A Reforming Group Spawned from Scandal
Keep the Faith, Change the Church
By James E. Muller and Charles Kenney
Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]
May 29, 2004
Dr. James Muller is an Indianapolis native who helped found International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. He is also the founding president of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), a controversial organization founded in suburban Boston when the sex abuse of children by Catholic priests and the cover-up by Boston archdiocesan officials were first revealed.
"Keep the Faith, Change the Church" is an account of the founding of this organization in a church basement in 2002. It has since become a national organization with a membership in excess of 30,000, with 200 affiliates from Florida to Alaska. Along the way it has met considerable opposition from conservative Catholics and from the Catholic Church's hierarchy.
Muller did not expect this opposition. He was convinced that VOTF was a legitimate organization of dedicated mainline Catholic lay men and women whose only goal was to rebuild and improve the church after the sex-abuse tragedy. He was typical of the devout Catholics who were angered by the scandal. He graduated from St. Joan of Arc Grade School and Cathedral High School in Indianapolis before attending the University of Notre Dame and then Johns Hopkins Medical School.
The book's title is VOTF's motto. The organization has three goals: be responsive to the sex-abuse survivors, support clergy of integrity, and shape structural change within the church. The first two goals were not controversial, but the third was. Although members emphasized that they wanted to change only the way the church conducts its business -- "changing structure, not doctrine" -- it was this goal that provoked opposition.
Muller and co-author Charles Kenney, a former Boston Globe reporter and editor, detail Cardinal Bernard Law's antagonism toward VOTF as well as the cold treatment members of the organization received when they attended a meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops.
The book describes a meeting between Muller and Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein during which the archbishop "expressed concern over our goal of changing the church." Muller said VOFT did not want to change the church's core doctrine but admitted that, had they pursued the topic further, they "would have disagreed about what is open to discussion."
Eventually, Cardinal Law resigned and his successor, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, "set a new tone that we believe holds much promise," says Mullen.
The book includes a section titled "The Historical Case for a Democracy of the Laity." Among other things, it shows how the Second Vatican Council encouraged lay involvement in church affairs. In the interest of full disclosure, Jim's father, Dr. Paul Muller, asked me to review that section before the book's publication. I did and made a number of suggestions, most of which were accepted.
Jim Muller professes not to understand why some Catholics oppose VOTF since the organization is open to all Catholics. However, it's a fact that many liberal Catholics who do want to change some of the church's core doctrines were the most eager to join. And, although there is no reason to doubt Muller's sincerity in believing that he is in the mainstream of Catholics, he quotes such people as Garry Wills, Father Richard McBrien, Sister Joan Chittister, and James Carroll, none of whom would be considered mainstream Catholics by most objective observers.
Another problem is that VOTF cannot control local affiliates that have sprung up around the country, many of which are not led by mainstream Catholics.
It should also be said that conditions in the church in most places are not as bad as they were in Boston. Laity in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, for example, play a much greater role in the governance of the church than they do in Boston, and the archdiocesan finances are much more open. The archdiocese here, for example, releases an annual audited financial report.
Muller's and Kenney's account of the founding of VOTF and the problems it has encountered is a highly readable book.
Fink is an Indianapolis author and journalist. Contact him by e-mail at email@example.com .
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