National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Conversion is the change the church needs

Group's slogan could embrace word hallowed by liberals, conservatives


Even the people most suspicious of Voice of the Faithful and its aims agree that Catholic lay people have a right to complain about the way bishops treated sexual predators among the clergy. Critics of the group may have preferred that Voice of the Faithful members to take their grievance through regular channels rather than creating a separate organization, but they acknowledge there is ample cause for lay people’s anger: Catholic parents have a right to insist that attacks against their children be halted and that those who protected the attackers instead of the victims be punished or at least prevented from ever doing so again.

However the rest of Voice of the Faithful’s supposed “agenda” is raising deep suspicion among its critics. The organization’s slogan -- “Keep the Faith, Change the Church” -- has been seen by some as a thinly veiled attempt to change the fundamental structure of the church: admitting women into the priesthood, doing away with clerical celibacy, and who knows what else.

Recently on these pages, Boston attorney David Zizik charged that Voice of the Faithful “neither recognizes nor respects the authority of the bishops to govern dioceses.” He suggested darkly that the group wants to “spread falsehoods about the content of the Catholic faith” and warned that it’s really pursuing “fundamental doctrinal changes” in the church.

Zizik believes Voice of the Faithful should confine itself to fostering lay evangelization and faith formation, supporting increased participation in the sacramental life of the church, parish development, and pursuing social justice and stewardship. In other words, he wants it to stay inside the lines laid down by the hierarchy. The fact that within those lines abusive clergy were routinely protected while their victims were ignored or paid off with hush money taken from the Sunday collection is glossed over by Zizik.

But the point raised by Zizik and others, that “change the church” may represent a hidden agenda in the organization, has created a flurry of debate in Voice of the Faithful chatrooms. Some are wondering whether the slogan should be amended. Without a doubt, some members of the organization do support optional celibacy and even more radical changes, although the group as a whole has steered clear of those issues. It has turned down opportunities to work in tandem with Call to Action precisely because Voice of the Faithful leaders felt Call to Action was identified with a wide range of reformist baggage.

Not long ago a more substantial voice raised questions about the slogan and perhaps the hidden agenda of Voice of the Faithful. Responding to a letter written by Voice of the Faithful to all American bishops last October, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George replied with a two-page letter of his own questioning the goals of the organization. Subsequently he met with James Muller, chair of Voice of the Faithful’s board of trustees. During the meeting in Chicago the cardinal ventured that any change in the church would, unless carefully thought out, change the faith -- which would not be countenanced by the bishops.

Muller allegedly assured George that Voice of the Faithful did not aim to change basic doctrines but merely church systems. He said the group wished to create a channel whereby the “sense of the faithful” could be communicated to the bishops and discussed.

George replied that perhaps the group’s slogan should not be “change the church,” but “change the way the church acts.”

Whatever spin they put on it, the slogan is going to disturb more traditional Catholics inside and outside the hierarchy. There are some members of Voice of the Faithful who think George’s emendation offers an opportunity for dialogue. Others see it as promising nothing more than a superficial change in manners, or as a typical “allergic reaction” to any suggestion that the church might be in need of change. For the most part, the organization’s reaction to its meeting with George seems to be cautiously positive.

The polarizing word here is “change.” How do we change a church that is partly human, partly given to us by God? If we’re going to change it, we must be absolutely sure we’re changing the right part.

Over the years Christians have employed many euphemisms to explain the reality of ecclesia semper reformanda. The word “reform” was somehow ruined for Catholic Christians in the 16th century. Pope John XXIII preferred “renewal.” Archbishop Sean O’Malley reached into his Franciscan bag for the word “repair” when he sought to explain the task ahead for the battered and leaking Boston church.

Perhaps George’s suggestion of “changing the way the church acts” offers a way out.

But there’s another word from our tradition -- hallowed by liberals and conservatives alike -- that might better signify the kind of change we’re looking for in the church and its way of doing business. The word is “conversion”: not a superficial change of garments but a change of heart.

Catholics know what conversion is about because we do it, or try to do it, every Lent. When we undergo conversion we do not jettison our faith but attempt to live it as if for the first time. Conversion is more than just putting new systems into place; it is a fundamental reorientation of the whole person in a way that affects all our relationships. It entails serious self-examination, honesty, transparency, humility and a firm commitment to amend our ways.

The conversion of the church would surely involve changing the way the church acts. But true conversion would never leave it at that. Conversion demands nothing less than rebirth -- becoming a new person, a new church.

Don Brophy is senior editor of Paulist Press.

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

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