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Remaking the Church


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Deeper Division and the American Catholic Council

Editor’s note: On March 5, 2009, the co-chairmen of the Connecticut General Assembly Judiciary Committee introduced Raised Bill 1098 mandating reorganization of Catholic religious corporations.

Catholics in Connecticut mobilized against the bill, which would have restricted a pastor’s authority in his own parish — and the bishop’s as well. The bill was withdrawn in the face of public outcry.

In a four-part series, Deacon Thomas Davis, associate director of the Pope John Paul II Bioethics Center at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a practicing attorney , demonstrates how such a law fits in with parish restructuring proposals of Voice of the Faithful, the national organization that sprang up in the wake of the clerical sexual-abuse revelations of 2002.

Deacon Davis also explores Voice of the Faithful’s connections to dissident theologians and its plans to spread doctrinal error among Catholics.

Defective exegesis undermines faith, fosters division and politicizes dogmatic questions, as the failed 2009 Connecticut legislative putsch revealed. In Liberation of the Laity, Fairfield University professor and VOTF member Paul Lakeland maintains that “liberation” requires an “alternative vision” of Church developed in “parish-sized forums,” possibly divided into “working groups.” VOTF’s study guide reads like a step in that direction.

But things have not coalesced as VOTF once dreamed. With membership and interest fading, three of its national officers, together with Robert Kaiser from Take Back Our Church, Leonard Swidler from the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church and Arline Nosse of Future Church, recently established the American Catholic Council, calling its own “council” of 5,000 delegates for the “American Catholic Church” in 2011. Its website includes a “Declaration,” “Bill of Rights,” “Creed,” “Definitions” and more. Three of the nine individual signatories of its “Declaration” are VOTF members from Connecticut. Its organizational signatories reads like a who’s who of aging dissent organizations: VOTF, Take Back Our Church, the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, Call to Action, New Ways Ministry, Future Church, women’s ordination groups, Dignity USA, Corpus, “Catholic Diocese of One Spirit” and the “Society of Blessed John XXIII.”

It asserts that the Church is a democracy obliged to safeguard dissent. It insists that “distinctions between clergy and laity are functional and arbitrary” and that “all the baptized have the right to all the sacraments,” “the right to choose their leaders,” and the right to adequate representation “with voting rights” in ecumenical councils summoned at regular intervals “or by universal petition.”

It avoids any mention of God as “Father” in its “creed,” and insists that Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility “must be contrasted with the definition of the Council of Constance, which says that the popes are obliged to obey an ecumenical council and indeed can be deposed by a council.”

As is well known, the decrees of Constance regarding conciliar authority over popes was adopted prior to legitimate convocation of the council by Gregory XII, and neither he nor any successor ratified them. Moreover, Vatican II affirmed all that Vatican I taught about “the sacred primacy of the Roman pontiff and of his infallible magisterium,” decreed the same to be “firmly believed by all the faithful,” and defined his “full, supreme and universal power over the Church.”

It is hard to exaggerate the alienation the American Catholic Council embodies. One of its “Declaration” signatories claims that Catholic bishops in apostolic succession have agreed to assist in ordaining elected bishops without regard to marital status or gender.

Another, the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, has a wide-ranging proposal for structural reform, including a constitution enshrining rights to divorce and remarriage, any form of family planning, and the reception of all sacraments and exercise of all ministries by all the baptized [read: women priests]. It is no surprise to find VOTF at its epicenter.

Despite its professed loyalty to the Church, a 2004 survey revealed the tenuous commitment of VOTF members to the Church: Only 48% of its leadership and 50% of its rank and file would never consider leaving the Church, whereas 32% and 33% respectively strongly indicate they might. National data for all Catholics (including more than one-third who seldom or never attend Mass) shows a stronger commitment: Fifty-six percent would never leave, and only 14% strongly indicate they might (Voices of the Faithful, Crossroad Publishing, 2007, Appendix F, Table A).

The structural reform movement appears obsessed with gender, sexuality and power. This comes through in a remarkable way reading Anthony Massimini’s A Guide for Renewing and Restructuring for the Catholic Church, another VOTF resource.

Massimini, a member of VOTF, claims that only 2% of priests have the gift of celibacy, 90% fail to achieve it, and 50% are “fully sexually active.”

According to him, others, lacking the gift, act out. His authority for various claims is psychologist A.W. Richard Sipe, himself an ex-Benedictine monk and priest. Only after making his charge does he acknowledge that Sipe’s numbers “may not be totally accurate.”

There are surely priests who fall in the face of temptation, some habitually. Just like laypeople and laicized priests. Still others, indeed most, are heroic witnesses to the Kingdom and honor the promises made at their ordination. But whatever difficulties the sexual revolution, homosexual culture and restive malcontents have visited the Church and priesthood with, this much is clear: Catholic teaching on sexual morality cannot be reconciled with Massimini’s chosen source.

Sipe simply rejects settled Catholic teaching on matters of sexual morality: “The Church’s teaching on human sexuality is an untenable and ridiculous position from the point of view of practical life,” he writes at “The concepts that masturbation, contraception, sex before marriage/after divorce, homosexual love, etc. are ‘unnatural, absolutely and intrinsically evil’ cannot stand the test of reality and the discoveries of modern biological, genetic, evolutionary and psychological sciences.”

Sipe’s fixation with sex picked up by Massimini suggests at least dual motives behind the campaign to “change the Church.” Sipe, Massimini, Lakeland, Kaiser and others in the “structural reform” movement are former celibate clerics who plainly misread their vocational call, either then or now. That is certainly no offense, and correcting a mistake is better than living by it.

But it may offer insight into the common ax they grind over normative priestly celibacy in the Latin rite. And it explains the pretentious self-aggrandizement of some who, claiming the title “lay theologian,” arrogate a privileged place in the movement as both “member of the oppressed class” and elite “guardian of tradition” (Lakeland, Liberation of the Laity). Thus, the clericalism of the laicized arises.

The Connecticut Catholic agonistics of 2009, VOTF and the American Catholic Council are the practical consequences of reading the New Testament in isolation from the scriptural corpus and the living Tradition of the faith. The Holy Father has shown the way forward in his wonderful biblical theology, superbly presented in Scott Hahn’s recent Covenant and Communion (Brazos Press, 2009). His is the true voice of the faithful.


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