The National Catholic Review
Thomas P. Rausch

One unanticipated effect of the sexual abuse scandal that has been convulsing the Catholic Church in the United States is a growing realization on the part of the laity of how little real say they have in the government of their church. This was first brought home when many who were aware of situations of abuse went to the authorities and later found that nothing had been done. But as Catholics began talking to one another about their frustration, they began to realize that while this was the most serious case of not being heard, it was not the only one.

 

What is becoming more evident to many lay men and women is that there are no institutional checks and balances that allow them some say about how authority is exercised in the church, whether at the parish, diocesan or universal level. They have no way to address the problem of an incompetent pastor or an authoritarian bishop, no say over their appointment, no way to bring their own concerns and experience to the decision-making processes of the universal church. There are no structures of accountability. Without them, many feel that the church is treating them as children. And they are more and more coming to see the present crisis as calling the laity to adult status in the church. This was clearly the intention of the Second Vatican Council in its concern to articulate a theology of the laity.

Though the council rediscovered the dignity of the vocation of the baptized, the church is still struggling to find ways to fully express the laity’s share in the mission of the church. The scandal of sexual abuse by clergy has made clear once again how little input they actually have in the church’s decision-making process. The idea of the autonomous, monarchical bishop, accountable only to Rome, has more to do with developments in the late Middle Ages than with anything intrinsic to the office. Donald Cozzens’ expression, a “still feudal church,” is too often accurate. Finding effective ways to give laity and clergy some participation in the church’s decision-making processes is clearly one of the crucial issues the church faces today.

There are a number of things that could be easily done without overturning the church’s papal/episcopal structure. The laity should be involved on all levels of local church government. Beyond a narrow circle of clerical diocesan consultors, bishops should have a council that functions on an analogy with a board of trustees, reviewing and giving input on significant policy decisions. Note that I say on an analogy with, for the very word “trustees” will raise the specter of “lay trusteeism,” which lay behind the controversy over “Americanism” in the late 19th century. There is nothing in principle that would exclude some kind of lay participation in councils and synods today. There are precedents in the high Middle Ages for church representatives other than bishops taking part in ecumenical councils; and some consultations with representatives of the laity took place at Vatican II, with lay auditors taking official seats on two conciliar commissions.

An Initiative of the Faithful

At the center of the current crisis, a new initiative for greater lay involvement has emerged, Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization that has rapidly spread throughout the United States and now comprises some 30,000 members and 188 parish affiliates in 40 states and 21 countries. According to its Web site, V.O.T.F. is a group of Catholics who describe themselves as loving and supporting the Roman Catholic Church, accepting its teaching authority, including the role of the bishops and the pre-eminent role of the pope as the primary teachers and leaders of the church, and believing what the Catholic Church believes. V.O.T.F.’s mission is “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,” while its stated goals include: (1) to support those who have been abused, (2) to support priests of integrity and (3) to shape structural change within the church. Since July 2002, the “Structural Change Working Group” has been seeking ways to renew church structures in light of Vatican II, with a canon lawyer, Ladislas Orsy, S.J., as an outside consultant.

The appearance of V.O.T.F. has not exactly been welcomed by the hierarchy. At last year’s meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops, only 10 bishops were willing to meet with the group. Eight bishops, all but one on the East Coast, ordered their pastors to refuse V.O.T.F. permission to use church facilities for their meetings, though in late April, Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn reversed himself, acknowledging after a dialogue with V.O.T.F. leaders that many of those involved were “good and dedicated members of our diocese.” In April of this year, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, one of the 10, expressed some cautions about the movement; but he also pointed out that the V.O.T.F. agenda is still in formation and so should not be dismissed as an expression of dissent. By June, V.O.T.F. had met with more than 25 bishops across the country and has at least spoken with four cardinals.

My own experience of V.O.T.F. came several months ago when I was asked to address a nascent V.O.T.F. group in southern California on Vatican II’s theology of the laity. I was impressed. The 60 or so people gathered were not “movement” types; they were ordinary Catholics, deeply involved in the life of the church and concerned for its future. What they lacked was the church language to formulate their concerns adequately.

