By ANNE HENDERSHOTT
March 15, 2009
Critics of a now-withdrawn bill, designed to reshape the way the Roman Catholic Church in Connecticut governs itself, viewed the proposal as an attempt by the state to interfere with the free exercise of religion. But this is only part of the story. The legislation is one more example of what sociologist Peter Berger calls the "secularization from within" the church.
On the surface, the proposed bill, which would have relegated priests and bishops to an advisory role in their parishes, looks like unconstitutional interference by the state in church matters. But the real force behind this bill is a small group of Catholics — unhappy with church teachings on moral and governance issues — attempting to enlist the state as a partner in radically transforming the church from within.
To understand the underlying impetus for the proposed legislation, people can visit the website of Voice of the Faithful, a national organization of disgruntled Catholics. Fairfield University Professor Paul Lakeland, a longtime member of the group, has been on the front lines in leading the charge for the legislation. Among his publications is the book, "Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the Laity Can Save the Church."
Voice of the Faithful emerged in response to the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals. Its goal from the start was to hold bishops accountable for abusive priests in their dioceses. But the group's agenda broadened from protecting children to reducing the power of the Catholic hierarchy, eliminating the requirement for priestly celibacy and supporting the ordination of women.
And although the membership is small, this organization reflects a powerful minority within the church — one that has been engaged in a battle with the hierarchy over these and other issues including sexual morality, academic freedom on Catholic campuses and reproductive freedom.
The Bridgeport chapter of Voice was revitalized in the past few years when the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, a Bridgeport pastor, was convicted of stealing $1.4 million in parishioner donations to support a lavish lifestyle with his gay partner. The Fay case is most often cited by those promoting the new legislation.
The bill was raised by those who have an incentive to exaggerate the claims of abuse by priests and mismanagement of parishes by bishops and pastors. Catholic feminists, many of them teaching in theology programs on Catholic campuses, have exploited the clergy abuse scandal to criticize what they regard as the church's patriarchal hierarchy.
In the midst of the clergy abuse scandal, Lisa Sowle Cahill, theology professor at Boston College, published an opinion piece in The New York Times asserting that the priestly abuse "exposes the weaknesses of a virtually all-male decision-making structure." Her solution was to ordain women, and encourage "all Catholics to withhold funds from all diocesan and Vatican collections and organizations."
Others have been relentless in drawing attention to the Catholic scandals of the past by presenting the cases as part of a systemic problem caused by the celibacy requirement and the church's teachings on homosexuality. Former Maryknoll priest Eugene Kennedy claims to long for a "post-clerical, de-centered priesthood, in which the adjustments to celibacy are varied." For Kennedy, the priesthood must be changed to include "the love and understanding of a specific woman, or, in some cases, a certain man."
It is likely that the attempt to pass this legislation will continue in Connecticut and elsewhere — not because of a perceived need by most Catholics for state oversight, but rather because there are so many within the church who can gain by keeping this issue alive.
For feminists lobbying for women's ordination, the image of the "problem priest" like the Rev. Fay surely points to the need for women to fill priestly roles. For gay rights activists, intent on denouncing what they view as the church's hypocrisy on homosexuality, the Fay case is often used to illustrate what can happen when gay men are not allowed to express their sexuality openly as priests.
And for organizations like Voice of the Faithful that want the church to become a "democratic" institution, the state becomes a partner in creating an egalitarian church that reflects the will of the people rather than the guidance of her leaders.
• Anne Hendershott of Milford is professor of urban studies at The King's College in New York and the author of the recently released, "Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education."