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Spotlight Report

Church meets dissenting voices with silence

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 9/16/2002

The Pilot rebuked the Rev. Walter Cuenin of Newton for his remarks about ordaining women. (Globe Staff File Photo / Bill Polo)

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 university dining hall on Friday, several hundred local priests gathered to discuss sexuality and the church. All last week over the Internet, leaders of a Catholic lay group debated the role of authority in Catholicism. And this week, the region's premier Catholic college kicks off a multiyear examination of power, sex, and faith in the world's largest religious denomination.

Eight months after the clergy sexual abuse crisis exploded in Boston, many of the region's Catholic pastors, parishioners, scholars, and students are engaged in a broad and wide open debate over the future of their church.

But the traditional power structure of the archdiocese - Cardinal Bernard F. Law and his auxiliary bishops - is not participating in that debate. Instead, priests and lay people say, chancery officials are privately attempting to marginalize participants in the discussions while publicly saying almost nothing.

Law has refused to comment publicly on Voice of the Faithful - a group that involves thousands of local Catholics seeking change - except to say that he won't accept any money they raise; Voice of the Faithful leaders say they are getting reports from members that at least one of Law's auxiliary bishops is encouraging pastors to bar the group from church property.

Law also has said nothing publicly about the Boston Priests Forum, an organization with 250 members, many of them the men Law has appointed to lead some of the archdiocese's most vibrant parishes. Law has not responded to a request to meet with the group to discuss priests' rights, he has demanded that one of the group's leaders explain remarks he made sympathetic to gay rights, and his spokesman said of the new group ''at this point the archbishop has not chosen to recognize them as a legitimate body.''

As for the plans by Boston College to launch a series of lectures and scholarly works examining the future of the church, and by Regis College to hold a symposium on the role of women in the church, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, Law's spokesman, said Friday, ''Any conversation and any kind of effort towards education around the teaching of the church is always welcome. But what's important is always to be clear about what the consistent teaching and belief of the church is, and to recognize that, while we can talk about those issues, and people can raise opinions, the church's dogma and doctrine is given to us by the apostles and is not open to change.''

The efforts by lay people, priests, and academics to imagine change in the church are triggered by the clergy sexual abuse crisis as well as a longstanding struggle over change in a global, 2,000-year-old religion. Church officials have often viewed change with suspicion - witness the condemnation of Galileo for suggesting that the sun was at the center of the solar system - but it has also repeatedly modified its teachings, even on issues such as authority and sexuality that are at the core of today's debates.

''The image of Catholicism is that it's a monolithic, rigid church, but in the church that I have experienced in my lifetime, ever since the 1960s, there has been disagreement,'' said the Rev. William P. Leahy, the president of Boston College.

Leahy said Catholics agree on fundamental theological matters involving the nature of divinity and salvation, but that there is broad disagreement about the church's role in social change, about the power structure of the church, and about sexual ethics.

''There will always be tensions with members of the hierarchy over specific instances of social questions,'' he said. ''But differences of opinion are healthy, and I think there's more of that in the church than you realize.''

Discerning the mere discussion of differences from dissent remains a challenge, however, and a source of friction. The newspaper Law publishes, The Pilot, now routinely and pointedly criticizes groups and individuals who question the church, and has refused to publish pieces by Voice of the Faithful or the Boston Priests Forum responding to published criticism. Just this month, the paper took after a Newton priest, the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, who suggested in a New Yorker interview that the church should consider ordaining women. Earlier this year, the paper blasted priests who called for Law to resign, suggested Voice of the Faithful is made up of ''dissidents,'' and accused Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, the man handpicked by the nation's bishops to head a lay review board, of encouraging ''mortal sin'' by suggesting that one way to protest a bishop's conduct would be to go to Mass in a different diocese.

Coyne distances the cardinal from the newspaper, saying, ''The Pilot reflects the views of the editor of the Pilot, and not necessarily that of the archdiocese or the cardinal. The editor has editorial freedom.''

But many are unhappy at their treatment in the pages of The Pilot, and at what they see as the church hierarchy's resistance to new voices and thinking.

''That the official voice for the archdiocese seems to prefer rebuke to dialogue is unfortunate,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Carroll, director of the Jesuit Urban Center, a Jesuit-run church in the South End that has welcomed gay Catholics. ''It sends a signal to all the clergy not to address some of these topics.''

And Gisela Morales-Barreto of Newton, an active Catholic who belongs to Voice of the Faithful and the Parish Leadership Forum, said she has been deeply troubled by what she perceives as an effort to marginalize priests and lay people who join groups or speak frankly on issues.

''Every time you say something, you're identified as a troublemaker,'' she said. ''When you speak your mind, you are redefined as a person who doesn't respect the teachings of the church. Instead of creating an environment for dialogue, they're pushing people away. And priests who speak out are feeling isolated and depressed, because instead of being placed in a category that's welcoming, they're ostracized.''

Law has appointed his top aide, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, to mediate his relationship with Voice of the Faithful and the Boston Priests Forum. But over the last eight months Edyvean has met with Voice of the Faithful twice, and the priests' forum once, and the conversations have left both groups dissatisfied - the lay group because it can't get a clear answer about where it stands, and the priests' group because it can't get the cardinal to meet with priests to discuss their concerns about due process.

