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.
And this observation is hardly confined to "conservatives." Dr. Paul Ginnety from St. Joseph's College on Long Island, complimented VOTF as being a "fairly liberal" group of older Catholics who "cut their teeth" during the protest era of the 1960s in a Newsday op-ed published in July 2002. In the article, Ginnety went on to ridicule younger Catholics who agree with what the Catholic Church teaches, calling them nostalgic. Ginnety, an occasional contributor to Newsday's editorial pages, also spoke during LI-VOTF's September Faith Convention's "working lunch."
Richard McBrien Comes to Town
For faithful Catholics, perhaps no single person better represents the face of dissent than Rev. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame. From promoting women's ordination to condemning the Church's ban on contraception, McBrien is a reliable fixture of the Catholic far-left. And he was also the primary speaker at the September Faith Convention.
Patricia Zirkel, who holds a Ph.D. in theology and is a former associate professor at St. John's University, gave the priest a rousing introduction. After reminiscing about reading McBrien's book Catholicism as a graduate student, she explained McBrien's relationship with VOTF: "Very pertinent to us today, Father McBrien advised [VOTF cofounder] Jim Muller in the formation stages of VOTF. They had many conversations about what VOTF should address itself to, and our mission statement and goals. A very simple mission statement and.three goals came out of those conversations to a great extent."
McBrien spoke about his role and influence in the present Catholic education establishment. Referring to the increase of Catholic laity getting involved in religious instruction since Vatican II, McBrien boasted, "One of the most satisfying elements in my time as a theologian was the time I served as the director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College-I think still the largest and I think the most vibrant program training those who are in the ministries of religious education around the country.. Many of these graduates-of places like Boston College's Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry-now serve as parish directors of religious education.and as directors of liturgy or as religion teachers in Catholic high schools.."
For anyone who has read McBrien's writings, the speech had a familiar ring. Much of it was a mixture of previously published columns with some sections from his popular books, Catholicism and Lives of the Popes, spliced in. For example:
In what sense, if any, can Jesus be called the founder of the Church? The answer is that Jesus is not the founder of the Church if by the word "found," we mean some direct, explicit, deliberate act by which he established a new religious movement, organization or community, complete with a set of ready-made structures and institutional practices.. But Jesus is the founder of the Church if by the word "found" we mean that he laid the foundations for the Church in various indirect ways-mainly, through his gathering of disciples and the establishment of a memorial meal, "Do this in memory of me," by which his disciples would remain together after his death.
After dismissing both the ban on women's ordination and the concept of apostolic succession, McBrien asked, "What specifically in the Church can we attribute to the will of Jesus himself, so that these structures and practices can be said to be of divine law and therefore not subject to change by the Church? The answer is, structurally, almost nothing."
Referring to VOTF as a "progressive group," McBrien followed Ginnety in describing younger Catholics "to the right" of him as being nostalgic. This was followed by approving laughter from the 650 attendees.
Why would a non-ideological group-as VOTF claims to be-ask the most recognizable Catholic dissenter in America to speak to its members? Bartley told me he invited McBrien "because I read some of his material as recommended reading at the seminary. I found his books-particularly his book Catholicism-to be very well written. He is a good speaker, well-known, and highly respected." McBrien received "about $2,000" for his time.
After the talk, the still-buzzing crowd was shepherded to a working lunch, where prefabricated questions were provided to the crowd so they could "participate" in shaping the direction of the organization. Each table picked a secretary and a spokesperson who approached the podium to present the conclusions of their respective tables. Among the calls for Bishop Murphy's resignation, more lay involvement, financial openness, and complaints about homilies, one spokesperson fired up the crowd by saying, "We also feel very strongly at one point, to sue for ownership of our church facilities in a court of the United States of America." She was given loud applause. Once it died down, she helpfully gave out the name of a person in the New York State assembly for LI-VOTF members to contact.
Behind Closed Doors
If dissent was on display during the conferences, it was no different in the private meetings of the board. As cochair of the Communications Committee, I updated the LI-VOTF's Web site and even proposed a redesign of the site (for which I received positive feedback from some of the board members). During a Communications Committee meeting, one member started complaining about how the Church discriminates against married people and women, and how before Vatican II, the Church taught that the body was evil. He pulled out Gary Wills's book, Papal Sin, to prove his point. As this board member is an intelligent man, I was puzzled to see how readily he accepted the embittered Wills as an authority on Church history. But he certainly wasn't alone. According to LI-VOTF's minutes, the invited guest speaker to the November 2002 regional meeting was the Jesuit writer Rev. Raymond Schroth, who also praised Wills during his talk.
Another popular author among some LI-VOTF members is Dr. Phyllis Zagano. Shortly after my e-mail address was listed on LI-VOTF's Web site, I received a promotion for a lecture she was giving at Hofstra University. The presentation, "Catholic Women Deacons: Present Tense," also plugged her book, Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.
