.- Catholics around the country are upset over a new bill in the Connecticut Senate that, in the words of the Archbishop of Hartford, "forces a radical reorganization of the legal, financial, and administrative structure of our parishes." The bill, which bears resemblance to Voice of the Faithful’s Strategic Plan, is being supported by Dr. Paul Lakeland, who believes that in this case it’s appropriate to use state legislation to force the Church’s hand.
Dr. Paul Lakeland, Fairfield University Chair of Catholic Studies, Voice of the Faithful member, former Jesuit Priest, and author of several books including “The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church,” recently discussed his support for Connecticut’s controversial Bill No. 1098 with CNA. Dr. Lakeland is also scheduled to testify before the Connecticut General Assembly on behalf of the bill.
The premise of the bill is remarkably similar to the 2009-2010 Voice of the Faithful Strategic Plan. “The VOTF,” as Dr. Lakeland explains, “grew up in response to the sex abuse scandals here. One of the things that became rapidly apparent, among both liberals and conservatives, was the sense that the bishops hadn’t done a very good job of handling this.”
Explaining his connection to the bill Dr. Lakeland said, “I’m connected to [the bill] to this degree: I’ve been working pretty closely with Tom Gallagher, who’s a Greenwich businessman, who has been behind the push to get the state government to do something about this. Even though, I don’t think, even he was involved in putting the legislation together.”
Upon further investigation, Tom Gallagher seems to be more than just a Greenwich businessman, and to have more than just a passive role in lobbying legislators for the change. In a Voice of the Faithful article titled, “The Money Trail: Financial Management and Mismanagement in the Diocese of Bridgeport,” Joseph O’Callaghan quotes ‘Attorney’ Tom Gallagher multiple times. The article spells out the following principles for reform:
“[...] The same principles should be applied to diocesan property. The diocesan corporation should include elected representatives from each of the eighty-seven parishes, who in turn would elect two directors from each of the five vicariates.
The bishop, one of the three vicars general, and the chancellor should be ex officio members, but elected representatives of the laity should comprise the majority of the diocesan corporation, its directors, and its officers.
Implementation of this proposal will necessitate changes in both canon and civil law.”
“Attorney Tom Gallagher has already initiated discussion with state legislators about changing the law regulating parish and diocesan corporations. Members of VOTF should lend their support to this effort.”
O’Callaghan’s VOTF article offers a blueprint that is nearly identical to the bill now being considered by the Connecticut Senate, and could explain why Sen. McDonald told the Hartford Courant that the idea came from parishioners in Darien and Greenwich, where Gallagher is a church member.
Dr. Lakeland also acknowledged his own membership with Voice of the Faithful, by saying “It’s funny, I work with them, but being a member is a very vague thing. I suppose most people would consider me a member, I don’t pay any dues…I think most people would consider me a member, yes.”
Membership in Voice of the Faithful grew rapidly, immediately after sexual abuse allegations in the Northeast, but after new child protection policies were implemented around the country, membership began to plateau.
When asked about the anti-hierarchal nature of Voice of the Faithful, Dr. Lakeland explained, “There’s a spectrum of opinions. You will certainly find people in the VOTF that are deeply anti-clerical and ‘the sooner that we have women bishops the better’ and you find many people that are far more moderate than that…To find out who speaks for Voice of the Faithful, you’ll have to go the website to answer that question.”
Voice of the Faithfull’s website admits in an online video, “In the past, we’ve had trouble defining who we were; we’ve had a branding issue which has hurt our fundraising ability” In response, their leadership has clearly spelled out a new strategic approach, which broadens its previous focus on protecting children, to embrace an agenda aimed at reducing the power of the hierarchy, eliminating a celibate priesthood and introducing female priests.
Critics, including Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, charge that this new bill is a direct attack on the Church and that it is “a thinly-veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage.”
"If this bill were to be enacted,” warned Bishop Lori, “your bishop, would have virtually, virtually no real relationship with the 87 parishes…they could go off independently, some of them could break off from the Church if they wished, and go their own way as has happened, for example, with the Episcopal Church. And the pastors would be figureheads, simply working for a board of trustees," he said last Friday.
The proposed legislation, S.B. 1098, aims to reorganize the internal structure of the Church, removing the bishop as the head of the board of the parishes in his diocese and requiring the pastor to report finances to a board composed of laity, instead of the bishop. Under the bill, the bishop is also relegated to being an "ex officio" member of the board, without voting rights.
Dr. Lakeland believes, in this specific case, that it’s appropriate to use local and state legislation to “put the subject out there for discussion,” and further explained that the Voice of the Faithful developed out of “frustration with the Institutional Church.”
Claiming that he was not responsible for drafting the bill, Dr. Lakeland echoed comments made by Sen. Andrew McDonald, who introduced the bill. “This bill doesn’t have anything to do with Catholic faith. It’s got to do with organization of the parish community…I would certainly be deeply opposed to any efforts of the legislature to throw off legislation on the Catholic faith.”
Describing the two Congressmen that wrote the bill, Andrew McDonald and Michael Lawlor, Dr. Lakeland strangely claimed, “I don’t think they support the bill, I think they just wrote the bill. If they didn’t write it, then I don’t know who [in the legislature] would.”
Supporters of Senate Bill 1098 argue that the proposed legislation is only about transparency and openness of financial matters. Yet, Anthony Picarello, General Counsel of the U.S. Conference of Bishops described the bill as “blatantly unconstitutional” and that it “targets the Catholic Church explicitly and exclusively, and attempts to use the civil law to alter Church governance.”
When questioned about how the bill would sever a bishop’s ties to each parish and strip him of his voting rights, Dr. Lakeland conceded, “The legislation as it stands is a little extreme. I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets here, I don’t think most people, even those in favor of it imagine it becoming law in its present form.”
Asked if there would be implications for the entire U.S. Catholic Church, he confidently responded, “Oh, I think it would, and I think if passed in Connecticut, the pressure to pass it in many of the other states in the union would be enormous.”
In the wake of the bill’s introduction last Thursday, negative responses from Catholics and bishops around the country have been heard.
But Dr. Lakeland responded by defending the bill, saying, “I think legislation that moves in this direction frees the bishop and the pastor from a whole lot of stress producing tasks and managerial responsibility…and I think it will be good for them. If I were a bishop, I’d welcome it!”
At the root of the issue, he explained, is that “Bishops don’t see or get, for whatever reason that grownup adults, active, committed laypeople, provide pretty much all the financial resources to their Church and have no say in how that money is spent.”
Both Voice of the Faithful and Dr. Lakeland also agree that if this legislation had already been in place, the Catholic Church would have avoided much of the financial fallout from the sexual abuse scandals, containing the financial responsibility to individual parishes.
Concluding his support for the bill he said, “I see absolutely no chance whatsoever of the Institutional Church making a change in this direction without pressure from somewhere outside the Church. There’s not even the most remote likelihood that the Church would adjust in this direction itself. I think this is a way of putting pressure on them to make changes and bringing the issue into a more prominent setting.”