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Another step toward what could be

The meeting of the Voice of the Faithful lay group in Boston June 20 marked a new moment in the history of the church in the United States if only for the reason that church authorities there did not openly oppose it.

That may seem too minimalist an assessment of its significance -- and the hunch here is that in time the gathering could well prove to have far greater importance -- but it is also a telling measurement of success. Too often lay people calibrate progress in gaining openness and participation in church matters in the tiny increments of what was allowed or, worse, what was ignored. Too rare are the times when significant lay initiatives are embraced and celebrated.

What may make this meeting an important indicator of things to come, however, is the fact that Cardinal Bernard Law not only refrained from openly opposing the gathering, he was simply unable to stop it. He has become the sad symbol of how far removed Catholic leadership has become from the Catholic faithful. Further evidence of that remove was on display when he stubbornly asserted that the diocese would not accept funds collected by the Voice of the Faithful for use by church agencies because the money would bypass his direct control. The day following Law’s announcement, local officials of one of the largest social service delivery agencies in the church, Catholic Charities, said the agency would accept such funds, treating Voice as it would any other donor.

It is impossible from the outside to know who is advising Law these days. It was clear from the gathering in Boston that he has lost the support and respect of many who would never have thought, before the scandal broke out anew in that city, of opposing the cardinal in public.

Inside the Hynes Convention Center, the message was not nearly so muddled. But where is all the energy and hope and aspirations of the meeting leading? No one is certain. Fueled by outrage over the sex abuse scandal, the group developed plans for enrolling more Catholics, for strengthening the organization at the parish level, for petitioning other leaders to make bishops accountable and for providing alternative channels for Catholics who want to continue supporting the works of the church but who understandably want to keep lay control and oversight of how the money is used.

Moving, however, from the fervor that outrage can spawn to the kind of grinding everyday tasks that building an organization requires can be difficult, tedious and expensive work. It is worth the effort if Voice of the Faithful links its work to the wider web of historic renewal groups that matured long before the scandal.

Voice of the Faithful is correct to try to steer a course now that avoids the ideological and theological issues that have driven other groups, conservative and liberal, over the years. It is correct at the moment to focus, first, on the sex abuse issue and then, more broadly, on the issues of governance that arise from the scandal.

At the same time, those in Voice have to recognize that their organization shares the foundation put in place by hosts of other groups that have kept the dream of renewal alive during the last several decades when, at times, resistance to such thinking has been overwhelming.

Voice has the chance to serve as a new link among groups across the spectrum of interests and ideology that fall under the overarching issues of the use of authority and power by the hierarchy.

It is easy to imagine, as historian David O’Brien of Holy Cross College put it, that if the renewal impulses of Vatican II had been allowed freer rein during the past two decades, if the hierarchy had not resisted lay involvement but invited it, that many things would be different. The scandal that now plagues the church would probably have ended years ago.

And it wasn’t just liberals who were cut out of the action. Liberals, conservatives, moderates and everyone in between were left to bicker among themselves because the bishops never put in place any avenues for meaningful participation by laity in decision-making. Look at the numbers -- there are 63 million U.S. Catholics and 300 bishops. It would be easy to feel left out. Indeed, the current crop of bishops was largely responsible for reforms to their national conference that considerably diminished the role of lay experts in their deliberations.

No one is suggesting that the differences along the ideological spectrum in the church would disappear simply if bishops were to begin providing places at the table for all persuasions. Different visions of the church will always cause conflict -- such differences and accompanying arguments have been with us since the earliest apostolic times.

But now we are left only to shout across divides. Being invited to the larger conversation with greater authority for making decisions on church matters might go a long way toward helping us all discover where we agree.

Ultimately, if the issues of ecclesial power and authority -- and their misuse -- are going to be addressed, if reform is to take hold, lay Catholics are going to have to press the point about how candidates are encouraged to priesthood and how bishops are selected.

In the selection of bishops, especially, secrecy and lack of accountability have grown up around the process and have contributed to the scandal.

Such deep and essential reform, of course, is down the road. It will not occur, however, if American Catholics do not continue to make the case and remain diligent in organizing and talking. It is one more group, one more step along the way to what could be in this church. It is tolerated today. We hope for the day when Voice of the Faithful and other groups are welcomed as essential voices throughout the church.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002