Category Archives: Family

Keeping it in the Family

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News  21 Nov 2013

Most unfortunately the verb ‘to teach’ is ambiguous.  The Oxford dictionary assures us that it can mean either merely to propose an idea or practice to someone, or, in contrast, to succeed in persuading someone to adopt that idea or practice.

The importance of this distinction for someone ‘teaching’ civil engineering will be obvious.  Here the teacher’s success will be judged not on mere presentation, but by whether the bridges and other structures designed by his students can be relied upon not to collapse.

So when Catholic church documents speak of ‘Church teaching’, which meaning of the word is intended?  Irish Catholics pondering the preparatory document for upcoming synods may well reflect on this conundrum, especially in the context of question 7a:

“What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood?”

For people of my generation the major ‘teaching’ of Humanae Vitae is fairly well known. It proposed that use of the contraceptive pill for the purpose of regulating births is gravely sinful and therefore to be abjured.  That much I certainly know.  However, do I know that this ‘teaching’ was sincerely and consistently supposed by Irish Catholic bishops to be capable of convincing Irish Catholics that they must actually adopt it in their conjugal lives, under pain of possible damnation if they did not?

On considered reflection, as a parent of four children conceived in Ireland after 1968,  I must answer definitely not.

This conclusion is not based primarily upon my own view of the inherent persuasiveness of Humanae Vitae itself.  It derives from the complete failure of the Irish Catholic magisterium, in the decades after 1968, to commune directly with their married flock, to convince us of the moral danger of ignoring it.

Had Irish bridges and other such structures been routinely collapsing in those decades, the teachers of civil engineering in our universities would surely have been vastly upset.  A national engineering emergency must then have been declared – and all failing engineers convened for intensive remedial education.  The highest engineering magisterium would surely have sat down directly with former students and patiently asked: “What was it exactly about not doing x, y and z that  you didn’t understand”.

In contrast, though knowing well for decades that their priests were not even attempting to convince us of the moral and eternal dangers of ignoring Humanae Vitae, our Irish bishops  preserved an astonishing and persuasive calm.  Very soon, even though everyone knew that they had been appointed partly for their own assent to Humanae Vitae, they conspicuously lost all interest in interfacing directly with their people on that issue (or on any other that might trigger awkward questions!)

It followed inevitably not only that their ‘teaching’ on Humanae Vitae came to appear merely  theoretical, but that their aloofness on all other issues could be understood in that light also.  True, some of them muttered darkly about ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ but they also continued to play bridge and golf, and to take foreign holidays.  If the supposed threat to our eternal salvation was causing them sleepless nights they kept this to themselves.

In 1994 our education in the authority of magisterial teaching on the family became complete.  In that year we learned for the very first time from infuriated Belfast families of the havoc wrought by clerical sexual abuse of children. Our bishops subsequently told us they had been on a ‘learning curve’ in dealing with it. Why this ‘learning curve’ should have been continuing since the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century – without bishops ever learning that this abuse is deeply dangerous to children, or ever getting around to warning us about the problem themselves – has never been explained.

That most Catholic parents have grown increasingly concerned about the remoteness of their bishops since 1968, about the radical transformation of our society during those decades, and about the virtually complete absence of opportunities for learning together as Catholic adults how to cope with all that, goes without saying.    That the separation between priests and people caused by that same remoteness now imperils the survival of the Irish priesthood and thereby the future of the Irish church itself, also troubles us all.

So now that we are – at last – consulted on how much Catholic magisterial ‘teaching’ on the family since 1968 has gotten through to us, some of us are as taken aback as those shepherds surely were by the appearance of angels in the heavens at the first Christmas in Bethlehem.  ‘How’, we ask, ‘can this be?  Were we supposed to be taking e.g. Humanae Vitae seriously all along?’

The essence of my response will simply be that our Irish magisterium has assiduously been teaching us since 1968 to rely for moral guidance more on prayer, on the Gospels, and on truly honest priests, than on themselves.  By their own studied behaviour they have made themselves as persuasive and indispensable as that long forgotten brotherhood, the Keepers of the King’s Whippets.

