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Spotlight Report

Lay group responds to conservatives

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 8/21/2002

A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful
The president of Voice of the Faithful, seeking to counter conservative criticism of the growing lay Catholic organization, yesterday sent an e-mail to 22,000 members defending the group's faithfulness to Catholic teachings and apologizing for inviting one controversial speaker to the group's convention.

James E. Post, the president of the group, said the group decided to respond to critics after two bishops, William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., prohibited Voice of the Faithful chapters from meeting on church property. Conservative commentators have also criticized the group, which has not taken positions on any doctrinal or theological issues, based on opinions held by speakers at its convention or members of the organization.

''The letter is intended to be a response to the smear campaign that has begun to take shape,'' Post said. ''People in our organization felt it was important to make clear that we are not a dissident group.''

Post said Voice of the Faithful will ask Murphy and Lori to reconsider their bans.

Post's letter to members of Voice of the Faithful, which is posted on the group's Web site,, asserts that ''we accept the teaching authority of the church.'' The group has articulated only three goals: to support victims of abuse, to support ''priests of integrity,'' and to shape unspecified structural change in the church. Many members, like many other American Catholics, want the church to change policies regarding the qualifications for priesthood and matters of sexual ethics, but the group has not voted on, or even debated, those issues.

''We do not advocate the end of priestly celibacy, the exclusion of homosexuals from the priesthood, the ordination of women, or any of the other remedies that some have proposed,'' the letter says. ''We do not endorse any organizations or interest groups. We do promote a full and open discussion about the root causes of the sexual abuse crisis and the remedies that are needed. ... We do take the position that bishops fail in their role as shepherds and teachers when they refuse to engage the laity in a meaningful and substantive discussion of the issues.''

Post said the group did not impose an ideological litmus test on speakers at the July 20 convention, and said he has no regrets about allowing Thomas Arens, president of the Germany chapter of We Are Church, to speak, even though We Are Church supports allowing married men and women to become priests. But Post said the group was wrong to allow Debra W. Haffner to speak on a panel on ''creating a sexually safe parish,'' because Haffner, he said, is a ''leader of several organizations that have taken positions at odds with the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion and sexuality'' and her ''mere presence raised understandable doubts about VOTF's commitment to Catholic teaching.''

Haffner, a specialist on abuse prevention in religious settings who is training in New York to be a Unitarian Universalist minister, said she supports abortion rights and gay rights, but did not discuss those views at the convention. ''I was extremely moved to be part of this meeting,'' she said. ''I felt I had something to add, and it's sad to see this become a controversy. It's clearly diversionary. Trying to make me the issue, in a church that has this extent of scandal befalling it, is quite remarkable.''

The Voice of the Faithful, which was founded in a Wellesley church basement in February, has become the subject of scrutiny. Critical pieces have appeared in publications known for their conservative opinions, including the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the National Catholic Register, and Crisis magazine, as well as the Pilot, which is the archdiocesan newspaper in Boston.

But a backlash to the backlash also appears to be emerging. In this week's edition of America, a Jesuit weekly known for its progressive views, columnist Terry Golway says, ''It is hard not to conclude that some members of the American church's hierarchy resent or are fearful of the laity's voices.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A4 of the Boston Globe on 8/21/2002.
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