Thursday, January 10, 2008

Law and the timid Voice of the Faithful

Law and the timid Voice of the Faithful

By Warren Mason

Providence Journal
December 14, 2002


THE ABILITY to divine gray from black and white is something that most savvy politicians master early in their careers: the ability to be all things to all people.

In contrast, to divine gray when the sexual abuse of children is involved is both repugnant and indeed criminal. It requires one to shut out the light to the soul.

As Boston Cardinal Bernard Law and his ilk leave us, they wear not the red robes of cardinals but, rather, the grays of all-too-common criminals.

While Law's self-inflicted downfall comes to a close, it seems timely to take a closer look at the role of the Roman Catholic lay group the Voice of the Faithful. The group's reluctance to make waves has been well documented, as has its inability to bridge all the factions within the group. This has made it impossible for the group to speak with a strong, coherent message.

In fact, the VOTF is a microcosm of the Catholic Church laity.

While the departure of Cardinal Law has been inevitable for some time, it wasn't until Wednesday that the VOTF called for his resignation. The group's actions -- or, more important, inactions -- are predictable yet troubling, as the declaration came long after it could have had any real impact.

It was beginning to look as if the VOTF would wait until the cardinal had reassigned himself to a new parish in Rome. That, in turn, would preclude any possibility of Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Thomas Reilly's ever bringing him to justice.

The truism "There's strength in numbers" hasn't proven true when it comes to the VOTF. While Law has run his own little dictatorship, the members of the VOTF seem to have been passengers on a rudderless ship.

Many have suggested that the VOTF's intentions are good. I have no reason to disagree. However, though the organization's stated goals appear noble, and it counts many wonderful people among its members, the group is unable to speak as one.

The VOTF and others in the Catholic laity have always been divided on what the word faithful stands for. To some, it seems to mean faithful to the institutional church, while to others it seems to mean faithful to the Gospel. Make no mistake: These are not one and the same, despite many people's wishing they were so! Perhaps one day, but not now.

Just last week, outside Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral, the protesters were chanting for Law's resignation as a well-intentioned woman said, "I love the church, but these leaders have to go." She's partly right; they do have to go. But viewing these clergymen as leaders over us while loving the church is what brought us to the precipice.

It's loving the church that led us to blindly entrust our young people to these men, and it's loving the church that leads us to donate to an organization that doles out our money to pedophiles. If the laity doesn't care that it is subsidizing these priests' future crimes, why should the church?

Bishop Willie Walsh, of Killaloe, Ireland, echoed these sentiments in a recent Irish television documentary: "I think if there are bricks in the Catholic Church which are not serving the Gospel, then let them be taken down -- let them be taken apart -- as ultimately the church is not an end in itself.

"The church is there to serve the Gospel, and whatever structures are not serving the Gospel -- let them be taken down, brick by brick. Let us be rid of whatever structures are not serving the Gospel, and good riddance to them!"

Bishop Walsh is the lone voice of reason in a sea of obfuscation. It's a pity his common sense hasn't reached these shores.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and his counterparts seem to have scared off any number of dissenters, including the VOTF, by conflating dissent with being a bad Catholic. Questioning these bishops should be a badge of honor and not a reason to cower in shame, yet the VOTF seems loath to do so.

The Voice of the Faithful's sheer numbers may have given it a seat at the table, but those same numbers seem to have made it impossible for the group to formulate an agenda. Indeed, it seems that the mere mention of "agenda" sends the members into a defensive panic or scurrying to various cardinals and bishops for reassurance that they really do matter. In doing so, they have unwittingly empowered the church hierarchy and damaged the cause of all lay Catholics who are outraged by that hierarchy and the system that has nurtured it.

The Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame University, states in the latest issue of The Tidings, the Los Angeles Archdiocese's weekly newspaper: "In the end, what's wrong with having an agenda? An agenda, after all, is nothing more than a list of things that a group of people think need to be done -- whether in politics, business, academia, the professions, or even the church. One may disagree with the content of a particular agenda, but why should its very existence be dismissed summarily -- as extremist, in fact?"

For weeks, media and community leaders nationwide clamored for Bernard Law to go, while the Voice of the Faithful waffled and showed deference to a man whom many consider a criminal and virtually all consider morally bankrupt. The VOTF seemed to be in a race with Governor-elect Romney and Boston's other clerics to see who could be the last to step up and do what had been called for months before. Even many of the morally challenged clerics beat the VOTF to the punch.

There is a perception in the media that the VOTF speaks for much of the Catholic lay community. Although at one time it may have done so, it long ago squandered the opportunity. How is the laity to know what the VOTF stands for when the VOTF itself doesn't seem to know?

The VOTF purports to support clergy of integrity -- yet where has it been for such clerical people as Thomas Doyle, Walter Cuenin, James Scahill, John Bambrick and Sister Karol Jackowski? They have all fought long for the rights of the church's victims, regardless of the cost to them both professionally and personally.

It seems that, for the VOTF, standing up for these honorable men and women of conscience has been contingent on not risking the wrath of the bishops.

Indeed, with Cardinal Law perhaps retiring to a palatial estate in Rome, many of his counterparts are fast on his heels. Bishops McCormack, Banks, Hughes, Daily, O'Brien and others are clinging to the last vestiges of their power in a pathetic attempt to stave off the inevitable.

Several columnists have suggested that watching this unfold is like watching the last days of Nixon's presidency. While there are many similarities, one thing sets the two apart: Nixon's burglary and cover-up didn't lead to the suffering of thousands of people for many generations to come.

The courageous Fathers Doyle, Scahill and the others have moved on to the core of the problem: the bankrupt institution that has enabled Law and the others to flourish at the expense of anyone who got in their way.

Of initial importance is how the VOTF and the rest of the Catholic laity will deal with Cardinal Law's replacement: a man to be selected by a cadre of sycophants to Pope John Paul II, and chosen from a group of bishops who share the stench of this depravity.

The new cardinal will come in promising a new openness and change; but remember this: He is a man cut from the same cloth as Cardinal Law, nurtured in a community that has ceded to him unquestioned power and blind loyalty. His obedience is pledged to an antiquated and corrupt epicenter at the Vatican, where this pope's only concern is not whether pedophile priests abuse more children but, rather, whether they "cause no scandal" to the church.

Those who love the church will graciously want to accept the morsels thrown their way -- wanting, more than anything else, for this all to end. They will want to believe the new cardinal is every bit as holy as he sounds, and they will be more than happy to go back to their ignorant bliss!

Unless the laity is willing to hold out for real systemic change and a sharing of power, these Catholics will be doomed to revisit all the contradictions and inequities laid upon them for as long as anyone can remember.

Once again, Professor McBrien: "Does anyone seriously believe that the church can extricate itself from the present crisis and avoid similar crises in the future without making any systemic or structural changes at all? Is it only a matter of fidelity and obedience, and nothing more?

"If a fire department were having difficulty putting out fires . . . would it be 'extremist' for citizens to demand a review of operations, including the training of firefighters, the system of promotions within the department, and the state of its firefighting equipment?"
Indeed, citizens would demand such a review -- just as we've seen in our government after 9/11. Yet when such concerns are raised about the church, they are deemed, as Bishop Gregory put it, "false prophecy."

Amazingly, the departing Cardinal Law has presumed to lecture us and President Bush on the morality of a war with Iraq! The president has rightly made it clear that "we don't negotiate with criminals." When are the Voice of the Faithful and the rest of the Catholic laity going to understand that simple premise?

No gray -- just black and white!

Warren Mason is a Massachusetts-based writer whose social commentary has appeared in numerous newspapers and other periodicals. He can be reached at

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