However, if, on the other hand, I am now to understand that Catholic bishops are not only ready to receive this news, but to challenge this state of affairs, I can assure them that they still have enormous latent power to do that.  All they need do is exorcise their own petrifying fear of learning about  these matters directly from their married flock – and realise that God, having designed us all to be sexual, does not become remotely as paralytic and incoherent as they do when we conscientiously exercise that privilege.

My honest recollection is that we stopped freely discussing everything together in about 1968, the year of Humanae Vitae.   Who knows, if the upcoming synods can change that we may soon be able to attend to what our bishops say they want to teach us with all the unaccustomed fascination of those ancient ancestors who once sat on grassy banks to listen, for the first time, to St Patrick.

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After Ferns: Clericalism Must Go!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2006

“Bishops placed the interest of the church ahead of children …”
(The Ferns Report, Page 256)

Although everyone knows what Judge Murphy and his colleagues meant by this verdict on two former bishops of Ferns, there is something strange and contradictory – even outrageous – about it also.

First, those children, and their parents, were also full members of the church – so the church itself, as a society of human beings, was grievously harmed by what those bishops did, or failed to do.

Second, the Irish Catholic church, as a community of faith, has never been so grievously hurt – not even by the Cromwellian persecution. If we cannot trust that our bishops – whose banner is ‘the faith’ – will put the basic law of the church before everything else – the law of love – then our faith too will be deeply challenged. Had those bishops deliberately set out to injure ‘the faith’ they could not have been more effective.

So, if it wasn’t ‘the church’, what interest exactly was it that those bishops placed ahead of children?

It cannot have been Catholic teaching, because the church has always taught that the family is the basic social unit. For over four decades now it has also taught that all are equal in dignity. In favouring erring priests before children, those bishops were denying, not upholding, strict Catholic teaching.

What interest was it, then, that they placed ahead of children?

We discover what it was by reflecting that it had to do not with revealing the truth, but with concealing it. What was it that was concealed?

We all know what it was now – because the Ferns report reveals it beyond question.

Catholic ordination – the distinctive badge of Catholic clergy – does not guarantee sinlessness or virtue in those who receive it.

Most importantly, ordination does not guarantee sexual abstinence – true celibacy – to those who receive it. It is clear now, in fact, that some of our clergy have sought ordination precisely because it has allowed them to prey upon children, sexually.

It is clear also that, faced with this reality, bishops have, far more often than not, sought to conceal that truth from the wider church – as though it was diametrically opposed to faith itself.

Yet nowhere does the church officially teach that the sacrament of ordination is a guarantee of virtue, or even celibacy. That odd notion has always been contradicted by experience anyway. Yet, for some strange reason, bishops have nevertheless felt obliged to preserve it – at the expense of children.

The reason is clericalism – the felt obligation, transmitted for centuries in the culture of the church, to uphold the myth of the moral and intellectual superiority of clergy.

Clericalism is the root of the Catholic clerical child abuse scandal – for three reasons.

First, clericalism empowers the abusive priest and disempowers his victims. This is proven by many of the stories told in the Ferns report, reflected in the summation on page 261:

“Frequently it is the respect in which the abuser is held which affords the opportunity of perpetrating the crime….”

The unquestioning respect in which clergy have been held in Ireland rests squarely on clericalism – taught to children by the attitudes and behaviour of their parents and teachers. Put simply, the priest was the man of God, the one closest to God whom the child should trust implicitly to give access to grace, the gift of God.

Clericalism deliberately cultivates an attitude of deference to clergy. Deference – the habit of submission and compliance – gave abusive clergy virtually total power over their child victims.

Second, clericalism gave abusive priests power also over the families of those children. Irish mothers especially have tended to feel honoured that any priest would “take an interest in our Johnny” – even if ‘Johnny’ was asked to stay in the care of the priest overnight. It could not enter parents’ heads that the priest could do any harm – illustrated in the poignant story of a mother who denied to the Ferns inquiry that an abusive priest could have molested her daughter, even though he sometimes occupied the same bed!

Why could it not enter their heads? Because Irish Catholicism has so far not properly distinguished between faith in God and faith in clergy. For far too many Irish Catholics, to doubt the priest was as grave a sin as to doubt God – and our church leaders have found it all too convenient to leave this confusion intact. It is the root of Catholic deference – and deference is – or rather was – the root of much of the social power of the clerical church in Ireland.

