Catholics Aim for 'Bill of Rights' to Give Laity a Voice; the Holy Spirit Is Not Only in the Hierarchy, Program Organizer Said

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Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Catholics pushing for a democratic reform of their church will gather in Jacksonville today to remind bishops lay people need to be heard.

The idea behind the "listening assembly" at the University of North Florida, and at least 72 similar meetings held nationwide in the past year, is to formulate a "Catholic Bill of Rights," organizers say. Participants in the American Catholic Council hope their effort will give the laity a greater and more consistent voice in matters concerning the running of parishes, dioceses and the church as a whole.

Many American bishops, however, have responded frostily to the gatherings. Bishop Victor Galeone of Jacksonville issued a statement urging Northeast Florida Catholics to avoid the session and forbidding his parishes, schools or other diocesan facilities to host related activities. Priests, deacons and lay ministers were also ordered to avoid the meeting. However, Galeone said in an e-mail there would be no repercussions for lay people who attend the closed session.

The movement's goals "are largely in opposition to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the Holy Spirit," Galeone said in his written directive.

A Catholic theologian described the movement as one of many American efforts seeking structural reform of the church and that, like others, will likely make little or no dent in the way the Vatican does business. It joins other groups - seeking everything from the ordination of women to returning to the Latin Mass - considered "pressure groups" by the church.

The American Catholic Council is "pigeon-holed ideologically as Catholics on the left" and represent "a tempest in a tea pot" when seen in the context of global Catholicism, said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

But the organizers of the North Florida listening session see things much differently. In a recent planning session and in individual interviews, they said they are confident that church history and the divine are with them.

"The Holy Spirit is not just manifested in" the hierarchy "but also in the laity," said John Frank, chairman of the planning committee for the North Florida listening assembly.

That's an idea foreign to most Catholics, who, Frank said, are unaware they have not only the right but the obligation to voice concerns to their priests and bishops. American values of democracy and participatory government would infuse the church with openness and accountability, he said.

Opinions gathered from the 90 participants today in Jacksonville, online and at other meetings will be collected and presented to a national gathering planned for sometime this summer in Detroit, Frank said. …