Particularly lacking is a realistic vision of how V.O.T.F. might work with bishops and local churches, given the nervousness of hierarchy and pastors. There are at least three models of how V.O.T.F. might contribute in the practical order to the renewal of church structures. One sees V.O.T.F. as a structure parallel to that of the diocese, a second understands it as an advocacy or pressure group, and a third seeks to incorporate V.O.T.F. members at all levels of the life of the local church. Let us briefly consider each.

Parallel Structures

V.O.T.F.’s call for dialogue with the bishop on local levels suggests a model of parallel structures. The idea seems to be that in each diocese bishops would enter into dialogue with an organized V.O.T.F. group. For example, V.O.T.F. Long Island issued a letter on April 28, 2003, to Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., objecting that he would not acknowledge having met with their organization, rather than simply with several of their leaders as individuals. In other words, V.O.T.F. Long Island wants the bishop to meet with them as an organization, giving them quasi-official recognition.

Advocacy Group

Another model would have V.O.T.F. function in local dioceses along the lines of an advocacy group, rather like a political action committee. In this way, V.O.T.F. groups functioning alongside official diocesan structures could sponsor lectures, seminars and public meetings for interested Catholics and serve literally as an alternative “voice” for the local church, publicizing issues of concern, issuing statements to the press and organizing in order to bring pressure to bear. For example, on April 6 New Hampshire’s Voice of the Faithful called on Bishop John B. McCormack and Auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Christian to resign their positions as bishops of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. This was done only after a period of examining the record of both bishops, finding “a general disregard to the testimony of sexual abuse victims and an unwillingness to remove predatory priests from contact with children.” While this model would on occasion function as a pressure group, it has the advantage of not needing official recognition. It could also play an important educational role.

Incorporational Model

A third model would encourage V.O.T.F. members to become actively involved at every level of the local church—as indeed many of them already are. If they were to make themselves available as members of parish councils and diocesan offices, serve on diocesan committees and advisory boards or as delegates to diocesan synods and pastoral councils, they would have a hand in shaping policy from within. And this would be done much more effectively if they continued to meet together and strategize in their V.O.T.F. group.

Evaluation

Many will see the first “parallel structures” model as unrealistic. Since it would not necessarily represent all of the faithful of a given local church, given that not all are V.O.T.F. members or support its methods, it is unlikely that most bishops would be ready to enter into dialogue with such a group.

The second model has considerable merit in that Catholics have a right to organize themselves in order to grow in their faith and exercise their responsibilities as adult members of the church. Some will object to their at times confrontational approach, but the laity have a right to have their concerns taken seriously by the hierarchy. According to the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”: “An individual layman [or laywoman], by reason of the knowledge, competence, or outstanding ability which he may enjoy, is permitted and sometimes even obliged to express his opinion on things which concern the good of the church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the agencies set up by the Church for this purpose” (No. 37). This of course is the ideal, but where “agencies” or channels are not available, a more direct, even confrontational approach may be the only alternative.

While the various V.O.T.F. groups may choose one or more approaches as best suited to their particular situations, the most effective in the long term may well be the third. It is also the way the church should work, and often is working. As we all know, no local church or parish could survive without the active involvement of the laity. Many dioceses already have lay heads of diocesan departments or secretariats.

But to be an effective presence, lay men and women must be willing to take the risk of disagreeing with policies and decisions that do not seem to reflect the good of the community. They must speak the truth with love, even if this proves unpopular. Just as the bishops often do not speak out, “lest they embarrass the Holy Father,” so also lay men and women are reluctant to say something that might embarrass their pastor or bishop. They must also be willing to take a longer view of how decisions are ultimately made in the church’s life, to embrace a gradualist approach. Structural change takes time; it does not happen in a moment.

But if change is the church’s “dirty little secret,” as Garry Wills once suggested, in the long run it is unavoidable. Thus we have to hang in, continue to do our best to educate ourselves and one another, speaking out when necessary. We need to listen to and learn from one another, allowing the Spirit to transform both the church and ourselves from within. Voice of the Faithful can play an important role in this process. It might just make a difference.

Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., is the T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Calif. His latest book is Who Is Jesus? An Introduction to Christology (Liturgical Press).

Comments

William A. Donohue | 2/7/2007 - 1:56pm
In “The Lay Vocation and Voice of the Faithful” (9/29), Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., mentions that V.O.T.F called for the resignation of Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., and his auxiliary, Bishop Francis J. Christian. V.O.T.F. also called for the resignation of Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre. The Catholic League quickly came to the defense of Bishop Murphy, because there was no evidence either in Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly’s report or The Boston Globe’s recent book, Betrayal, that Bishop Murphy was ever involved with moving molesting priests in Boston. To this date no other evidence has been brought to bear against Bishop Murphy either by V.O.T.F. or any other group. While it is important that delinquent bishops be punished, it is also important that innocent bishops not have their good names dragged through the mud.

Joseph C Mohen | 9/29/2003 - 9:54am
In the September 20 article by Thomas Rauch, S J, Father Rauch refers to the VOTF as a possible advocacy group. He describes this as his second model which would have "considerable merit".

I agree however the example used is the New Hampshire VOTF calling upon Bishop McCormick and Bishop Christian to resign because of their "general disregard to the testimony of sexual abuse victims and an unwillingness to remove predatory priests from contact with children."

Apparently the VOTF is a rather toothless lion in this instance. Neither bishop has resigned inspite of behavior which would have resulted in jail time for anyone else. What alternatives do the faithful have?

Fr Stephen Phillips | 9/30/2003 - 11:16am
There have, as many realize, been occassions when the Spirit of God has come to focus on the Magesterium of the layity. These have been times when the Church required additional input to chart a course that more closely directs us towards the will of God.

It is always in hind-sight that this reality becomes clear to the casual observer but to those dedicated to the cause of faith, clearity has a continuous presence.

The call for integration of the laity in parish and diocesan boards is not a new one. With varying interest Pastors and Bishops have heard the call and implamented it. But Vatican II called for more than selective application of this asset.

Until informed, well spirited and responsible leaders surface, those placed in roles of leadership will not trust the motives of the ones who need to be heard. Trust is the one quality that must be present for true colaboration to be implemented.

The Spirit is calling the Church to chart a revised course for itself. Not only in North America but throughout the world.

Hal Albergo | 9/27/2003 - 3:09pm
Cardinals and Bishops must create a favorable climate for the lay vocations in parish life.In your recommened "Incorporation" model,you do not focus on the reponsibility of the cardinals and bishops to promote a favorable climate in aggressively implementing and supporting parish pastoral councils,finance councils and diocesan synods where the laity can have an oportunity of making an impact on decisions made or not made in the parish community. In walking in Jesus' footsteps, we need conversation not lectures. The parish pastoral and finance councils must represent the diversity of parishioners and reflect what the Pope called a fruitful dialogue pastors and the faithful. Pastoral planning is most important because we have fewer priets and we have to work and be stewards of our resources. In 40 years since Vatican Council ll, the establishing of effective parish pastoral and finance councils has been disappointing and helped create the problems in the Catholic Church today.

Frank V. Pesce | 9/26/2003 - 7:04pm
The three models for the VOTF outlined by Fr. Rausch are quite interesting from a merely academic point of view. However, his suggestion that the "Incorporated Model" may be "the most effective in the long term" appears quite naive when a practical application is considered. Does Fr. Rausch seriously believe that those who might be proponents of a bishop's resignation, or a sharing of power, authority and decision making with the episcopacy, (not to mention ordination of women, or optional celibacy for priests) would ever be allowed to serve as "members of parish councils and diocesan offices,...diocesan committees and advisory boards"? I think not.

Those who oppose the status quo or dissent from the policies of those in power will never be given an effective "hand in shaping policy...." Accordingly, until the day when the laity is given the opportunity to choose episcopal leaders and the authority to set policy, organized groups such as VOTF must remain independent. This is the only way that all -- not some -- voices will be heard.