Third, it was clericalism also that presented the bishop with the opportunity, and the obligation, to protect the myth of clerical sinlessness. It gave him that opportunity because it always counselled lay people to give the priest – and the bishop – the benefit of any doubt. It gave him the obligation to do so, because the power to which the bishop believed himself to be above all accountable – the papacy – is clericalist also – intent on ruling the church through clergy, and on protecting the myth of clerical sinlessness.

Nothing else can fully explain the virtually universal failure of Catholic bishops throughout the world to deal effectively with clerical child sexual abuse. Or the failure of the Vatican to deal with it also. Or the failure of both to give lay people the structures they have needed for forty years to develop their own role and mission in their own church.

Yet so far, regrettably, no Catholic bishop has identified clericalism as a primary factor in the problem – as the reason for the lack of integrity in our leadership. This is the real measure of the failure of the leaders of our church to grasp the nettle.

It is also the measure of the challenge facing the current papacy on this issue. It is of first importance for the recovery of the church that the myth of clergy be expressly contradicted in church teaching. We need, as a matter of great urgency, an encyclical against clericalism – an encyclical that will emphasise that faith in God does not require faith in clergy also – or deference either.

But there is the problem. The power of the church in the developing world is largely based upon clericalism also. Clericalism flourishes wherever there is a clear educational gap between the priest and the bulk of his congregation. And Rome tends to point to the developing world as evidence of the continuing health of the church – even to the extent of proposing that the priest shortage in the west could be supplied from Africa!

So it seems unlikely that clericalism will be tackled as a problem by the church leadership soon.

But meanwhile in Ireland, as elsewhere, we must develop a church culture that is safe for children. This surely must involve the warning of every child, at an early age, that no adult is to be deferred to when personal boundaries are at stake. To make sure the child is clear on what ‘no adult’ means, we must deliberately and expressly abandon the Irish Catholic habit of automatic deference to clergy.

Can our bishops rise to the challenge of telling us this? Will they be allowed to?

Who can say? Given the extraordinary slowness with which our bishops have learned anything in recent decades, it seems likely that there will be continuing tension between the needs of child protection, and the clericalist bias that has so endangered our children since Vatican II.

Catholic adults – lay and clerical – will need to pray hard to negotiate this minefield without further pain and grief.

However, there is great comfort to be gained in the realisation that although ordination does not guarantee virtue, most of our priests are virtuous anyway.

The reason is that they do obey the basic law of the church – the law of love. And pray hard for that virtue of virtues. That is why they are, mostly, genuinely loved by their people also.

Clericalism will not be needed to hold the Irish church together if we let truth and love, and prayer, and the sacraments, do so instead. If our bishops cannot rise to the challenge of teaching us this, we – priests and people – must rise to the challenge of teaching it to them.

For, whatever else may happen, the death of Catholic clericalism in Ireland is now assured. Our Irish Catholic church will either survive – and flourish – without it, or perish with it.

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IX – Catholicism and Sexuality

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

A great crisis is also a great opportunity: this truth has been well expressed by many of those who have responded to this series of articles.

And although the issue of sexuality lies close to the centre of the present crisis of Irish Catholicism, there is an unprecedented opportunity here also for a new beginning.

This assertion will surprise those who insist that Catholicism is fundamentally loopy on sex. They will point to the clerical sex abuse scandals, and to the fact that the Catholic leadership still seems totally bogged down with that issue. They will point also to the virtually total collapse of interest in the celibate priestly vocation among young Irish males.

But something else has happened in Ireland in the past decade – something the media do not highlight as they should. Ireland has also discovered the hollowness of the promises of the sexual revolution – the theory that easy sex is the high road to human happiness. Far from delivering a healthy society, the removal of all restraint from sexual behaviour has proven itself to be far more dangerous to the physical, psychological and social health of Ireland than ‘Catholic guilt’ ever was.

The evidence for this is all around us. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase, threatening the sexual lives and future happiness of thousands of young people. Family dysfunction and breakdown are also increasing, with incalculable future consequences for the children of unhappy and broken homes. The commercialisation of sexuality (redefining it as a mere recreational activity), threatens its power to bind us together in dedicated relationships of mutual service and trust. And the loneliness and misery that flow from all of this are feeding the epidemics of addiction and depression sweeping across the island.

