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Sunday, August 17, 2003

Voice of the Faithful: Seeking changes in the Church



Jim Muller, a physician who battled nuclear weapons, has turned his attention to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. He is a founder and former president of Voice of the Faithful, one of several grassroots, lay organizations formed in the wake of the clergy sex abuse in the Church. While some bishops around the country have banned the group from meeting on church property, it is permitted to do so in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati with the approval of the local pastor. Muller, a cardiologist, also is a founder of Physicians Against Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. He spoke in Cincinnati last week at St. Francis DeSales Church in Walnut Hills and met with members of the Enquirer editorial board.

Here are excerpts from that interview.

What is Voice of the Faithful?

"It's a grassroots organization that emerged because of the Catholic clergy sex scandal in Boston involving hundreds of priests and thousands of victims. We want to provide a voice for the people of the church so they can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Church. In Boston, we didn't treat this just as a sex scandal. We wanted to know what caused the cover-up. We want to get to what we think is the root of the problem and that's the Church structure.

"The sex abuse was a symptom of a disease, which is an underlying system of absolute power and no accountability by the Church hierarchy. The early Christian church wasn't a monarchy or a dictatorship. The early American Catholic Church was more democratic. One diocese in South Carolina had a legislature with two houses - one for the clergy and the other for the laity. Only later were the laity disenfranchised. The laity is 99 percent of the Church. We need to return to those early models.

What happened in your meeting (last week) with Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk?

I thanked him for meeting with our group. I told him of working with Cardinal Bernardin (former Archbishop of Cincinnati) in drafting the bishops' pastoral letter on the nuclear weapons years ago. I have a history of working with hierarchy and I understand the good the hierarchy can do...It has value in speaking and refining (spiritual) matters on a world level. Cardinal Bernardin wanted to find the common ground that people on the right and left could share so they could talk to each other. I told Archbishop Pilarczyk that VOTF could help with that common ground conversation in the Church and that a dose of democracy for the laity would be good for the Catholic Church.

We are not out to change the core doctrine of the Church, but to change how the Catholic Church acts in certain areas. We have a canon lawyer on retainer to keep us on track. We want the laity to have a stronger voice in how things are done in the church. We want transparency and accountability from the hierachy.

We had a good conversation. At the end however, he said he was uncomfortable with VOTF's motto, which is "Keep the Faith; change the Church." He said that was an oversimplification.

I assured him our intent was positive.

What about charges that VOTF has a leftist or liberal agenda for the Church?

We are trying to represent all Catholics. We hope to pull left and right together to common ground. We are trying to reach out to talk with more conservative Catholics. Our goal is to provide an open forum, for laity to have a place at the table on church goverance and guidance. We represent a lot Catholics who love the Church and want to see it better. Those who want to continue to participate in Catholic life, but to change the Church.

How large is VOTF's membership?

We are becoming worldwide. VOTF numbers more than 30,000, with 186 affiliates, including some in Australia and New Zealand. The abuse scandal is not limited to Boston or Cincinnati...There was a massive sexual abuse scandal in Ireland. Thousands of Catholics there quietly left the Church instead of fighting back.

We have about a $400,000 a year budget, with 10 full-time people and lots of volunteers in a three-room office with day care in Newton, Mass. Eventually we may become a Web-based group. The Internet is a wonderful facilitator. When people say the laity doesn't have a chance against the hierarchy, I tell them: We have instruments now that we didn't have before.....We are bringing the power of the Internet to bear on the Church. The Internet is a great equalizer agent against a hierarchy. (VOTF Web site is www.votf.org)

Why are Church leaders so wary of your group? Are they sincerely concerned that you aim to change or water down teachings of the Church? Or are they threatened or worried about diluting or sharing their power and authority?

Groups don't willingly give up power. I would argue the hierarchy would be better off sharing power. There would be more power. The laity have the money. With greater involvement by the laity, much more good could be accomplished. Some critics within the Church say, "Oh you're just trying to create a Protestant Church. We don't want to get rid of the hierarchy. They preserved the wonderful teachings of Jesus Christ for 2000 years. We want a hybrid Church with Congress-like structures for the laity at all levels, from parishes up to the international level. People say the Church is not a democracy. I have seen meetings of Bishops that debate and vote and use all democratic practices. We all hope VOTF will become a world movement.




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