A Little Help From the Press
Few will deny that VOTF has gotten a lot of positive coverage in the press. From the Boston Globe to the New York Times, VOTF is praised and promoted. Meanwhile, opposition to the group is generally portrayed as coming from the unenlightened ideologues of the fringe right.
But some members of the press have gone beyond merely writing about the group. For example, the reliably liberal Newsday failed to report that one of its editorial board members, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Keeler-a Catholic and a staunch supporter of VOTF-had addressed a local Parish Voice meeting in January 2003. In fact, Keeler wrote a column on March 17, 2003, covering the very same parish where he was invited to speak two months earlier. Of course, he neglected to mention that in his column. Keeler also spoke at VOTF's tri-state convention in October at Fordham University.
Ed Micca, a local Catholic and vocal critic of VOTF, said Keeler called Bishop Murphy an "arrogant rube" at the meeting and that the journalist praised priests who ignore the bishop. "Keeler said much about the lack of priests and vocations, with the usual call for women priests and an end to celibacy," Micca told me. "Keeler did issue a warning: It seems many of the younger priests and those currently in seminaries are leaning in an orthodox direction, and in 15 to 20 years these men will be our pastors. There were reflexive gasps from the crowd."
Micca added, "Mr. Keeler did find something to cheer about in the lack of priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre: Because he has few alternatives, Bishop Murphy has to stick with the pastors he's got, regardless of how he feels about them. This then tilts the weight in the power game between the bishop and the priests in favor of the priests, and some priests use this to their advantage. Keeler then unveiled his system of rating priests who snub their noses at the bishop. He called it the `F*** You Factor.' The more willing a priest was to thumb his nose at the bishop, the higher the `F*** You Factor' he had."
Keeler told me in a phone interview that the "F*** You Factor" of his speech was a small portion of what he said at the meeting. Furthermore, he noted that the "F*** You Factor" was a professional journalist's "term of art."
When I told Bartley I was writing a story, he was non-plussed. "I have no problem with you writing an article for Crisis," he said. "What I do think was unethical is that without disclosing that you were writing an article, you took part in internal discussions of the board and with other leadership members that included personal opinions as well as official VOTF matters. I believe that, ethically, you should have alerted us to your activities so that people could have more carefully evaluated whether or not they wanted to share their personal opinions with you. A better question might be-why wouldn't you tell us? Why hide? Personally, had you disclosed it, I would have welcomed it. As an organization we have nothing to hide."
As of this writing, I still haven't heard from the other LI-VOTF board members. However, one former board member has kept in touch, and our relationship remains friendly.
The truth is, contrary to Bartley's suspicions, I didn't join VOTF with the goal of writing an exposé. That idea arose only after I witnessed a number of the very problems critics have been pointing out.
In the late 1980s, there was a controversy at my local parish on Long Island. A father and son appeared one Sunday in front of the church, handing out fliers warning parishioners about a temporary priest who they said molested the son ten years before. The news media covered the sad event, and it was the talk of the town for a few weeks. Fourteen years later, I would see that same son address the LI-VOTF September regional meeting.
The sexual abuse, he said, started when he was 13 and continued until he was 20. The survivor-as he prefers to call himself-said that the priest eventually admitted to his crime. The victim, now married with children, is no longer a Catholic, although his parents remain in the Church. As he spoke, the VOTF audience sat silently, some visibly upset and choked up. It was a heartbreaking story, and they reacted with compassion. And that's part of the tragedy of the entire organization. Some of the work it's done has been good and necessary. But some of it has not. With VOTF, it's sometimes difficult to separate the positive from the harmful.
Consider its three stated goals: (1) to support victims of abuse, (2) to support priests of integrity, and (3) to shape structural change within the Church.
VOTF-at least in its Long Island chapter-seems to be living up to its first goal. And indeed, this is a side of VOTF that few critics address, as most agree with it. The group's second goal, to support priests of integrity, is also generally a non-issue (though just what makes someone a "priest of integrity" is an important question in itself).
It is VOTF's third goal-"to shape structural change within the Church"-that most concerns critics. While it could be understood to refer to small but positive changes in the way bishops run their dioceses (instituting more transparency in their finances, for example), it could also be used to advocate everything from women priests to democratically elected bishops. In short, the problem is one of ambiguity. What exactly does VOTF want? And are we really to believe that McBrien's left-wing ideology is unconnected with VOTF's third goal? He did after all advise Jim Muller on the formation of those same goals (why has this fact not been made public?). And yet, VOTF's leadership continues to claim that what invited speakers say at meetings does not reflect the group's official position. One wonders, then, why they were invited at all.
Bartley-like the other members of VOTF-is sincere in his beliefs. He's genuinely puzzled that anyone would consider VOTF a dissenting or radical organization. A decent, hardworking family man, Bartley believes in VOTF's cause, which to him boils down to more lay involvement in the Church. But an organization doesn't exist merely on paper-and in this case, actions do speak louder than words.
In a fitting end note, the Michigan chapter of Call to Action reported in its Summer 2003 newsletter that it's now sharing meetings with the VOTF chapter in that region. That, sadly, says it all.