Yet, in the midst of all that, many Irish families have remained strong – raising healthy, happy and balanced young people. And if we look closely, these families are often living proof of the power of Christian, and Catholic, faith, to create a context within which human sexuality completely fulfils its potential to draw people closer to one another, and to God.

Fundamental to most of those relationships is the fact that the church provides a public context in which sexual partners can make a solemn, lifetime commitment to one another. It provides also a continuing external support for their romantic attachment. The liturgy of the wedding mass often makes a deep and lasting impression, convincing the couple that God has blessed their union, wishes it to prosper, and will help to heal whatever tensions may follow.

Such couples often disprove in their own lives the theory that Catholic spirituality and sexuality are incompatible. They prove the very opposite – that the high valuation the church places upon sacramental marriage, lifelong fidelity and family stability, are perfectly in tune with the deepest natural impulse of the human heart.

For however much popular culture may have undermined the stability of sexual relationships, it has left untouched the romantic ideal of sexual partners finding complete personal fulfilment in a permanent, mutually dedicated and fruitful relationship. That romantic ideal remains the bedrock of popular literature, TV and cinema – however difficult it may be to attain in practice.

Placing this relationship within a context of Christian values and spiritual support makes more sense with every day that passes – especially now that we know that informal relationships are statistically far more likely to fail, far less likely to realise the romantic impulse, and far less protective of children’s need for a stable home.

It is within a permanent, dedicated relationship also that sexuality flowers most fully in its capacity for assisting full self-revelation, personal growth and intimacy. Without fully honest and open relationships the human soul can shrivel – because we cannot grow to full self-discovery and understanding on our own. To put it very simply, many, many Irish Catholic couples know that sexual desire can only be fully satisfied within a context of deep mutual love and commitment.

Many married Catholics have discovered that fact through their own relationships, and therefore possess the essential wisdom needed to counter the exploitation of mere sexual expression as an end in itself – the ‘do it now’ imperative that so threatens our younger generations. The tragedy is that, so far, the clerical church has made so little use of the wisdom gained by lay people in this so-important realm.

One perfect illustration of this is the extraordinary fact that no married Irish Catholic can deliver a Sunday homily on the Gospel story of the wedding feast at Cana, or on marriage itself. Thus, although Jesus so often chose the relationship of man and wife as a metaphor for his own relationship with his followers, Catholic married men and their wives are so far deliberately excluded from the most important Catholic ministerial functions, and therefore from the task of re-evangelisation of an over-sexualised culture. There is something fundamentally wrong, even ridiculous, about this.

It is wrong and ridiculous for many reasons. First, it puts celibate priests in the dangerous position of determining the Church’s rules on sexuality. We do not have to look any further for the root source of the scandals that now beset us, or for the alienation from the sacraments caused by Humanae Vitae. Scandal begins at the point where the personal life of a spokesperson for a cause falls short of the principles he urges upon others – and it is inevitable that this will happen a minority of clergy in the area of sexuality.

Humanae Vitae, which became the touchstone for promotion in the clerical church, has weakened the moral authority of the Church also – because it did not arise out of the sensus fidelium – the faith of the whole church. Allowing married Catholics to make use of Mathematics to regulate births, it inexplicably denied them the freedom to use Chemistry or Physics to do so – and this was never persuasive. If there is a medical case for such a policy (now that we know more of the dangers of specific chemical regimes), very few lay people were ever persuaded by the Church’s insistence that God would approve the use of a temporal barrier to conception (the infertile period), but send us to hell for employing a physical or chemical barrier. That argument made God himself appear to be a prudish nitpicker – like the tortured and unrepresentative clerics who imposed this decision on Pope Paul VI.

The separation between ministry and sexuality is wrong and ridiculous also because it exposes the whole church as a community to public ridicule when clerical sexual scandals occur. Irish Catholic bishops have still to measure fully the depth of embarrassment they have caused lay Catholics on the issue of sexuality – for example by appearing at times to argue that God would prefer a married Catholic male (perhaps made HIV positive by an infected blood transfusion), to infect his wife with Aids than to save her life by using a condom.

