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Spotlight Report

Push is on to quell Voice of Faithful

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 8/17/2002

 In-depth
A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful
Voice of the Faithful, a national Catholic lay reform group founded in Wellesley, is facing growing opposition from conservative corners of the Catholic Church, as well as from a few bishops who are kicking the group off church property.

This week, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport banned Voice of the Faithful from meeting in parishes in the southwest Connecticut diocese. His action followed that of Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, who barred the group from meeting on church property in the Long Island diocese.

In Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has refused to accept money raised by the group and individual pastors have prevented the group from meeting in churches in Carver, Kingston, and Plymouth, according to Voice of the Faithful officials and press reports. Some pastors in the diocese of Portland, Maine, have also refused to allow the group to meet on church property.

An increasing number of conservative Catholics, meanwhile, are taking aim at Voice of the Faithful, which has avoided positions on the controversial issues that divide Catholics, but has not defined the ''structural change'' it is seeking.

The group, which claims 30,000 members based on electronic sign-ups through its Web site and has raised more than $200,000, says it is being smeared by church officials trying to preserve their own power. But the group acknowledges that some of those who spoke at its July 20 convention espouse controversial views, such as support for the ordination of women, a change that is supported by the vast majority of American Catholics, according to opinion polls, but is contrary to church teaching.

In the most detailed critique of the group yet offered by a member of the church hierarchy, Lori this week issued a statement alleging that Voice of the Faithful supports an international group, We Are Church, that endorses the elimination of mandatory celibacy for priests and the ordination of women.

''I cannot support an organization like Voice of the Faithful which appears to promote dialogue and cooperation, but which in reality prosecutes a hidden agenda that is in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic faith,'' Lori said in a statement. ''I believe Voice of the Faithful is using the current crisis in the church to advance an agenda which neither I, nor the vast majority of Catholics, can embrace. For this reason, I cannot sanction Voice of the Faithful groups meeting in parishes or other church property in the Diocese of Bridgeport.''

Murphy, the former vicar general of the Boston Archdiocese, has not offered a detailed explanation of his decision to bar Voice of the Faithful from church property, and Law has declined to comment on the group.

Voice of the Faithful president James E. Post said the group is not affiliated with We Are Church and does not endorse its views. He said the We Are Church official who spoke at the Voice of the Faithful convention was just one of about 100 speakers and that Voice of the Faithful did not impose an ideological litmus test on the convention speakers.

''What we see is an attempt by various parties to characterize us as this or that, but we reject all of that, and ask that people look at us on our own terms,'' Post said. ''They clearly have an agenda to cast doubt on the integrity of Voice of the Faithful. Our purpose is laid out in our mission statement and goals - to say that the church needs the active involvement of the laity in order to address the sexual abuse scandal and its underlying causes. That remains the central focus of what we're trying to do.''

Post said Voice of the Faithful has only a general agenda: to support victims of abuse and priests of integrity and to push for change that will give laypeople a greater voice in a church now largely governed by priests and bishops. He said the only label that accurately describes the group is Catholic.

Some pastors have been supportive of the group, and most bishops have not acted against it.

''Individual bishops are making the decisions,'' said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''There hasn't been any national position.''

Steve Krueger, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, said some pastors who had been reluctant to allow chapters to meet in churches are changing their minds.

''In some cases, pastors feel it could somehow influence their careers, or their status and ranking within the church, so I think that for many pastors, they have had to get comfortable with the genuineness of the mission statement and the three goals of Voice of the Faithful,'' Krueger said. ''These are just people who are coming together because they love their church and want to make it a better church, and it's a shame if in a time of pain that they aren't allowed to use the buildings that they have supported for so many years.''

Voice of the Faithful was largely ignored by the church until its gathering last month at the Hynes Convention Center, which was attended by 4,200 people.

After the convention, The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper in Boston, said in an editorial that the meeting ''confirmed our worst fears,'' and the paper's editor, Antonio Enrique, penned an analysis that charged in its headline that Voice of the Faithful is ''inspired by [a] dissident international group,'' the Austria-based We Are Church.

Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis magazine, sent an e-mail to his readers criticizing the positions on sexual ethics and theology held by several of the speakers at the convention, warning that Voice of the Faithful is ''simply another group of dissenters, plain and simple.'' The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece by Charlotte Allen saying that there are signs that the group will begin ''agitating for a restructuring of the Catholic church in the US - including elected bishops and an end to bans against married and female priests.'' And the National Catholic Register, a conservative weekly, declares in a front-page article in its current edition that ''one thing is clear: The group sees papal authority and the current hierarchical structure of the church as a very bad thing.''

Michael Novak, a senior editor at the National Review and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, questioned the group's commitment to Catholicism, writing that ''As near as one could tell from their self-promotion, this new group is trying to decide whether the new church that it is founding will be Anglican (that is, Catholic, but without a pope, and changing its directions to sail with the changing spirit of the times) or Congregationalist (that is, parish-centered and parish-led, with as little to do with bishops and pope as can be worked out). The one thing clear is that this new group does not want to be Catholic as Catholic has been understood by, say, the Councils of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II.''

David O'Brien, a scholar who has been supporting Voice of the Faithful, said the bishops are ''all so inexperienced in dealing with the diversity of views within the church.''

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/17/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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