the church.

Others questioned the political wisdom of Law's move at a time when many laypeople are outraged, calling for his resignation, and withholding funds from Catholic organizations because of concern about Law's handling of priests accused of sexual abuse.

''These guys just don't get it,'' said William V. D'Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University of America and the author of ''Laity, American and Catholic.'' ''They're still trying to tell the laity, `We run the show, and we'll tell you when we want to hear from you, if ever.' It's incredible that this is continuing in light of all that's passed.''

Lay leaders who had been trying to work within church structures were clearly shocked.

''This is astonishingly stupid,'' said Mary Jo Bane, a professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a member of the parish council at St. William Church in Dorchester, who helped draft the proposal for an association. ''Here you have a budding effort by mostly pretty moderate folks to bring parish councils together to make them more effective. If the cardinal were interested in genuinely involving the laity, this should be precisely the sort of thing he should want to happen.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/27/2002.
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