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Law's words frame new play

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Wary Catholics return to church

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Spotlight Report

  Jim Post, President of the Voice of the Faithful, speaks to the media after meeting with Bernard Cardinal Law at the Archdiocese of Boston. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Landers)

In his first meeting with Voice of Faithful, Law seeks answers

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/27/2002

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 yesterday met for the first time with leaders of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group that has been banned in dioceses around the country because of its stated desire to help bring about structural change in the Roman Catholic Church.

Law did not respond to either of the group's central requests - that he accept financial contributions raised by the group, and that he lift his prohibition against new chapters of the group meeting on church property. And participants said the cardinal pursued a line of questioning about how the group sees its relationship to the church, which suggested concern about Voice of the Faithful's respect for his authority as bishop.

Law told group members that it would have been better if they had sought his permission before organizing, and criticized them for scheduling a news conference immediately upon the close of the meeting. Law did not speak publicly about the session, but his spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, read to the news media a statement declaring: ''While the emergence of new groups is a constant in the history of the Church, a proper discernment must always take place to ensure their compatibility with the faith, discipline and mission of the Church.''

Law, however, agreed to meet with Voice of the Faithful again, and designated two of his top deputies, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean and Chancellor David Smith, to pursue discussions about the bannings from parish property and the contributions.

''Dialogue will continue,'' Morrissey said.

The meeting, although a milestone for an organization formed by laypeople upset over the church's failure to remove from ministry sexually abusive priests, was not a warm embrace. Voice of the Faithful had expected the meeting to take place at the cardinal's residence, but it was instead moved to the chancery, which is an office building. At the start of the meeting, after offering a prayer for ''understanding and guidance,'' Law suggested that the two hours allotted for the meeting was excessive.

But the meeting went on for nearly 21/2 hours, and participants said Law was quite engaged. They said he appeared to have carefully read some of the group's published material.

''He had done his homework, and he came right out of the box with points about our relationship with the church,'' said James E. Post, a Boston University management professor who serves as president of Voice of the Faithful. ''It was all about authority. He got in a little zinger, saying `this would all have been so much easier if you had come to me initially as your bishop and said you wanted to form this organization.' He kind of laughed, but I think that's the mindset, and it's an issue.''

Post said Law seemed to be trying to figure out whether Voice of the Faithful wanted to be an official church organization, like the Knights of Columbus, or a group that exists outside the institutional church. Post said the organization does not currently have a position on that question.

''It's an issue - how will Voice of the Faithful relate to the archbishop of Boston and the church, and there is a big question about whether Voice of the Faithful would want to be formed under the oversight of the bishop,'' Post said. ''There's a question about how to understand authority.''

Post said Law complimented Voice of the Faithful for its work to support victims of abuse and priests of integrity, but queried its stated goal of ''shaping structural change.'' Post said Law viewed that goal as ''troublesome.''

''He wanted us to know that we have not done enough yet to clarify the relationship issue, and that that issue is very important to him and the other bishops,'' Post said.

But Post said he viewed the meeting as a positive development, simply in that it acknowledged the strength of Voice of the Faithful.

''We are a reality in the life of the church today, but there are legitimate questions about what will happen in the future,'' Post said. ''There was a recognition that Voice of the Faithful is not going to go away.''

Law did not talk with reporters to offer his own characterization of the exchange, and Morrissey said she was unable to describe the meeting because she was not in attendance.

A theologian who has been monitoring the group's growth said yesterday's meeting was significant.

''Just the fact that he's willing to meet with them, and that they apparently parted amicably, would suggest that there will be less of this automatic coloring of Voice of the Faithful as a dissident or heretical group, which I think was a mistake at the beginning,'' said the Rev. William A. Clark, an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. ''Nobody who is realistic would think they would come to an agreement immediately, but the whole point was to begin a dialogue, and if today's conversation could take place, then the organization is already doing what it was formed to do. I find that tremendously hopeful, and the next thing to hope for would be change.''

Voice of the Faithful, now headquartered in Newton, claims 25,000 members in about 100 chapters worldwide. The group says its goals are to support victims of abuse, support priests of integrity, and shape structural change within the church.

In the Archdiocese of Boston, the group says it has about 40 local chapters that existed before Oct. 12, when Law banned new chapters from meeting on church property. Voice of the Faithful says that means it is now effectively banned in about 320 parishes in Eastern Massachusetts.

The group says it has also been barred from meeting in seven dioceses: Bridgeport, Conn.; Portland, Maine; Camden and Newark, N.J.; Brooklyn and Rockville Centre, N.Y.; and Baker, Ore.

The ban has led to some unusual results. In Portland, diocesan officials refused to let Voice of the Faithful meet on church property with the Rev. Gary Hayes, a Catholic priest who is the founder of a victims group called The Linkup. Also in Portland, a Jesuit high school, Cheverus, is refusing to allow Voice of the Faithful to meet on school property with Clark, who is also a Jesuit priest.

Voice of the Faithful has received harsh criticism from some bishops, though not Law, and from some conservative Catholics. In Massachusetts an organization has formed, Faithful Voice, to counter Voice of the Faithful. The critics say the group is a front for liberal dissidents who want to change church teachings on issues such as the ordination of women. Voice of the Faithful has taken no position on the ordination of women, but repeated polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of US Catholics support the ordination of women.

But Voice of the Faithful has been attempting to reach out to its critics - in New Jersey, the group has invited Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis magazine who has been a leading critic, to come speak, and Hudson has agreed.

Clark said Law's position is likely to influence how other bishops see the church.

''Because the origins of the group were here, and because this is ground zero as far as the scandal is concerned, this could have significance for other locations,'' Clark said. ''But I'm fairly sure that unless Voice of the Faithful in those other locations keeps up the pressure to open the dialogue, inertia will just keep it where it is. The bishops are going to have to be pushed. But Boston's way of approaching the question will have some influence.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/27/2002.
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