Joseph C Mohen | 9/29/2003 - 9:54am
In the September 20 article by Thomas Rauch, S J, Father Rauch refers to the VOTF as a possible advocacy group. He describes this as his second model which would have "considerable merit".

I agree however the example used is the New Hampshire VOTF calling upon Bishop McCormick and Bishop Christian to resign because of their "general disregard to the testimony of sexual abuse victims and an unwillingness to remove predatory priests from contact with children."

Apparently the VOTF is a rather toothless lion in this instance. Neither bishop has resigned inspite of behavior which would have resulted in jail time for anyone else. What alternatives do the faithful have?

Fr Stephen Phillips | 9/30/2003 - 11:16am
There have, as many realize, been occassions when the Spirit of God has come to focus on the Magesterium of the layity. These have been times when the Church required additional input to chart a course that more closely directs us towards the will of God.

It is always in hind-sight that this reality becomes clear to the casual observer but to those dedicated to the cause of faith, clearity has a continuous presence.

The call for integration of the laity in parish and diocesan boards is not a new one. With varying interest Pastors and Bishops have heard the call and implamented it. But Vatican II called for more than selective application of this asset.

Until informed, well spirited and responsible leaders surface, those placed in roles of leadership will not trust the motives of the ones who need to be heard. Trust is the one quality that must be present for true colaboration to be implemented.

The Spirit is calling the Church to chart a revised course for itself. Not only in North America but throughout the world.

Hal Albergo | 9/27/2003 - 3:09pm
Cardinals and Bishops must create a favorable climate for the lay vocations in parish life.In your recommened "Incorporation" model,you do not focus on the reponsibility of the cardinals and bishops to promote a favorable climate in aggressively implementing and supporting parish pastoral councils,finance councils and diocesan synods where the laity can have an oportunity of making an impact on decisions made or not made in the parish community. In walking in Jesus' footsteps, we need conversation not lectures. The parish pastoral and finance councils must represent the diversity of parishioners and reflect what the Pope called a fruitful dialogue pastors and the faithful. Pastoral planning is most important because we have fewer priets and we have to work and be stewards of our resources. In 40 years since Vatican Council ll, the establishing of effective parish pastoral and finance councils has been disappointing and helped create the problems in the Catholic Church today.

Carolyn B. Disco<BR>N.H. Voice of the Faithful | 2/7/2007 - 1:55pm
It is heartening to read of a hopeful future for Voice of the Faithful in “The Lay Vocation and Voice of the Faithful” by Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., (9/29). Father Rausch’s words quicken our vision of being a positive force that brings the talents of the laity to bear on the temporal administration of the church.

We are indeed faithful Catholics, serving now or in the past in every aspect of ministry, as eucharistic ministers, pastoral council members, lectors, directors of religious education, hospitality ministers, prison ministry leaders, C.C.D. teachers, youth leaders, choir members, pastoral associates and of course as concerned parents.

The incorporational model that Father Rausch recommends already exists.

Education is also an important component of V.O.T.F. New Hampshire affiliates have sponsored numerous lecture series across the state in conjunction with local Catholic college professors and theologians.

On the current schedule are a five-part video series, “Faithful Revolution,” lectures on spirituality in the 21st century, social justice, and roadblocks and opportunities for renewal. The chairman of the diocesan task force on a new sexual abuse policy has addressed several groups; we held a Mass of healing, co-sponsored a tristate workshop on survivor issues, and a solidarity march at the cathedral. A structural-change working group is focusing on strengthening pastoral councils.

These activities fall under what Father Rausch calls the advocacy group model of educating ourselves and voicing concerns as adult Christians. Another part of that function relates, as he states, to bringing pressure to bear on vital matters. Actions on these in the name of the group require a two-thirds affirmative vote, a very high margin.

