Boston College, which two years ago launched a short-term effort to examine issues raised by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, now says those concerns about the Catholic Church are complex enough that it is making its effort permanent.
The Jesuit university plans next month to begin testing a pair of online courses about what it means to be Catholic, and the college is searching for a director and staff for a new academic center institutionalizing its Church in the 21st Century program. The initiative is exploring the strained relationship between bishops, priests, and laypeople, the divide between the sexual behavior of Catholics and the sexuality teachings of the Catholic Church, and the challenge of transmitting Catholicism to young people.
''Two years ago there was a great deal more anger and frustration," Boston College president William P. Leahy said in an interview. ''There are still vestiges of anger and frustration, and the hurt remains, but now people want to move on -- they're trying to figure out ways of renewing the church."
The appetite for engagement with the issues confronting Catholicism is large, at least as measured by participation in Boston College's program, which appears to be more ambitious and sustained than that at other Catholic colleges. Over the last two years, the college says, 25,000 people have attended the program's lectures and other events, and 160,000 are subscribing to its publications.
Of course, those numbers, although high for academic programs, still represent a tiny audience by some measures; on Friday night, for example, 42,564 people packed into Boston College's alumni stadium to watch the university's football team, the Eagles, defeat the Connecticut Huskies.
Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, who was the keynote speaker that night to a Church in the 21st Century conference on ''handing down the faith," delivered his address at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, a venue chosen by BC to avoid game-related traffic and parking woes in Brighton. O'Malley opened his remarks by jokingly referring to the crowd of several hundred as ''those of you unable to get tickets to the football game."
The Church in the 21st Century program has already hosted academic conferences on issues such as the role of women in the church and this weekend's conference on passing on Catholicism to young people; next spring the college plans a conference on the state of the priesthood. Most of those attending the lectures and conferences are not pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees at Boston College, but are Catholic laypeople, and in many cases Boston College alumni, interested in talking about the plight of the church.
''Their faith remains intact; what has eroded is confidence in the leadership of the church, and that is focused on bishops," Leahy said. ''The sexual abuse crisis triggered questions people have around other aspects of Catholicism: the status of women, issues around divorce and remarriage, authority in the church -- people want to talk more about those right now."
The difference between the university's approach and that of the institutional church is stark. Asked Friday night by a lecture attendee when dialogue between the hierarchy and laypeople might begin, O'Malley said that the dialogue has already begun, citing the presence of laypeople on advisory panels to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the existence of parish pastoral and finance councils made up of laypeople. And asked about the possible ordination of women, O'Malley said simply that the male-only priesthood is part of the church's teaching that he is obligated to pass on.
At the same event, Boston College was handing out a newsletter with an article by one of the university's theology professors, Thomas H. Groome, headlined ''celibacy and the ordination of women should be central to the debate over the future of the Catholic priesthood." And Leahy, in the earlier interview, had said it is clear that there is not enough dialogue between bishops and laypeople, and that ''trust is related to involvement."
''The erosion of confidence in bishops is an issue that has got to be addressed," Leahy said. ''Bishops are going to need to be more present to the Catholic community. It's going to be hard. They're in tough positions. When bishops have gone into parish contexts across the country they've been hit really hard -- they're criticized for their lack of action on the sexual abuse front -- but we just have to come together and talk, and bishops have to be there."
Leahy said his university has financial, personnel, and academic resources that could be useful to the Archdiocese of Boston, which is strapped for cash, staffed by aging priests and bishops, and so consumed by immediate battles that it has had little time to focus on the broader issues. He said he believes that the discussions at the university can serve as a ''seedbed for ideas" that will ultimately lead to change in the church, which he said ''is going through an upheaval."
''We don't intend to try to replace the church or try to become the church," Leahy said. However, when asked why the institutional church isn't the place for talking about change, he said, ''I don't think they have the resources to do it. A university is a natural place to have this occur. And for an archdiocese to engage in lots of delicate issues, there's always the obligation they have to present the official church teaching, and some people would say they can't talk about other views. A university can present all sides."
The effort is striking a chord with some. Mary Ann Keyes, a Voice of the Faithful leader who attended the Friday night event, said, ''they're doing a good job educating the laity. Who else is stepping up and doing it? Certainly our church isn't."
Leahy said the effort could be far broader than Boston College. He said he is working with other Jesuit colleges and universities around the country to explore the possibility of similar programs elsewhere. And Leahy said he is talking with officials of the other Catholic colleges in the Boston Archdiocese -- Emmanuel, Merrimack, and Regis -- to discuss ways in which they might help the archdiocese emerge from crisis.
''The need is great," Leahy said. ''The stress among many, many lay Catholics is they want to help the church . . . but they want to do it in a meaningful way. They don't want to just do things out of devotion -- come to church and pray -- but they want to be in action."
Boston College has at times had a strained relationship with top officials at the Boston Archdiocese, as Catholic colleges around the country have had with bishops, over whether the universities are Catholic enough. But Leahy and O'Malley have made a concerted effort to get along, and thus far it appears to be paying off -- the two men have been together three times in the last six weeks, and this summer, Boston College hosted a Mass and barbecue for all chancery employees.
Leahy said the Church in the 21st Century program is not intended as a rebuttal to critics of Boston College's commitment to Catholic issues, but, he said, ''We're a special kind of university -- one that comes out of a Jesuit, Catholic heritage -- so it seems very logical to be doing things that address needs within our Catholic community."
O'Malley declined through an aide to speak to a Globe reporter about the Boston College initiative. But his spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said that the archdiocese had always understood that the Church in the 21st Century program would be a long-term initiative.
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.