Rebels in the Pews

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

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A year ago, such rhetoric would probably have gone nowhere. This year it went viral. Starting as a post-Mass discussion group of two dozen people in January, VOTF has seen its e-mail membership climb to 10,000, and Muller reports receiving inquiries from parishes in 40 states about founding their own chapters. Muller himself, a cardiologist, has grown more cautious as his movement has grown bigger. On the Voice website is a set of presentations marked "VOTF Working Paper." They appear to outline a church in which elected lay people would wield as much authority as the clergy, but he will not confirm this as policy. Nor will he commit to favoring popular election to diocesan boards or more transparent church finances, although his group's majority clearly favors both.

Perhaps this is because of the lessons he learned in his past campaign: in 1980 he and four doctor friends founded Physicians Against Nuclear War. Five years later they were sharing a Nobel Peace Prize with some like-minded Soviets, at the helm of a 150,000-doctor international organization. His success, he notes, depended on not getting too hung up in divisive specifics, and that is his guiding principle now. He doesn't want VOTF to be seen as just one more group of liberal Catholics demanding women priests and an end to celibacy. Instead he envisions the group as a congress for various political parties of Catholics, not a political party itself. "The majority of Catholics are neither progressive nor conservative," he says. "By keeping the focus, we get the center."

Less politic is Kennedy School of Government professor Mary Jo Bane. Bane was part of the Boston group that proposed sending representatives from each of the city's existing lay councils to a central, deliberative "All-Parish Council." Cardinal Law, notoriously mum on his role in the abuse scandals, spoke up almost instantly against the idea, letting it be known that Boston's pastors were not to "join, foster or promote" the group, on the ground that it would compete with an existing panel. Bane called Law's response "astonishingly stupid" given that neither the idea — nor the people involved — were radical. "Lay organizations can't force the leadership to acknowledge them or give them power," she says. "But if the church ignores them, I think they'll see some pretty widespread exits."

That may be a risk the Pope is prepared to take. Convinced already that Americans are cafeteria Catholics, who stay in the church while ignoring the edicts they find inconvenient, he may doubt that they will leave now in droves over issues of governance. Certainly he has shown no desire to increase lay influence. Addressing a delegation from the West Indies last month, he warned against lay people becoming "too clerical or too politicized," either by usurping the priest's liturgical role or supplanting him in "tasks of pastoral governing."

That puts the bishops in a bind. They have heard the rumblings from the faithful; they know the reluctance of Rome to entertain revolutionary ideas. The sex-abuse scandals may have led to at least one mutually acceptable innovation. Dioceses that have created lay-led panels to advise the bishop in handling such cases seem to have effectively reduced scandal and nourished a sense of enfranchisement. "This board helps the church as well as the people who are directly involved," says Louverne Williams, a retired schoolteacher who serves on a review board in Minneapolis-St. Paul, along with a psychologist, a lawyer, a law-enforcement expert and other lay members and clergy. "It is my ministry." It has heard about 15 abuse cases since its founding in 1995; in the two cases with child victims, the board recommended the priests be defrocked. If the charter is adopted in Dallas next week, such panels will become part of the power structure in every diocese.

Advisory panels, however, while a step toward healing a broken trust, are designed to address isolated crimes, not daily life. While intent on reaching out to their flocks as never before, the bishops are not moving toward the kind of representative democracy that some lay activists dream of. "I don't believe that the solution to the church's problem is to replace clericalism with laism," Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told TIME. "I do not see the Catholic Church becoming a democracy." That was not Jesus' vision, he contends; and it is not the church that Scripture and tradition reveal. The touchiness on all sides was displayed on Friday when the conference canceled its Dallas invitation to a major victims group because the group had filed suit against the bishops on Thursday.

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