Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Reaching Out. for Reform ; Calls for Change Come from Catholics in the US and around the World

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Reaching Out. for Reform ; Calls for Change Come from Catholics in the US and around the World

Article excerpt

On Good Friday last week, several hundred Roman Catholics gathered outside Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross in a prayer service for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. It was the first time - more than 15 years after a major abuse case broke in the media - that lay Catholics had ever publicly reached out to this group.

And on Monday nights for the past two months, parishioners from St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, Mass., have gathered with Catholics from other parishes to build consensus for change in the church. Calling themselves Voice of the Faithful, they hope to convene a "Continental Congress of Catholics" later this year to open the way to sharing actively in church governance.

As instances of mishandling of abuse allegations continue to surface across the United States, some people in the pews are transforming their anguish into a longterm commitment to reform. Many Catholics say the sex-abuse scandal is a failure not just of individual clerics but of a hierarchy cloaked in secrecy and too removed from people's lives.

Along with a full response to the victims, they are calling for a greater lay voice in church decisionmaking and a fresh look at issues of the priesthood.

Their goals sound radical for the Catholic Church, but those encouraging reform see themselves as reviving the vision of the Second Vatican Council of the

1960s, which said the church resides in all the people of God. Their grassroots initiatives reflect attitudes not only of a majority of American Catholics, but also those in countries around the globe - including traditionally Catholic nations like Ireland and Spain.

Some traditionalists charge that liberals are attempting to take advantage of the crisis for their own activist purposes.

"A lot of people are trying to make ideological hay out of this crisis," says George Weigel, author of "Witness to Hope," a biography of Pope John Paul II. "Some of these calls for what amounts to the protestantizing of the Catholic church are the result of people on an ideological joy ride."

But while some initiatives do come from the ranks of long-time activists, many of those speaking up are engaging for the first time. "We are completely mainstream Catholics - we are almost all new to this," says Jim Muller, a doctor who is a leader of Voice of the Faithful.

An international movement

Surveys have long shown that American Catholics favor more participatory decisionmaking in the church. According to a 1999 special report of the National Catholic Reporter, two-thirds want more democracy at the parish level, 60 percent favor more at the diocesan level, and 55 percent want participatory decisionmaking at the Vatican.

Such views have often led to accusations that Americans are out of step with the rest of the church. But a 1996 study of attitudes toward reform in seven countries showed remarkable consistency.

A majority in every country polled - from Poland to Italy to the Philippines - supported the election of bishops. The countries with the most reform-minded Catholics on all issues were Germany, Spain, and Ireland. Some 80 percent of Spanish and Irish Catholics, for example, favor married priests and about 70 percent supported ordination of women.

Mandatory celibacy has surfaced nationally as an issue, not because it is seen as a cause of sex abuse, but because it narrows the pool of priesthood candidates and affects church culture.

"The church is limited to drawing from the thinnest slice of the population for ... its most important ministry," says the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame. Today, Catholics have climbed the economic ladder and have more employment options than in the past, - and celibacy no longer has the same cultural support. One result, he says, is that some clerics haven't really chosen celibacy, but just accepted it as a condition of being a priest. …

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