Standing up out of the pews and giving Voice


Lay members of the Roman Catholic Church in the US are rebelling against its ruling elite on a scale which some compare to the Reformation. Patrick Smyth reports from Boston

She was nervous. This was her first meeting, and the TV cameras were rolling. It was Monday night in the hall of Our Lady Help of Christians in the wealthy, leafy Weston suburb of Boston. She had come with 40 or so new faces to pray and participate with 200 others in sowing the seeds of revolution.

On the wall behind her hung the banner of the organisation, Voice of the Faithful, whose growth first among the ranks of Boston's Catholics, and now those of 40 states of the US, is transforming a once-docile laity into a powerful engine for lay empowerment in the troubled church. The slogan of the banner and the group is simple and eloquently to the point: "KEEP THE FAITH, CHANGE THE CHURCH".

She explained that she, too, had been deeply distressed by the news of what was happening in her church, the betrayals of children and of trust, and wanted to be part of the solution. She wanted only the place that the church ostensibly accorded to the laity, "full, active, and conscious participation. Except that on every level that apparently is a revolutionary idea."

It is strange language indeed from such a place, and yet Voice, whose numbers have grown from just a handful of friends in February to 14,000, recruited in part through the Internet (, and now including contacts in 21 countries, appears to be an idea whose time has come. Weekly meetings here of over 600 are now normal.

Observers of the movement, such as Boston College's Professor of Theology and Religious Education, Thomas Groome, see in it parallels with the Reformation.

Groome, a Kildare man whose latest book, What Makes us Catholic, is, as he admits, a surprise bestseller, says the last time the church was shaken in this way was by Luther and Calvin. Then it led to schism, but this time he believes it will not. The focus is on reclaiming the church and is driven by a powerful sense of ownership.

"This has been our September 11th," he says, "a watershed, bringing a change of consciousness among Catholics" who are now demanding to be "agents in our faith, not dependents." That includes, he says, a significant revival in faith among lapsed Catholics.

"I see it as an opportunity for the demise of clericalism and the rebirth of authentic priesthood perhaps as Jesus of Nazareth might have intended it," he says and insists that Vatican II promised a "priesthood of all believers".

The group's founder and current leader is Dr Jim Muller, a respected cardiologist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for co-founding in the 1980 Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a group which also saw an explosive membership growth to some 150,000 worldwide. His passionate conviction is infectious.

He has no problem with talk of revolution, world revolution no less, empowering one billion Catholics. And he speaks of a local pride in Boston's revolutionary heritage. The parallels with 1775 are uncanny, he says with a grin. In Lexington, where the first shot was fired in the American revolution, the parish some years ago unsuccessfully sought the removal of an unpopular pastor. When they withheld their dues Cardinal Bernard Law relented.

Concord, scene of the first battle, is where Voice successfully established its first base outside the Wellesley suburb where they were founded.

IN January the Boston Globe set the ball rolling with its revelation that the archdiocese had in recent years secretly settled 70 clerical-abuse compensation cases while maintaining all along that the few publicly-named abusing priests were the rare exception.

Within weeks some 200 new complaints poured in, to the horror of a trusting laity which would also learn that up to $100 million of its contributions would be needed to pay compensation.

And if taxation without representation spurred the colonial revolt, the same sense of impotence drives Muller's organisation. "What Voice of the Faithful is doing now is akin to the work of the Continental Congress in writing a constitution for the laity." To emphasise the point they will gather next year in Philadelphia to debate its text.

"Vatican II said the laity should have a greater role, but provided no mechanisms. We believe the Holy Spirit is supporting these lay efforts as they comply with Vatican II," Muller says. While the result of Vatican II was a number of councils involving the laity, in reality they were not rooted in the laity because the latter is unorganised and there is no election or report-back mechanism, he says.

Voice can provide that organisation, he argues, and will do so in every parish, diocese and country. He has steered the organisation carefully away from the more confrontational approach taken by some of the victims' groups, on a centrist course, recruiting among liberal as well as conservative Catholics.

Its mission statement is simple: "To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the Faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church," and its aims, threefold, "to support those who have been abused, to support priests of integrity, and to shape structural change within church." The group is also establishing a fund-raising effort parallel to that of the church so that Catholic charities will not be hit by a fall-off in giving.

Refusing to take stands on divisive issues of women in the priesthood or celibacy, Voice insists that it simply wants to provide a desperately needed forum for such discussions and a means of providing lay participation in the church.

But it is not an easy course. At one meeting Muller had a tough time defending the group's consensus-based decision-making in the face of 200 angry members who wanted to call for the resignation of the cardinal against 10 who did not. (The rapidly expanding group, which is moving to decision-making by two-thirds majority, is currently voting on the Internet in its first internal elections).

In drafting a "constitution for the laity" Muller says they are consciously looking at "best practice in lay participation" in other religious traditions from Protestantism to Islam, and also at such US Catholic Church traditions as "trusteeism" in the 19th century when the assets of the church were vested in the local laity.

Dialogue with the archdiocese is uneasy, with the latter insisting, to little apparent avail, that Voice must function under the wing of the bishops.

Muller shares with Groome a sense that a powerful ingredient in the Boston rebellion is the intimate link between Catholicism and ethnic identity. "To let go of Catholicism here is almost to let go of Irishness or Italianness," Groome says. For many, perhaps unlike Ireland where disillusionment with the Hierarchy has manifested itself in a flight from the church, there is here no choice but to stay and fight back.

Groome also attributes the militancy in part to the US laity's particularly high level of theological formation. All those who study in the US's 235 Catholic universities, be they physicists or management students, take a whole year of theology. They are intimately familiar with current theological arguments, he says.

Add to that the 35,000 involved in full-time lay ministry within the church, its institutions and charities - there are only 45,000 priests - and you have a combustible mix, a laity willing and able to distinguish between the essentials and inessentials of faith, between the faith and the church, making the Voice of the Faithful slogan "Keep the Faith, Change the Church" so potent.

But can the Catholic Church ever be a democracy, I ask a group of Voice council members? "We are not talking about democratisation of the church," says Paul Baier, a computer entrepreneur, "but, in effect, the 'unionisation' of the laity. There is a fundamental difference." And it's not a fringe issue but a mainstream issue that liberal and conservative can cometogether on, he says.

"We are Lutheresque in that we are questioning, but absolutely not separatist or pushing for a US Catholic Church," he insists.

Kathi Aldridge, a schoolteacher, argues that the church depends for its survival on the laity and must function collegially. And Jeanette Post, a neurologist and head of a group of hospitals, insists there is another dimension, women. "We as women bring something very different to organisational structures that is absent in the church"

"It took a danger to our children to awaken us," Luise Dittrich, a marketing consultant, says, admitting to once fitting the description "couch-potato Catholic". "Passivity was inculcated into us." "Pray, pay and obey!" echoes Aldridge.

Is there not a major imperative in the Catholic Church not to cause scandal and to be willing to accept authority? "Who caused scandal?" asks Dittrich.

"It is wrong to stay silent," says Baier. "We have a duty as decent human beings to stand up out of the pews. We have a duty as Catholics to protect the most vulnerable." At certain times, he argues, "goodness consists in not being rebellious. At other times courage is needed and outweighs any virtue in being a good company man" They appeal to Irish Catholics to remain engaged in the church and to fight back.

"Christ stood up in the temple and turned over the tables. He gave us the way," Aldridge urges. "I would say to Irish Catholics you as a country were great at sending missionaries out into the world. Now you have to spread the word."