Rebels in the Pews

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Members of the lay-majority clergy-review board of Minneapolis-St. Paul

The guerrillas are gathering in the basement. They used to meet Sunday nights at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, Mass., but the crowd got too big, so now they have broken into cells, gathering nightly by the dozen in parochial school cafeterias or places like this spare church cellar, plotting and testifying under flickering institutional lights. First up is a man in a gray suit. "If the church were a business," he says, "the hiring manager would be out of a job, and the CEO would be on the next boat out." Next comes a psychiatrist, who calls the Roman Catholic Church a dysfunctional family. Then a theology student, then a young father, then the mother of an abused boy and, finally, Marie Darcy. Darcy has 10 children back home in Merrimack, N.H., but left them tonight to conspire with the Catholic lay group Voice of the Faithful because, well, because it touches on her status as part of the body of Christ. "We are all heirs to Christ, but it doesn't feel that way," says Darcy. "The decisions come down from above, and that's it. The people in the pews quake, wondering what's going to happen."

Into the night the group discusses how to change that, imagining the radical reinvention of the relationship between flock and leaders that Voice claims is the American Catholic Church's only road to salvation. Like many Catholics, they are suffering a crisis of confidence as a result of the sex-abuse scandal of the past months, but unlike some others, they see in it opportunity. "If there was ever a time for reform," argues Gisela Morales-Barreto, who attended her first meeting in April, "this is it." At their regular meetings, the rebels pray for the victims of abuse. But they also pray for their bishops: "that their hearts and minds be opened to inclusion and collaboration with the faithful."

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Who could have guessed that the bishops were listening? It wasn't just the crimes; It was the attitude. Catholics have been enduring tragic sex scandals on and off since 1985. What has shocked them for the past four months has been the news reports and court documents that confirmed the worst caricature of a hierarchy endlessly protective of its clergy but deaf to the agony of mere churchgoers. That portrait, composed as it is of worst-case scenarios, may well be distorted. But it has raised fundamental questions of authority. "It creates a disconnect," says William V. D'Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University of America. "It puts the whole system under structural stress."

And an entire spectrum of Catholic laity has responded. Voice of the Faithful, which wants to turn the church into a representative democracy, is only the most radical. Just a few miles away, a more moderate Boston faction annoyed Bernard Cardinal Law recently by suggesting the creation of an independent diocesan advisory council that would compete with a group he appointed. In Belleville, Ill., an existing organization called the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity suddenly tripled its membership and actually scheduled a lay synod this past weekend. The headlines have energized a graying generation of reformers and raised up new ones. Some dream of a nationwide lay congress and press for election of parish councils, pastors or even bishops. Others demand financial transparency or rollbacks of Vatican limitations on the lay liturgical role. Even the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Novak, a conservative theologian and columnist who would condone little of the above, admits that "both conservatives and liberals are very upset. The bishops are God's shepherds, and they've let the wolves among the flock. Some lay leadership is needed to help find which direction to go in and what to do."

And now the movement appears to have picked up what some might consider the unlikeliest partisans of all. This week the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet in Dallas, charged by Pope John Paul II with arriving at a set of norms on clerical sexual abuse. In preparation, the group has released a draft of the charter it will put to a vote: a no-nonsense plan establishing a one-strike-and-you're-out rule for all future offenders (past abusers get more leniency) and requiring bishops to report any allegations to civil authorities. Upon reviewing it, most Catholics will probably hope it passes and — a dicier prospect — receives approval from skeptical Vatican officials.

But in addition to the charter's muscular response to abuse, there is a subtler but equally important message about the treatment of the American Catholic laity. The issue arises twice in the document. The bishops mandate the establishment of clergy-review boards to advise each diocesan bishop on abuse cases, and they specify that a board's majority will be "lay persons not in the employ of the diocese." Some dioceses have had such boards for years, but others do not, and the bishops are aiming for a uniform standard and process for handling accusations. In its conclusion the charter goes further, addressing the laity in much broader terms: "We ... wish to affirm our concern especially with regard to issues related to effective consultation of the laity and the participation of God's people in decision making that affects their well-being." And with that statement, painfully qualified though it may be, the bishops place themselves gingerly on the side of the American Catholic majority — but at possible loggerheads with their Pope.

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