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Spotlight Report

BC opens campus to debate on faith

Leahy touts queries on Catholicism

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 9/16/2002

Boston College says it will set no limits on the views of speakers or the topics up for debate as it launches the most extensive scholarly effort to explore the future of Catholicism in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Despite ongoing questions from bishops and conservative Catholics about the Catholic-ness of America's Catholic colleges, and despite the insistence by church leaders that many religious teachings are not open to debate, Boston College's president, the Rev. William P. Leahy, says he is committed to a freewheeling discussion of the most controversial subjects facing the church, including power and sex.

''I don't think there are going to be any kinds of restrictions - people can pose the questions as they will,'' Leahy said. ''Some of the speakers we bring on campus may not reflect official church teaching, but that's how it is. By no means do I anticipate screening those who come on to campus ... And I have no difficulty if a bishop across the country or some local pastor may say that's not Catholic teaching - that's fine. We're trying to get at the large issues and stimulate thinking, encourage dialogue.''

In a lengthy interview, Leahy described the college's ''Church in the 21st Century Project,'' which begins with a forum Wednesday, as an act of service to the church, not of dissent.

''This is a remarkable demonstration of our desire to assist the church, and if anybody needed a demonstration of how a Catholic university can serve the church, I see this as one of those,'' he said. ''The hierarchy shouldn't fear what we're doing. It's going to help, in my view, the quality of Catholic life, and it's going to lead to a revitalization, at least that's my hope. What we're about is a manifestation of the Catholic roots of Boston College. If we didn't care about the church, we would ignore this situation.''

Leahy said he will invite bishops to participate on panels and in conferences throughout the program, which he said could last longer than the two years initially envisioned. He said the college will explain the rationale behind church teachings but will not expect everyone to agree with those teachings. And he said controversial subjects such as the ordination of women, the church's posture on gays and lesbians, and priestly celibacy will be discussed.

''We are the meeting place, an entity that's trying to connect faith and culture,'' he said. ''I don't think a diocese or an archdiocese could do what we're doing, because there'd be all these concerns about confusing the faithful. But for a university, by nature, by definition, it engages that kind of question.''

Regis College, a Catholic school in Weston, is also planning to tackle one of the central issues facing the church - the role of women - with a symposium next month headlined by Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, the chairman of the lay review board appointed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Leahy said the Boston College program will focus on three major issues: the relationship between laypeople, priests, and the hierarchy; sexuality; and the transmission of faith to future generations.

He said the program will include lectures and conferences aimed at the general public, including some events that might take place off-campus, at local parishes, as well as academic courses and seminars and scholarly research or papers. He said the college will not advocate for a particular position on issues.

''BC is not going to replace the hierarchy, and BC is not going to lead some major reform in the Catholic Church - that's got to come out of the whole Catholic community,'' he said. ''We can do our part to help revitalize the church, but we know we can't do everything.''

Leahy said that he has received no feedback on Boston College's plan from Cardinal Bernard F. Law, and that Law has not yet responded to an invitation to receive a briefing on the college's plan. Regis President Mary Jane England said she told Law about her school's program, and that he expressed no objection.

Law's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, said Friday, ''We've made no statement on the Boston College or the Regis program at this point, other than that anything that will lead towards a better understanding of the issue of the sexual abuse of minors by priests, and anything that can lead to healing or education, is always more than welcome.''

The Boston College program begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Conte Forum at Boston College. Kenneth L. Woodward, the religion editor of Newsweek, will speak about challenges facing the church. Boston College theologians Lisa Sowle Cahill and Roberto S. Goizueta will respond, along with Boston College trustee Jack Connors Jr., who is the chairman and chief executive officer of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos Inc. To preregister or for more information on the program, see www.bc.edu/church21/.

Regis College's conference will be held Oct. 3 and 4. For information, go to www.regiscollege.edu/ar/wn/wn3.html.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 9/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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