National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Voice of the Faithful misleads the laity

Group’s challenge to bishops’ authority is challenge to doctrine


I have felt unsettled about Voice of the Faithful since I attended its inaugural convention in Boston on July 20, 2002. Like so many, I had hoped the group would be a harbinger of unity and renewed understanding in a church badly shaken by scandal and division.

I was wrong. Instead, Voice of the Faithful has squandered a unique opportunity to unite all Catholics -- hierarchy, laity, men and women in religious life, and priests -- and has traveled a path that will only further divide the church.

In its Web site, the group expresses a desire “to shape structural change within the church.” It believes it can accomplish this by establishing chapters in every Cath-olic parish in the world. These chapters would be called “Voice affiliates.” Never mind the obvious logistical problems inherent in such a venture. More important, the group has failed to articulate how these “affiliates” relate to the church’s constituent bodies and to those who are responsible for their day-to-day operation and governance.

For example, how would a Voice affiliate relate to the local “affiliates” that already exist within the church (for example, parishes)? How would an affiliate’s members relate to existing lay and clerical leadership (parish priests, pastoral associates, liturgical ministers, youth ministers, finance councils, parish pastoral councils, directors of religious education, and so on)? And, why does the group not desire to work through existing parish leadership groups to accomplish its purposes?

More fundamentally, what is the primary purpose of a “Voice affiliate?” Is it to strengthen and foster the mission and goals of the church? Not according to Voice of the Faithful’s Web site, which states that Catholics should form parish affiliates “so that they can begin fulfilling the Voice mission and goals at the local level with family and friends.”

Why has the group failed to provide the details of how its “affiliates” work within the structure and governing authority of the church? The short answer is: Because they don’t.

Voice of the Faithful’s Web site says: “VOTF does not seek any change in church doctrine.” This is clearly not so. The group has taken an unrepentantly adversarial posture toward bishops in particular and ecclesial authority in general. It neither recognizes nor respects the authority of bishops to govern dioceses.

Voice of the Faithful certainly does want to change church doctrine. In fact, the group’s existence is predicated upon a view of ecclesial authority and lay-episcopal relations that rubs against the grain of Catholic doctrine and tradition. To suggest that the group is not after fundamental doctrinal changes reflects a misunderstanding of the meaning of “doctrine,” a desire to spread falsehoods about the content of the Catholic faith, or both.

Evidence that Voice of the Faithful does not recognize the pastoral authority of the bishops abounds. It can be found in the group’s refusal to acknowledge the bishops’ authority on matters such as diocesan stewardship, fundraising and church administration.

A more recent example of the group’s anti-bishop stance is found in its refusal to support interim Bishop Richard Lennon’s 2003 Lenten Prayer Initiative in the Boston archdiocese.

Voice of the Faithful rejected Lennon’s plea for unity through prayer during Lent because its leadership decided that prayer is “necessary but not sufficient” to deal with the problems the church faces. The group’s alternative? A so-called “Silent Watch,” in which Voice of the Faithful called for its supporters to protest at the archdiocesan chancery between noon and 3 p.m. each day during Lent.

Voice of the Faithful did not attempt to explain what harm might result if it supported a prayer initiative organized by the bishop during Lent. But the reason is fairly obvious: Any public show of support for programs initiated by bishops would undercut the group’s agenda, which is the pursuit of ecclesial power and financial independence unfettered by episcopal authority or oversight.

Voice of the Faithful supporters often cite Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium (“The Laity”) in support of its demands for increased lay authority in matters of church governance. At the same time, they are either unaware of -- or perhaps choose to ignore -- Chapter III on the authority of the bishops, especially the following passage: “The Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and him who sent Christ.”

To restore credibility with “mainstream Catholics,” and to demonstrate genuine support for the church, Voice of the Faithful should understand that a great majority of Catholics do not support it, and that the support it has is declining. Voice of the Faithful claims 25,000 “registered supporters” and at least 150 “affiliates” worldwide, yet there are 2.1 million Catholics and 362 parishes in the Boston archdiocese alone. Its claim that it speaks for “mainstream Catholics” is unrealistic, if not delusional. Continuing to make such a claim raises serious questions about its institutional credibility.

Second, Voice of the Faithful leadership should acknowledge the pastoral authority of Catholic bishops to govern their respective dioceses. The group’s refusal to respect the bishops’ governing authority compromises any hope that the group can contribute to church “reform” in a manner that is authentically Catholic, and virtually assures that it will accomplish little of any lasting value.

Third, Voice of the Faithful should abandon its negative, anti-bishop agenda, and instead work with the bishops to encourage and foster lay evangelization and faith formation, increased participation in the sacramental life of the church, parish development, and the pursuit of social justice and responsible stewardship. The Catholic church is the sacred, universal manifestation of the One Body of Christ, not a collection of interest groups and political action committees whose first priority is the pursuit of their own agendas.

Unless Voice of the Faithful leadership changes its approach and has a change of heart, the organization will surely become irrelevant to any sort of authentically Catholic reform. And that will, indeed, be sad.

David W. Zizik is a Boston lawyer and a member of St. Theresa Parish in Sherborn, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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