Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By James E. Muller and
Charles Kenney
Rodale, 310 pages, $24.95
The laity's struggle to speak

A new book looks at the rise of Voice of the Faithful


“This story not only has legs, it has the legs of a marathoner.” In one line, Fr. Richard McBrien captured the sinking feeling among American Catholics in the early months of 2002: The clergy sex-abuse scandal erupting in Boston wasn’t going to go away. Almost three years after his remark -- years that have seen thousands of new allegations, tens of thousands of pages of unsealed church records showing tragically flawed procedures for dealing with abuse, millions of dollars in legal settlements, and one high-profile resignation -- it’s only too clear how dead-on McBrien’s assessment was.

One of the signs of hope within this sad story of abuse, failure and scandal is the rise of Voice of the Faithful. What began with a few concerned parishioners gathered in the basement of a suburban Boston church has grown to become an international force demanding a place at the table for the laity in church governance. Keep the Faith, Change the Church is a sprint through the first two years of the movement. In February 2002, 40 members of St. John the Evangelist parish in Wellesley Hills met to discuss the abuse crisis. Six weeks later, 200 people were attending meetings. Within four months, Voice of the Faithful had been featured on the front page of The Boston Globe and The New York Times, representatives were holding an independent press conference at the bishops’ meeting in Dallas, others were planning a national convention and the organization had grown to over 10,000 members (today membership exceeds 30,000).

Dr. James Muller, founding president of Voice of the Faithful, recalls the major events that helped define the movement and lauds the people who made it possible. If the story told is somewhat idealized, this is nevertheless a compelling narrative of a unique group of people. In fact, men and women like Svea and Scott Fraser, Peggie Thorp, Jim Post, Susan Troy, Mary Scanlon, Paul Baier and Steve Krueger exemplify the virtues so needed in the church today: conviction and motivation, intelligence and critical thinking, desire for dialogue and moderation, the ability to mobilize and organize and effectively communicate a message. Nervous about what it sees as an overreliance on lay ministry and inappropriate lay participation in church governance, Rome increasingly appeals to the role of the laity “in the world” in order to curtail their involvement in the church. Keep the Faith argues just the opposite. We see concretely how the laity’s “secular” family life, business skills and media savvy can serve as a tremendous resource in the church’s mission.

Muller is experienced in organizing. A cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was a recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize as a cofounder of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

From early on, Voice of the Faithful has stated a threefold agenda: 1) to support those who have been abused, 2) to support priests of integrity, and 3) to shape structural change within the church. This third goal has caused the group most of its problems, coming largely from critics who assume some hidden agenda behind the call for greater accountability from the hierarchy. In a tense meeting with Bishop Walter Edyvean of Boston, Voice of the Faithful leader Steve Krueger cut to the quick: “You seem to think the problem you need to face is how you can regain the trust of the laity. … But the real problem you face is how to trust the laity for the first time.”

This lack of trust reflects what theologian Fr. Donald Cozzens calls a “sacred silence,” an unholy denial on the part of some in the hierarchy that dismisses, minimizes or simply refuses to discuss the pressing issues facing the church today. But the laity, too, can be guilty of a sacred silence.

Muller concludes that the greatest threat facing the future of the church is not an abusive priest or an arrogant bishop but the continued complacency of the laity. And in the final chapter, he allows his friends to speak, outlining several modest activities that reflect the determinedly centrist posture of the movement: engage in dialogue, enhance the role of women, support those abused, reach out to lapsed Catholics, work for transparency and accountability within the church, pray. They are small steps toward claiming a voice. But the reader is reminded of the small step taken at that first gathering of concerned parishioners at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, Mass. Muller took the microphone, explained that they had gathered to share their reactions to the abuse crisis, and then waited. And in that pause, wondering if anyone would say anything, comes what is perhaps the most beautiful line in the book: “The quiet voice of a woman broke the silence.”

In clarifying the origins and orientation of Voice of the Faithful, this informative book is itself a prayerful voice and an important contribution toward strengthening lay participation in the church. The test will be how the beginning chronicled here translates for the long haul. The spotlight of media attention has moved on, church leaders insist that the history of abuse and scandal is now history and the lay-led National Review Board -- established by the bishops themselves -- has met with some resistance from several individual bishops. We must hope that Voice of the Faithful will have the endurance to keep speaking, even when it seems no one is listening.

Edward P. Hahnenberg is the author of Ministries: A Relational Approach (Crossroad) and teaches in the Department of Theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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