Nearly six months ago, when each day’s front page brought more terrible news for the Catholic Church in the United States, I had a series of telephone conversations with several anguished Catholics in the Boston area. We talked about their anger, but we talked in equal measure about their faith and their undiminished love for their church. Despite their disappointment and their anguish, they were determined to remain active in the church.
Several mentioned that they either were members of or were thinking of joining a fledgling group called Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization formed in the aftermath of the Boston pedophilia scandal. The very existence of such a group, I thought, was proof that these angry parishioners had not lost their faith, had not given up on an institution they cherished and were determined to do all they could to heal the church’s self-inflicted wounds.
The men and women—mostly women, as a matter of fact—I spoke with seemed to have no personal or political agenda beyond asking that they be allowed the voice promised them by the Second Vatican Council. They talked about playing more important roles in their local parish councils and engaging in a meaningful dialogue with church leaders. Given the times, these seemed like innocent enough requests.
Now, however, some high-ranking prelates in the church apparently have decided that Voice of the Faithful, which has spread from Massachusetts to some two dozen states, and like-minded groups are potential troublemakers.
Voice of the Faithful has been condemned as if it were an organization of heretics, and the Archdiocese of Boston refuses to accept money the group raised from Catholics who withheld contributions from this year’s Cardinal’s Appeal and from the Sunday collection basket.
It is hard to imagine a more disheartening reaction. Worse yet, the tense (or nonexistent) relationship between the Boston Archdiocese and Voice of the Faithful may serve as a model, in all the wrong ways, for relations between the hierarchy and the laity in the years to come. The Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island recently banned lay organizations similar to Voice of the Faithful from using parish facilities for meetings.
The Rockville Centre policy raises a couple of interesting questions. How, exactly, does one identify such an offending organization? What can be done to prevent members of an approved parish organization, say, for example, the Holy Name Society or a parish social justice committee, from discussing the very issues that motivate members of Voice of the Faithful? And what is to be done about individual pastors and parish priests who sympathize with groups like Voice of the Faithful? (They’re out there—I’ve spoken with several.)
It is hard not to conclude that some members of the American church’s hierarchy resent or are fearful of the laity’s voices. All those voices, they seem to believe, will only add to confusion and doubt—and they unwittingly conspire with the church’s enemies and critics in the secular world who are eager to publicize the church’s failings.
But Voice of the Faithful and groups like it are not, thankfully, Catholics for a Free Choice. They are not advocating positions at odds with core Catholic dogma, nor do they gleefully trash the church on cable television programs. While it is certainly true that some members are open to the idea of women priests and at least a reconsideration of celibacy, the group itself is not chartered to advocate such positions.
These are lay Catholics—eucharistic ministers, lectors, members of choirs, committee members, parents of altar servers, active parishioners—who simply wish to feel more connected with their bishops. And, sad to say, they make the undeniable case that the sexual scandals have demonstrated that the bishops could use all the help and advice they can get.
It would be a terrible mistake to lump Voice of the Faithful and other such groups with some of the lapsed Catholics in the media who certainly seem eager to show the world how little sympathy they have for the clergy. In fact, it’s a shame the archdioceses of New York and Washington can’t collect a tithe for every piece of hostile nonsense written about the church in the last few months. If they could, they’d be able to afford better salaries for their hard-pressed teachers.
But parishioners who join lay organizations like Voice of the Faithful are not, by definition, secularized Catholics who take pleasure in bashing the church to demonstrate to their non-Catholic audience just how enlightened they are. No, the collective voice of the faithful is neither sarcastic nor downright mean, does not compare Catholic clergy to the Taliban and takes no pleasure in the church’s predicament. Yes, it is angry, with reason, but it is an anger tinged with sadness.
The church’s leaders should embrace lay people who are concerned enough to join groups like Voice of the Faithful. They should heed the testimony of distraught parishioners who argue against one-size-fits-all punishment of wayward clergy. Rather than exude resentment and disdain, the bishops should rejoice that so many of the faithful wish to raise their voices.
After all, these servants of God simply are saying that they love their church and wish only the best.
Are such sentiments really so dangerous?