But the separation of ministry and sexuality is wrong and ridiculous above all because it prevents the Church from bearing powerful witness to the compatibility of Christian spirituality with a full sexual relationship. It virtually defines spirituality as asexual, and implies that sex is essentially sinful. This, I am convinced, is the root source of the alienation of so many Irish males from the Church, and the chief reason the clerical church has made itself a laughing-stock in Ireland on the issue of sexuality.

It follows from all of this that a full healing of relationships in the Irish Catholic Church – and a recovery in the public prestige of the church – must involve a revolution in the status of married Catholics – men and women – within it. Only then can the graces that have been given to many married Irish Catholics be put to work to revitalise the whole Church

Already the bishops of England and Wales have begun to realise this by beginning a process of consultation with Catholic families – to help them develop their own ministry. A similar initiative is long overdue in Ireland – but perhaps this is a good thing. Far too many so-called consultative processes in Ireland in the recent past have been mere cosmetic exercises, leading nowhere.

They led nowhere because the Irish Catholic laity have been deliberately deprived of a corporate structure and voice – a permanent structure of empowerment in, and ownership of, their Church which would have expressed fully the dignity of their lay vocation, and exploited the wisdom they have acquired by living it. Although we have a regular conference of Irish bishops, and another of Irish priests, there has never been a conference of the Irish laity. In the present context, where we have a highly educated, mobile – and often alienated – laity, that is disastrous and inexcusable.

And this is why many commentators in the secular media are supposing that with the extinction of the Irish clergy, the Irish Catholic Church will soon disappear altogether.

This is a mistake. The Irish Catholic family has always been the hidden backbone of the Irish Church. Over the next generation it will emerge to revitalise the whole church.

The agenda for such a movement is already becoming clear. Over the past forty years Irish people have virtually lost control of their own culture, due to media invasion. As a consequence the pace of change is being set by the fastest – those who mimic the lifestyle and mores of other cultures where commercial interests predominate. This threatens the Irish Catholic family to a degree that no-one can now fail to recognise.

It is time to begin a national movement to embody the strong desire that many lay people have to redefine their own values in Christian terms, and to reclaim their own culture – for example by setting together wise and balanced boundaries for teenage behaviour. No section of society has more to gain, or to lose, than Irish Catholic parents.

It is high time, obviously, for the Irish hierarchy to sponsor and support such a development. If they don’t, it will happen anyway – if only because there will soon be no reactionary clerical interest powerful enough to prevent it.

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“No donations without representation!”

Following the sex abuse scandals that broke out in the Archdiocese of Boston earlier this year (2002), a movement called Voice of the Faithful was founded to campaign for a real say for lay people in governing and guiding the church. Sean O’Conaill looks at a movement that attracted more than 4000 people to its first major conference in July, 2002, and interviews founding member, Dr Jim Muller.

Voice of the Irish faithful raised in Boston

Reilly, Sweeney, Burke, Coakley, Conley, Keating – a litany of Irish names rolls out in the story of Boston attorneys and judges who earlier this year compelled the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to hand over to civil legal authorities all of its files on the handling of clerical child abuse over four decades.

As ordinary Bostonians read the correspondence on the handling of cases involving three priests in particular who were abusing children into the 1990s, a storm of anger broke in the only major US city with a Catholic majority.

Although US bishops had adopted guidelines in the mid-1980s which should have protected all Catholic children, these seemed not to have been observed in the Boston archdiocese – the most important in the US – with grim consequences for some Catholic families.

Abused victims then came forward to report the indifference of the archdiocesan office to their plight. In one case, a victim had been given to understand that he could not be received by a diocesan official in case he, the victim, tried to seduce the official as he had earlier allegedly seduced Fr Paul Shanley – a Priest abuser who had publicly advocated ‘man-boy love’ decades earlier.

Stories such as these shocked Boston Catholics into a realisation that their trust in their Archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, had left children vulnerable to shameful abuse. Generations of deferential certainty that church leaders would give the highest priority to the protection of Catholic children were suddenly part of the past. In at least one case, Cardinal Law had written encouragingly to an abusing priest, while aiding his transfer without forewarning to another diocese in which other children were then abused.

