As I pulled into the high school parking lot of the affluent Long Island suburb of Manhasset one July evening, I passed a BMW with a Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) window decal. Clearly, this was the place. I entered the building, passing a number of elderly people standing behind tables covered with pamphlets. A very pleasant grandmother handed me four or five leaflets, including a printout of the Nicene Creed, a flier for the group's September "Faith Convention," and some other VOTF reading material.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Paul Lakeland-the liberation theologian from Fairfield University-who was the guest speaker for that evening's meeting. I'd never actually seen Lakeland before, but I did read several of his essays and his book Can Women Be Priests? (You can guess his answer.) Lakeland stood in the school's vestibule, surrounded by a small group of elderly and middle-aged women. They crowded around the man, who-dressed sharply in a blue blazer-looked more like a celebrity than a college professor.
My initial thought was a question: Why did VOTF-a self-proclaimed non-ideological group-invite a liberation theologian to address and instruct its members?
I maneuvered my way through the growing crowd and found a seat close to one of the mounted wall speakers at the front-left side of the auditorium. I was surprised, a few minutes later, when Lakeland sat down directly in front of me. At the time, I hadn't realized I was sitting where the board of directors for the Long Island branch of VOTF (LI-VOTF) usually sits during each meeting. In the months that followed, I would be seeing a lot more of them. Not only was I a member of LI-VOTF, but I would soon become cochair of its Communications Committee.
The LI-VOTF had about 1,600 members as of September 2003 (out of 1.5 million Catholics living in the Diocese of Rockville Centre). Cochair and branch founder Dan Bartley noted, "We do not `represent,' in an elected capacity, any Catholic. We do believe that we represent, through our mission and goals, what many Catholics would like to see happen in our Church."
Many LI-VOTF board and general members are part of the current Catholic educational system. As one observer of the group put it, "They are the backbone of the Church. Many of them teach CCD, religion, and are [pillars] of their parishes." Bartley himself is a theology student at the local diocesan seminary.
And he's not the only one. Other LI-VOTF board members have passed through the doors of the diocesan seminary or the Pastoral Formation Institute or have some formal religious training. At least two have Master of Theology degrees from the local seminary. Many of them are active in one way or another with their local parishes as eucharistic ministers and religion teachers. Bartley is an instructor for marriage preparation in his parish and was a coordinator for RENEW 2000. Another board member was the lay chaplain at a local community college who attended the Marist Institute of Theology; his brother is a deacon. Still another former board member is married to a deacon. At least three of the 15 are lawyers.
The larger organizational structure of VOTF is a shadow of the Roman Catholic system, with headquarters in Boston instead of Rome. Like the leaders of LI-VOTF, the national leaders tend to be heavily involved in their local parishes as eucharistic ministers, lectors, and religious educators.
Patricia Zirkel, another leader in LI-VOTF, said, "Remember the old Sixties slogan, `Power to the People'? Parish Voices are empowerment.... Meaningful change will occur first at the parish level.... Parish Voices are the means to this change. Parish by parish, step by step, brick by brick."
But exactly what that change involves is a matter of some debate. Critics (like Crisis) have charged that the organization acts as a front group for Catholic dissenters-a kind of wolf in sheep's clothing. The group's leadership, on the other hand, denies this vigorously, saying it's merely an organization of mainstream, church-going Catholics. They claim they do not challenge Church teaching and-at least according to LI-VOTF's Web site-"accept the teaching authority of our Church, including the traditional role of the bishops and the Pope."
For my own part, I'd read the claims of both sides. I also visited VOTF's national Web site and read its declarations and goals carefully. When I joined the organization, I believed that at least some of the criticisms leveled against it might have been based on faulty information (everyone has critics, after all). Indeed, I had no bias against the group and was genuinely interested in its mission.
If It Looks Like a Duck.
The leadership of VOTF denies that it's an ideological group and goes to great lengths to avoid the label "liberal." One revealing example of this effort was the LI-VOTF's board of directors' April 28, 2002, letter to Bishop William Murphy, the head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. In the letter, describing the differences and ideologies that comprise LI-VOTF, the board wrote, "Long Island Voice of the Faithful is, not unlike most groups or organizations, made up of people working toward a common purpose. Some are optimistic, some are pessimistic, some are reactionary, and some are conservative.." Conspicuously missing from this list is the term "liberal" or any acknowledgment that some in LI-VOTF are left-leaning. (No one, after all, has ever accused VOTF of being "conservative" or "reactionary.")
Given all of VOTF's fervent denials, what basis do the critics have for claiming the group is made up of dissenters?
The criticisms can be boiled down to three points: (1) The leadership of VOTF is composed almost entirely of dissenters; (2) VOTF gravitates toward dissenters as advisers and speakers at its events; and (3) Its goals are ambiguous enough to hide just about any kind of agenda.
Despite the objections of VOTF leaders, during my time in the organization, I found truth in each of the three charges. The July meeting with Lakeland bore this out.
After the group recited the Nicene Creed and then meditated with eyes closed to some New Agey-sounding music, Lakeland delivered a talk titled, "Empowering the Laity." Like many other theologians who speak at VOTF meetings, Lakeland is a member of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Predictably, he supports women's ordination and rejects most Catholic moral teachings related to human sexuality. For his 20-minute talk, he received a $300 stipend. (When some VOTF members criticized the invitation of Lakeland to the July meeting, they were met with jeers from the others, including some LI-VOTF board members.)
While at the podium, Lakeland compared LI-VOTF members to Holocaust concentration camp survivors. He observed that both Holocaust survivors and LI-VOTFers have the ability to "take an attitude" when they experience oppression. Although Lakeland admitted that "we do not go in fear of our lives," he did reinforce his analogy by adding, "But we nevertheless suffer from a more insidious form of oppression, that of the structural oppression of the laity. Here, the villains are.structures."
The "oppressive structure" rhetoric is the same language that the Catholic extreme left has employed for more than 30 years. Liberation, feminist, womanist, and Latin American mujerista theologians had been making the "oppressive structure" argument long before VOTF formed.
Expectedly, Lakeland was a big hit among the VOTF crowd. But there were others. During the October regional meeting, Svea Fraser, who holds a Master of Divinity degree and was one of the founding members of VOTF in Boston, was the guest speaker. Fraser, a full-time VOTF employee, joked that a gathering of bishops in Washington, D.C., looked like Ku Klux Klansmen with their white robes and "pointy hats." The audience roared. She told the crowd wistfully how her pastor allowed her to preach from the pulpit when she was a graduate student. Again, the audience loved it.