Catholic Reformers Hold Historic Meeting ; Saturday's Boston Convention Is Being Watched by Lay People of All Stripes

Article excerpt

Pope John Paul II spoke on the sexual abuse scandal in the church last spring in Rome. The US bishops spoke in Dallas in June. This weekend in Boston, several thousand lay Catholics bent on unprecedented reform will gather at a national convention to have their say.

Six months into the crisis that many Catholics consider the most devastating since the Reformation, the rapidly expanding lay group called Voice of the Faithful will make its own statement on the kind of change required of its church.

Galvanized by the sense of a hierarchy out of touch with the people, their historic movement aims to bring the laity into joint governance with the clergy in matters other than doctrine. But they won't be issuing public demands of the hierarchy. Instead they'll announce specific actions they are taking to help the church and survivors of abuse through the crisis, and discuss new forms of lay involvement that could rebuild trust in how the church is governed.

Catholics of all stripes are likely to pay attention. In a remarkably short time, the group, which started in a church basement in Wellesley, Mass., has gained 18,000 members in 40 states and 21 countries and established its "mainstream Catholic" credentials. Yet some have wondered whether its bid to create a grass-roots organization to share in church governance with the hierarchy is too revolutionary. But this week 60 theologians and canon lawyers signed a statement of support.

Voice of the Faithful hasn't been welcomed with open arms by the Boston Archdiocese, though two meetings have been held with Cardinal Bernard Law's top aide.

"They are cautious about us," says Mary Calcaterra, vice president of Voice. "But we are confident of the legitimate call the Spirit is sending to us.... We are an important component voice, of people who know what families are about, and we are not going to go away."

Despite demands on personal lives, Voice members say their commitment persists because of the mission. "What got us off our couches and into the fray is this tremendous sense of a huge social injustice done by our church to innocent people," says James Post, a Boston University professor who is the president of Voice. "We have an obligation to make that right and to ensure such a tragedy never happens again."

Others share the view that the scandal demonstrates that the church needs the contribution of laypeople attuned to the everyday world. Voice is "clearly loyal - it's not challenging the bishops' authority but calling them to account for mismanagement," says R. Scott Appleby, a church scholar at Notre Dame. "Laypeople have to ensure best practices on the part of the church in its role as a public institution - and you need new structures for that."

Dr. Appleby gave a frank assessment of the state of the church to bishops in June in Dallas, and told them "the future of the Church in this country depends upon your sharing authority with the laity. …