Crisis of faith

Jim Muller, a medic whose mother was a Courtney from Cork, found himself in a personal crisis of faith. The church had always been part of his life, yet one Sunday in January this year he found he could not go to Mass. After a painful day, he decided that he could not leave his church without trying to better it.

Next Sunday, he saw a long-time friend and his wife, and they discussed the problem. The three of them then spoke with the pastor of St. John the Evangelist church in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Jim suggested there was a need for the laity to have their own meeting during the week to discuss their reactions to the crisis. Father Powers consulted with other parishioners, and suggested that in addition to the lay meeting, it would be good to let the people speak in church after each mass, with a lay facilitator. This was done for two consecutive Sundays. More than 600 spoke from the pews of their love of the church, and their anguish over the crimes and cover-up. They soon found they had a simple programme: to change the church they loved while keeping the faith they shared.

This became the banner of ‘Voice of the Faithful’ (VOTF), a grassroots parish-based movement that was soon using the Internet to spread its simple objectives throughout the state of Massachusetts, and beyond. They stated their mission: “To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.” They set themselves three goals: to support those who had been abused; to support priests of integrity; and to shape structural change within the church.

Misgivings allayed

Early misgivings among some about their authority to act in this way were soon allayed by church legal and theological experts. Church Canon No. 215 declares that, “The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.” None was in any doubt that they had indeed been called by the Holy Spirit to help renew church structures that had failed to protect Catholic children, and that had shamed their church throughout the United States.

Furthermore, the lay obligation stated by Canon 222 – to promote social justice – seemed likely to be frustrated by the mounting financial claims of those who had been abused through the negligence of pastors.

Theologians reminded VOTF members of Lumen Gentium, the great Vatican II document on the church. Article 37 declares the obligation of the laity “to disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ.” It continues: “By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have, the laity are empowered – indeed sometimes obliged to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church.” Thus reassured, VOTF discussions proceeded apace.

The danger of fragmentation through the setting of specific goals sought by left and right in the church – such as the ordination of women or the exclusion from ministry of anyone of homosexual orientation – was avoided by sticking to the simple programme already agreed. The details of structural reform could be discussed and debated as part of the process of self-education, while the movement widened its base across the broad centre ground of the church.

First major conference

By July 2002 – just five months after the movement had started – it was possible for VOTF to hold its first major conference in Boston. Four thousand two hundred people from 36 US states and seven countries enjoyed a day of prayer, education and organisation centred on honouring those who had either suffered abuse or who had tried at an early stage to mobilise the church leadership against it.

Chief among the latter was Fr Tom Doyle, who had been joint author of a report on the child abuse problem in the mid-1980s, and who had tried to warn the US hierarchy of the catastrophe that would inevitably follow any failure to deal with it. They had not heeded the warning. Now, however, Fr Tom’s efforts were recognised by Voice of the Faithful as he became the first recipient of their `Priest of Integrity’ award.

Attendees also signed a VOTF pledge upholding their duties and responsibilities as lay people as defined in Vatican II, and asking the Pope to “hold accountable any bishop who reassigned an abusive priest or concealed his crimes.” This pledge and request will be sent to Rome.

The point of the request is that despite acknowledging publicly his own failures in the handling of abusive priests – failures which had proved catastrophic for further victims – Cardinal Law has refused to resign from his post as Archbishop of Boston. This decision is believed to have the support of the Vatican, which is anxious to resist the impression that media pressure can determine the fate of those it has appointed to high office.

But Cardinal Law’s continuance in office is now hurting donations to the various Catholic charities in the archdiocese, normally channelled through the Archbishop’s office, as lay people use the only sanction left to them – the withdrawal of financial support. To help offset the losses to these charities, VOTF has established a separate charitable fund, called “Voice of Compassion”, now fully operational. Donations from this fund will be available for the archdiocese to channel to the charities worst hit by the crisis, although Cardinal Law is so far resisting this offer.

Interview with President of ‘Voice of the Faithful’, Jim Muller

You’re already a joint Nobel Peace Prize winner. How did that come about?

