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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

Let church reform begin


NEXT SATURDAY may well mark the beginning of a new era in the Catholic Church. Thousands of Catholic lay people will gather at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston to respond to the catastrophe caused by priests abusing children and by bishops protecting abusers instead of victims.

The meeting is organized by Voice of the Faithful, the group that began last winter at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley and now lists more than 19,000 members worldwide. Convening at the Hynes will be Catholics from 28 states and from abroad. It will surely be the largest gathering of Catholic laity to take place in decades, and its purpose is summed up in the motto, ''Keep the faith, change the church.''

The Catholic crisis has implications that go far beyond the sex abuse scandal. So far, the US Catholic bishops seem only vaguely aware of the dimensions of the problem, and the Vatican has shown signs of being in outright denial. But parishioners know what is at stake, and in responding with instinctive urgency, they are fulfilling the mandate laid out for them at Vatican II; ''By reason of the knowledge, competence, or preeminence which they have,'' the council fathers declared, ''the laity are empowered - indeed sometimes obliged - to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the church.'' (That principle was cited by more than 60 Catholic theologians last week in a statement of support for the meeting.)

The agenda of the daylong Hynes gathering must take up the unfinished questions relating to the abuse of children - support for victims, punishment of abusers, responsibility of bishops, financial consequences, due process for the accused, restoring broader priestly morale. But deeper questions must be confronted as well - the role of the laity in church governance, assumptions of sexual morality, the place of women, the pathologies of clericalism, the ''creeping infallibility'' that corrupts church teaching.

What many Catholic lay people have only recently awakened to is that all of these deeper questions were already on the church's agenda with the reform movement that began at Vatican II. And now lay people want to know - what happened to that reform? Why was it short-circuited? And who benefited when the great Vatican II turbine of change was shut down?

Here is the irony: Vatican II did establish in principle the rights and responsibilities of the Catholic laity to exercise power in the church, and now, against the prevailing opinion of the present hierarchy, the laity must claim that power and thereby rescue what was begun a generation ago. The very definition of the church is at stake. Does the church consist of the pope, bishops, and priests, with lay people as a kind of auxiliary underclass? Or is the church, in Vatican II's term, ''the people of God''? Just by convening on its own authority, the Voice of the Faithful community will answer that question. Even before the agenda is taken up, the most important principle will have been affirmed.

As for that agenda, this gathering must be seen as the beginning of something, not the end. It will lead to further meetings elsewhere, institutionalization, and the ripening of the Internet as a boon to world organization. The people of this movement are thoughtful and devoted Catholics who, in response to recent horrors, have renewed their commitment to the church but with a new understanding of what that commitment requires.

They will take bold steps to reorder the relationship of bishops and priests to the laity. They will accept responsibility for the financial power that belongs, ultimately, to them - and where necessary they will use that power forthrightly. They will insist that the festering question of a priesthood limited to celibate males be addressed at the highest levels of church authority, not because of a ''liberal'' agenda, but because the cult of inbred clericalism has been exposed as inhuman.

St. Paul speaks of ''kairos,'' the idea that the Holy Spirit works ''in the fullness of time.'' Every indicator suggests that the fullness of time for Catholic reform has arrived. World events are pressing every religion to reexamine fundamental assumptions, and soon there will be a transition in leadership in the papacy, a rare opening. And the American church cries out for renewal.

The Catholics who gather in Boston this week are reading such ''signs of the times,'' in a phrase we associate with Pope John XXIII, who was the first to teach us how. He wrote, ''It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better - and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.''

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 7/16/2002.
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