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Spotlight Report

New Catholic reform groups at a crossroads

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/17/2002

A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful
In a moment of expected triumph for advocates of change in the Catholic Church, several thousand laypeople, joined by numerous priests and nuns, are planning to descend on the Hynes Convention Center in Boston Saturday for a daylong show of strength.

Voice of the Faithful, a group born in a church basement in Wellesley just five months ago, now boasts 19,000 members in 40 states and 21 countries, and has attracted Catholics from around the nation to its conference.

But after months in which it and two other key groups spawned by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the Boston Priests' Forum and the Parish Leadership Forum, have fueled their growth with the anger and sadness of local Catholics, they now must figure out what's next.

The groups are facing the challenge of sustaining enthusiasm as the intensity of the scandal lessens, making peace with a skeptical church hierarchy, and, more fundamentally, determining just what it is they want to do besides vent their ire.

The administration of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, under siege as it attempts to respond to the crisis that has led many to call for Law's resignation, has treated the new groups warily.

And activists are bracing for a feared crackdown: Voice of the Faithful leaders are debating how they would respond if Law attempts to bar them from celebrating Mass on Saturday, ban them from meeting in churches, or if he refuses to accept money from a charitable fund they are starting.

''There's a lot of confusion, because there is a desire on the part of people in Voice of the Faithful and other groups to remain Catholic. But at the same time, they are insisting on having an influence, and so there is a kind of negotiation with the power structure,'' said the Rev. William A. Clark, an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, who studies ecclesiology - the structure of the church - and who is working with the new reform movements. ''For the overall culture of the church to change, this kind of lay voice has got to continue, and whether people are going to have the patience that is going to take is a question.''

Thus far Law has taken no action, although several priests did attempt unsuccessfully to discourage Voice of the Faithful leaders from holding the Mass. And Law's aides have suggested they would not support any effort to raise money for archdiocesan ministries that circumvented chancery control.

Leaders of Voice, an organization of lay people seeking structural change in the church, are concerned enough that they have solicited a letter, to date signed by 60 Catholic theologians, simply defending their right to convene.

Law's top aide, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, has opened a dialogue with the new groups, and the discussions have been polite but formal, according to Voice leaders. In the only real confrontation to date, Edyvean attempted to quash a proposed Association of Parish Pastoral Councils by telling priests not to cooperate with the entity.

Its leaders have now reconfigured their organization as the Parish Leadership Forum and are working to form an archdiocese-wide organization of lay parish leaders to push for a greater lay role in parish staffing and financial issues, according to forum founder David W. Zizik of Sherborn. Edyvean has met with Zizik but has not taken a public position on the group.

While he has neither condemned nor endorsed Voice of the Faithful, Edyvean has said he would discourage pastors who asked for advice from allowing chapters to form in their parishes.

A theologian who spent years working in the Vatican bureaucracy, Edyvean has come to the meetings with the activists assisted by canon lawyers. On one occasion, he reminded Voice of the Faithful leaders of his duty to defend church doctrine. On another, he and his lawyers exchanged words among themselves in Latin. The archdiocese has not responded to invitations to send a representative of the hierarchy on Saturday.

Several auxiliary bishops have met with leaders of the Boston Priests' Forum, an alliance of clergy who want to talk about issues facing the church, and have sent mixed messages about the hierarchy's stance toward the group. But, at a recent presbyteral council meeting, Law expressed ''serious concerns'' about diocese-wide gatherings of priests. And The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper published by Law, ran a letter from a priest critical of the Priests' Forum, but later refused to run a statement by its leaders explaining the purpose of the group.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Donna M. Morrissey, confirmed that Edyvean is meeting with the groups' leaders to learn more about them, and would say only that she ''expects the dialogue to remain open.''

Although the new groups are all more centrist than traditional Catholic reform groups, many of their members, like most Boston Catholics, want Law to quit.

Overwhelming majorities of Voice of the Faithful and the Boston Priests' Forum - as measured by shows of hands at meetings of the two groups - have said they want Law out. But both organizations have declined to take a formal position on the issue because they want to include priests and laypeople supportive of Law in their discussions.

Voice of the Faithful also has incorporated as a nonprofit and is planning to begin raising money for local Catholic schools and social services, without routing funds through the cardinal's office.

And the groups have held joint discussions without any representative of the hierarchy. The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, a leader of the Priests' Forum, says he hopes the groups will work together to tackle issues of accountability within the church, reasons for the shortage of priests, and the role of women in the church.

None of these new groups is taking a position on issues such as the ordination of women or married men. Rather, Voice of the Faithful is arguing simply for a greater role for laypeople in church decision-making; the Priests' Forum for an opportunity for priests to talk about issues facing the church; and the Parish Leadership Forum for an organization through which lay leaders can push for a greater lay voice in parish management.

''At first, I had thought that once the laity rose up and showed our indignation, there would be revolutionary change in the structure of the church,'' said Mary Scanlon Calcaterra, Voice of the Faithful vice president. ''Now I'm thinking it will take longer - probably all of my life, anyway.''

Voice of the Faithful, the largest and most visible of the groups, is also struggling to represent the archdiocese's diversity. The group is dominated by affluent white suburbanites, many in their 50s, 60s, or 70s. Leaders are trying to broaden their membership, but admit they are struggling to win over young people, ethnic minorities, and the working class.

''What Voice looks like today, and I have said this very clearly to them, is not the whole church of Boston,'' said Gisela Morales-Barreto of Newton, who is active in both Voice of the Faithful and the Parish Leadership Forum. ''If this movement is going to grow and be alive and healthy, it needs to bring in all those other groups and those other aspects of society that are not present.''

Two local Catholic colleges, Boston College and Regis College, are hoping to combine the energy of upset laypeople with their own academic resources to come up with ideas for change.

''I've never seen the university so galvanized behind a single effort as it is behind this,'' said John Dunn, a spokesman for BC, which is planning this fall to launch a two-year series of lectures, courses, and seminars examining issues raised by the church crisis.

Regis president Mary Jane England said her school's endeavor will focus on the role of women in the church, as well as the broader issue of the role of the laity. Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, the head of a national panel on the church crisis, has agreed to speak at Regis in October.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/17/2002.
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