''We have heard of several situations where a regional bishop has strongly suggested to pastors that they not allow Voice of the Faithful to meet on church property,'' said Steve Krueger, the interim executive director of Voice of the Faithful. ''We are concerned about this, and hope that we have the opportunity in the near future to discuss this with Cardinal Law or Bishop Edyvean.''

The pattern is being repeated nationally. Two bishops, in Rockville Centre, on Long Island, and in Bridgeport, in southwest Connecticut, have barred Voice of the Faithful from meeting in their dioceses, and have simply not responded to letters from the group seeking to meet to explain their organization. The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a progressive theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said he has been barred from speaking in the diocese of Fall River because of his views. And a variety of commentators and scholars have begun labeling those seeking to discuss the future of the church as ''dissenters,'' a label with a long history of use in the church.

The Rev. Matthew L. Lamb, a theologian at Boston College, said that dissent fostered by his fellow theologians has contributed to the sexual abuse crisis.

''No adequate diagnosis of the contributory causes of the Catholic priest abuse scandals can overlook the role of dissent among theologians,'' Lamb said. ''How many of the priests and bishops who have brought such suffering to minors and scandal to the public were encouraged by teachers and theologians to cut corners and dissent from the truth of Catholic faith and moral teachings? Many priests and future bishops read articles dissenting from Catholic sexual ethics in the 1960s and '70s. A climate of dissent was promoted by wholesale dissent from Catholic sexual ethics.''

Some local priests believe it is a mistake for lay people to join Voice of the Faithful or for priests to join the Boston Priests Forum, because they believe such groups, from the very fact of their existence, take an adversarial posture toward church leaders. ''I don't think the priests' forum is helpful, and I don't think Voice of the Faithful is helpful, because they have to come out and be against the church on something, or else they're redundant - if they think and feel exactly what the church does, there's no reason for them to exist,'' said the Rev. Joseph Hennessey, pastor of Saint Joseph Church in Kingston. ''My preferred method would be to work these horrible things out within the confines of the existing structures, realizing that they've been extremely faulty, but that those are the structures the Lord has given us.''

In the past, Law might have cracked down on groups or individuals he viewed as dissenters. He has never gone as far as Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., who in 1996 said he would excommunicate anyone in his diocese who joined one of 10 groups, including the progressive group Call to Action. But the Archdiocese of Boston has banned several groups from meeting on church property, including organizations advocating for the ordination of women, for gay rights, and for other progressive causes.

The most frequent past punishment for local priests who have spoken publicly on controversial issues has been that they are summoned for a talking-to by the cardinal. But occasionally the punishments can be harsher. Just within the last two years Law has supported the firing and eviction of a nun who helped baptize the adopted infant sons of two gay male couples - except in emergencies only priests or deacons can baptize children. And Law's administration last year ousted two priests from a Dorchester parish, apparently because some of the parishioners found their homilies too progressive.

Scholars are also under scrutiny. The Vatican has barred a theologian, the Rev. Roger Haight of Weston Jesuit School of Theology, from teaching while the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigates Haight's published writings about the possibility that non-Christians can get to heaven without the help of Jesus. And Catholic theologians at Boston College and other Catholic schools are now supposed to sign statements of loyalty to church teachings - a new, national requirement imposed by US bishops at the insistence of the Vatican that, according to some academic theologians, is being widely ignored.

But this year's situation is unusual in several ways. The new groups discussing the future of the church - the Boston Priests Forum, the Voice of the Faithful, Boston College, and Regis College - have thus far studiously avoided taking positions on any issues, so they have not contradicted any church teachings.

And Law, himself, has probably never been weaker. His popularity has sunk in the wake of the crisis - in April, 65 percent of local Catholics told pollsters they wanted him to quit - and any action he takes against a group or individual is likely to be discussed and debated nationally because of the focus on his conduct.

''Obviously, the archbishop doesn't like it, but there's not much he can do about it, because there's strength in numbers, and because you cannot say they are challenging a particular teaching,'' said the Rev. Charles E. Curran, a Catholic theologian who has taught at Southern Methodist University since his opposition to the church's teaching on birth control led the Vatican to engineer his ouster from the faculty of Catholic University of America.

Asked whether Law plans to discipline any local priests or theologians for speaking out, Coyne, Law's spokesman, said, ''The bishop of a diocese is always responsible for the teaching of Catholic doctrine in his own diocese, so he continues to put forward the church's teaching, and, if necessary, to engage in a corrective if a priest or theologian of the faith is misstating the teaching of the church. But he hasn't stepped in at this point, and I don't know if he will - he's got so much stuff on his plate right now.''

Meanwhile, some change-minded priests are wary, and wondering just how far they dare go. Cuenin, whose comments in the New Yorker prompted the rebuke by the Pilot, declined to comment for this story, and has discouraged his parishioners from protesting on his behalf, saying he wanted to lower the temperature. Other priests who have been called on the carpet by auxiliary bishops for comments or activities viewed as disloyal declined to comment for the record.

''I think some priests would see association with the priests' forum as a threat to their career, and know they could be challenged by the authority, or questioned,'' said the Rev. Paul E. Kilroy, pastor of Saint Bernard Church in West Newton, who is a leader of the priests' forum.

''We need some psychological, emotional, and spiritual space to speak about issues that the authority isn't in a position to deal with,'' Kilroy said. ''We need an unsupervised situation to talk about issues of controversy.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/16/2002.
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