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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

  Richard A. Hogarty  

Church reformers face uphill battle


No one can defend the despicable crimes that were committed by predator priests. No one can defend the equally despicable coverup that was intended to conceal scandal. Nor can one reconcile the irreparable injury -- both physical and emotional -- done to the victims of sexual abuse.

Closer, more detached examination at the time would have indicated just how perilous the risk of a coverup was.

It is blazingly evident that the laity understands much of the torment and shame within the Catholic Church, and it seems determined to change the institution even if it means posing potentially serious conflicts.

Most of us are appalled at what is happening.

Because of the egregious betrayal of trust by the clergy, we as lay people will no longer remain as deferential or as docile as we once were. Our sense of moral outrage and anger are directed at the church hierarchy, not the faith. The quest for healing and spiritual renewal will take time.

Against this backdrop, Voice of the Faithful, a moderate group advocating participatory democracy in the church, is attempting to bring about such change.

This protest movement is based at Saint John the Evangelist parish in Wellesley, where it was created in response to the crisis in the Boston Archdiocese and the broader difficulties afflicting the church throughout the world.

Under the leadership of Dr. James Muller, a Nobel Prize-winning cardiologist, the group has adopted a conciliatory and nonconfrontational approach. To avoid being tagged as radicals, it has put together a coalition of conservatives, moderates, and liberals.

The group's strength lies in its inclusiveness. Within a few months, it has expanded into a religiously organized community with its own Web site and with nearly 10,000 members from about 40 states and 21 countries.

The group's labors are intellectually impressive.

With the rallying cry of "Keep the faith, change the church," the reformers have wisely decided not to become embroiled in church doctrine. They have also avoided taking a stand on the hot-button issue of whether Cardinal Law should resign.

Simply put, their mission statement reads, "To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the Faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church."

The group's goals are threefold:

* support those who have been abused;

* support priests of integrity;

* shape structural change within the church.

Presumably, God is in the details of this guiding strategy.

Several observers see Voice of the Faithful as an emerging force in the American church as lay Catholics seek to achieve a greater role in its governance. Its growing size and clout make the group a force with which to be reckoned. It plans an alternative fund-raising drive for those who prefer to support Catholic charities rather than to give money to the diocesan appeal.

Whether Voice of the Faithful can persuade the reeling church hierarchy to accept its recommendations is another matter. Some members are frustrated by the fact that archdiocesan officials have not been receptive to the cause.

Early signs indicate that the cardinal wants to exert control over the reformers and thereby co-opt them.

Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, the cardinal's top aide and moderator of the Curia, recently met with leaders of Voice of the Faithful and asserted the right of the hierarchy to oversee the group. Furthermore, he reminded members that "it's important for lay people not to do anything that's destructive to the bishop."

According to Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, "He [Edyvean] underscored the fact that associations in the church are meant to aid the mission of the church, and that mission is carried on necessarily with and under the bishop of the diocese.

Likewise, it is the diocesan bishop's role to exercise vigilance with regard to the way in which Catholic associations perform the tasks they set for themselves."

Structural reforms designed to decentralize and democratize the church will not come easy. The hierarchy will have to be steamrollered into acceptance. I do not wish to demean the hierarchy's contributions to the church. But it is dedicated to maintaining the supremacy of autocratic control at the top.

Under these circumstances, I am skeptical of Voice of the Faithful's ability to realize its objectives. The group came into existence because of the scandal and ineptitude of the church.

Given its strategy of moderation and reverence, it remains to be seen whether its endeavors will result in its ineffectiveness.

Unfortunately, such a fate has befallen other reform groups that have emerged since the Second Vatican Council. Let's hope this pattern won't repeat itself.

Richard A. Hogarty is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 6/8/2003.
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