Today the group Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) ran an advertisement in the New York Times in anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States next week. In an email interview with VOTF leaders, CNA was able to discover what exactly the group means by calling for “structural change” within the Church.
The Wednesday full-page advertisement in the New York Times is part of a larger campaign VOTF is conducting to try and advance their view that lay people are not well represented in the Catholic Church.
As of April 2, the group said on their web site that so far they had raised $63,000 to promote their campaign. The message said that the money would be used to place today’s full-page advertisement in the New York Times, to place smaller ads in other media and to fund “other communications centered on the papal visit.”
VOTF was founded in Boston in 2002 after a firestorm of news about clerical sexual abuse cover-ups. On its planned advertisement published at its website, VOTF describes its 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.” It says its goals are supporting survivors of clerical sexual abuse, supporting “priests of integrity,” and shaping “structural change within the Catholic Church in full accordance and harmony with Church teaching.”
The body of the advertisement calls for a “transformed church” and makes claims about what that church would do.
When CNA contacted VOTF to find out what they mean by a “transformed church”, the group’s media director John Moynihan described their mission as advocating “that the laity be consulted regarding the governance of a parish and in the selection of Bishops as they historically were in the early centuries of our Church’s history.”
One proposal from a Bridgeport, Connecticut branch of VOTF has advised establishing a committee from the diocese to choose local candidates for a vacant episcopal seat in a manner it says “provides much greater input by the laity.”
The proposal involves setting up a 19-person committee that would propose candidates to fill a vacant episcopal see.
In an e-mail to CNA, Joseph F. O’Callaghan, a professor emeritus at Fordham University and a board member of the Bridgeport VOTF, explained how the group thinks the selection of bishops should be changed.
O’Callaghan said any proposed diocesan committee to choose a bishop should be “elected by and representative of the clergy and people of the diocese, rather than appointed or elected by the bishop, the Diocesan Pastoral Council or the Priests' Senate.”
“The laity, as the majority of the faithful, ought to be the majority on the committee,” O’Callaghan argued.
The committee proposed by the Bridgeport VOTF would include 19 people: five laymen and five laywomen elected by parishioners, five priests elected by their colleagues, one deacon, one nun and one male religious elected by their respective groups, and one person chosen by the bishop from either the clergy or the laity.
“The committee would serve for four years (with staggered terms), meet at least four times yearly, and consult the faithful regularly” to discuss potential candidates for bishop, O’Callaghan said.
When the local bishop dies or leaves office, the diocesan committee would report its recommendations to all the people of the diocese, the provincial bishops, the metropolitan, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Congregation for Bishops.
O’Callaghan said VOTF had sent their proposal to William E. Lori, the Bishop of Bridgeport, but O’Callaghan said “We have heard nothing from him about it.”
O’Callaghan also proposed that a diocesan synod be summoned by an archbishop in the case of a vacant see. He said the synod would then elect one person as bishop to be confirmed and ordained by the archbishop and provincial bishops. He claimed this would be “in conformity with centuries of church tradition.” O’Callaghan said he outlined his views in his 2007 book “Electing our Bishops: How the Catholic Church should choose its Leaders.”
Denver canon lawyer, J.D. Flynn, gave his opinion of the proposals in an e-mail to CNA. Flynn suggested that the VOTF plan “seems to come from an innate distrust of clergy that works against the authentic collaboration between laity and clergy that the Second Vatican Council calls for.” He added that the plan seems to “force the hand” of the Pope in selecting a candidate through a form of “media blackmail.”
“This seems disruptive to authentic communion between laity and ecclesiastical leaders, and personally disrespectful to the Holy Father, the pontifical legate, and the episcopal candidates themselves,” Flynn said.
He said that canon law already expects that the papal legate will consult with the laity in the selection, but Flynn said O’Callaghan’s outline of the proposal “seems not to realize that.”
“Much of what VOTF calls for in terms of lay, religious, and clerical participation in evaluating the needs of the diocese already takes place in a diocesan pastoral council and a diocesan synod,” Flynn explained.
While granting that lay input into the selection of bishops “is not, in itself, a bad thing,” Flynn said that because the VOTF proposal involves pressuring the Holy Father it would eliminate “both obedience and virtue from the responsibilities of the Christian.”
Flynn called O’Callaghan’s proposal for a direct election of bishops by a diocesan synod, with no confirmation from the Pope, “totally unacceptable.”
“To remove the Holy Father, or seek to minimize his role, as the VOTF plan does, is to impede the communion of the divinely instituted college of bishops,” he said.