With influence from Thomas Merton’s writings, the University of Notre Dame, and Pacem in Terris, I used my experience as a medical exchange student in Russia to build a movement of Russian, American and other physicians against nuclear weapons. It was a grass roots movement of 150,000 that expressed the will of the people against the power of the governments. It was not unlike Voice of the Faithful in giving a collective expression to the wishes of many. The group, International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (ippnw.org) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

“Keep the Faith: Change the Church” – that’s the VOTF slogan. Mightn’t you destroy the faith by dividing the church?

At present the church has terrible divisions between the faithful and the hierarchy in many areas, and between traditional and progressive activists. We hope to contribute to unity between the progressive, moderate and liberal laity, and between the laity and the hierarchy. This can happen when the laity have a forum to discuss their differences, and then present their areas of agreement to the hierarchy.

How would you answer those who say that the church will split apart if lay people start `advising’ priests and bishops on how to run it?

Our goal is that laity and hierarchy work together for the good of the church. The hierarchy should have a predominant role in preservation of the core dogma of the church. The laity, on the other hand, have more experience in many areas of the life of the church in the world that can help the church.

Clearly many of those at the summit of the church miscalculated the impact this scandal would have on laity. Could this be because they are not themselves parents with children to look out for?

Yes.

Why haven’t you put a married clergy at the top of your programme?

We have not taken stands on any specific issues other than a voice for the laity. Once that forum is established, we expect that married clergy will be discussed, as will many other issues. I will introduce a resolution calling for more Gregorian chant in services. In U. S. political terms, we are creating the equivalent of a Congress for the Catholic laity, not the Democratic or Republican party, nor are we starting to promote individual issues before we have built a World organisation.

‘Voice of the Faithful’ started up because there were priests in parishes who trusted laity to use their anger constructively when they met to discuss this crisis. What do laity do in parishes where priests are afraid that things might get out of hand if they allow such meetings?

They went to other parishes, and they continued dialogue with their reluctant pastor. Many pastors who were reluctant at first are now cooperative. Collections are up in parishes with Voice of the Faithful activity.

Are there places where VOTF parish groups are running without the approval of parish clergy?

Such groups are meeting in libraries and catacombs. (The last comment is a weak attempt to prove I’m Irish!)

You argue that VOTF is a genuine grassroots movement. Is that because it’s based upon parish groups that have formed themselves?

It started with the laity, and it springs up in the parish.

At the VOTF conference you were cheered when you declared the principle: “No donations without representation!” How would you answer those who might say that looking for some kind of control of church finance is an attempt to blackmail the leadership?

This is a leadership that has demonstrated the danger of absolute power. We do not seek to dominate the hierarchy – we seek to have a collaborative relationship in which both sides have influence and power.

What about the argument that since democracy is all about politics, it has no place in the church, which should be all about prayer, worship and the sacraments?

The church is primarily prayer, worship and sacraments, but it also interacts with the world in many ways that are not fixed by scripture, tradition, and the teaching of Christ. The laity have great knowledge of these issues. They need a democracy for themselves in order to express that knowledge in a collective manner, and to fulfil the mandates of Vatican II.

Many Bostonians – yourself included – are ethnically Irish. Is this significant in explaining the rise of VOTF in Catholic Boston?

Yes, the spirit of Ireland in resisting oppression has helped us all.

What role do you think lay Catholics in Ireland should be looking to play in the development of the church?

We hope that VOTF will have a chapter in every parish in the world. At present, I do not believe we have a single chapter in Ireland, nor did we have a representative from Ireland at our conference (I may be wrong since there was much chaos). My hope is that the people of Ireland will decide that VOTF might give them a way to revive the Irish Catholic Church, and contribute to the world growth of VOTF.

How do you personally keep a balance between the spiritual side of being a Catholic, and this new activism?

The new activism has introduced me to the most wonderful group of Catholics I have ever met. In itself it has been a spiritual experience.

Let’s look ahead maybe 10 years from now. What needs to happen between now and then to allow you to say “VOTF has had a good decade”?

Ten years from now, when I’m 69, I hope that VOTF has a chapter in every parish, a council in each diocese, a council for each nation, and a world council. I hope these lay organisations have thoroughly debated most of the relevant issues, and made the lay view known to their partners in the hierarchy, who have responded appropriately. I hope that the church is stronger, has a more powerful spiritual voice in a world that needs it, and that I will be able to give thanks for these wonderful changes while playing golf in Ireland.

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