Father Rausch cites our call for the resignations of Bishop John B. McCormack, Cardinal Bernard Law’s former aide, and Auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Christian, after long deliberation of their roles in the sexual abuse crisis. Yes, we have taken the risk of disagreeing with our bishops and been willing to publicize their negligence that we regard as criminal in all but the legal sense.

Resignation is part of the solution; witness the hope and fresh air in Boston following the installation of Archbishop Sean O’Malley. We pray for the same surcease. Five bishops in Canada, Ireland, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have resigned in the last 10 years for the mishandling of abuse allegations, so our tradition accommodates this remedy.

Father Rausch also refers to V.O.T.F. suggesting a model of parallel structures, which he defines as the desire of members to meet with bishops as an organization, instead of as individuals. This point is confusing. We do not envision organizing structures to co-administer the temporal affairs of a diocese. Instead of refusing to acknowledge our existence as V.O.T.F., let us break bread together like the Knights of Columbus, Right to Life or any other group.

While tensions are perhaps inevitable between the hierarchy and the laity in the short term, all must join to assure that there is some measure of true accountability. A new paradigm of genuine collaborative authority needs to be implemented and V.O.T.F. yearns to participate constructively, “allowing the Spirit to transform both the church and ourselves from within,” as Father Rausch suggests.

Hal Albergo | 2/7/2007 - 1:59pm
The hierarchy must create a favorable climate for the lay vocations in parish life. In “The Lay Vocation and Voice of the Faithful” (9/29), Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., does not focus on the responsibility of the cardinals and bishops to promote parish pastoral councils, finance councils and diocesan synods, where the laity can have an opportunity to participate in decisions made or not made in the parish community. In walking in Jesus’ footsteps, we need conversation, not lectures.

The parish pastoral and finance councils must represent the diversity of parishioners and reflect what the pope called a fruitful dialogue between pastors and the faithful. Pastoral planning is most important, because we have fewer priests and we have to work and be stewards of our resources. In the 40 years since the Second Vatican Council, failure to establish effective parish pastoral and finance councils has been disappointing and helped create the problems of today.

John W. Howard, S.J. | 2/7/2007 - 3:22pm
In connection with the article “The Lay Vocation and Voice of the Faithful” by Thomas P. Rausch, S.J. (9/29), I want to mention that on July 29 The Wall Street Journal published a long essay, “Pastors and Prosecutors,” by a prominent Boston attorney, Harvey Silverglate, in which he assailed Massachusetts Attorney General Reilly for “overreaching” the boundaries of his office in parts of his official report on the sexual abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Boston. Among other criticisms, Mr. Silverglate saw in that report “a disturbing pattern of probably unconstitutional intrusions into the religious liberties of the Catholic Church.” (Silverglate, I should note, is not involved in any of the abuse cases.)

A few weeks later, on Aug. 11, the Journal published a response by two people who described themselves as “regional co-coordinators of Voice of the Faithful, New York.” Admitting that Mr. Reilly may have “stretched the powers of his office,” they nonetheless found his intrusions “admirable,” given the fact that the church long overlooked sex crimes against children.

I would have hoped that leaders of V.O.T.F. would not give voice so readily to the principle of expediency. That kind of thinking has been voiced too often. No wonder that fewer are listening than V.O.T.F. would like.

Frank V. Pesce | 9/26/2003 - 7:04pm
The three models for the VOTF outlined by Fr. Rausch are quite interesting from a merely academic point of view. However, his suggestion that the "Incorporated Model" may be "the most effective in the long term" appears quite naive when a practical application is considered. Does Fr. Rausch seriously believe that those who might be proponents of a bishop's resignation, or a sharing of power, authority and decision making with the episcopacy, (not to mention ordination of women, or optional celibacy for priests) would ever be allowed to serve as "members of parish councils and diocesan offices,...diocesan committees and advisory boards"? I think not.

Those who oppose the status quo or dissent from the policies of those in power will never be given an effective "hand in shaping policy...." Accordingly, until the day when the laity is given the opportunity to choose episcopal leaders and the authority to set policy, organized groups such as VOTF must remain independent. This is the only way that all -- not some -- voices will be heard.