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Voice of the Faithful asks Catholics to get involved

Operating on short notice with volunteer labor and a shoestring budget, the Voice of the Faithful staged an impressive debut rally.

The new group representing Roman Catholic laity agreed on ambitious goals and heard from respected speakers. The turnout of 4,000 followers punctuated last weekend's meeting with cheers and bursts of applause.

But in the long run, the Voice may have a tough time being heard.

Church leaders have already signaled opposition to reforms the group is pushing, and the organization is treading a fine line to avoid a liberal label that would blunt its impact.

Since emerging this year amid the fury over clerical sex abuse scandals in the Boston Archdiocese, Voice says 19,000 supporters have joined, mostly via the Internet.

The group wants to plant chapters in every U.S. diocese and in other countries. Nearly a third of the rally's attendees came from beyond Boston, representing 35 states and seven nations.

Voice believes the laity should "actively participate in the governance" of the church, to make sure "these crimes and the abuse of power that made them possible will not happen again." Those words come from a petition to the Vatican that won unanimous support from Boston participants in a voice vote and was signed by 2,000 individuals.

The petition also asks Pope John Paul II to "hold accountable" bishops and Vatican officials who concealed abusers' crimes, and to approve the new sex abuse policy the U.S. hierarchy issued last month.

Voice also announced three projects at its rally:

Distribution of checklists that members can use to monitor each bishop's compliance with the policy provisions, which will be used for a report prior to the hierarchy's November meeting.

A data bank to list abusive priests.

A fund so Catholics who don't want to contribute to the Boston Archdiocese can still support worthy programs.

Cardinal Bernard Law's spokeswoman swiftly responded that the archdiocese will reject such gifts because Voice's fund "does not recognize the role of the archbishop" in raising support, though Catholic Charities says it may resist Law's edict.

This month, Voice also began organizing for the long haul, issuing a newsletter, planning a $500,000 budget, naming a new president (Boston University management professor James Post) and hiring its first full-time staffer (executive director Steve Krueger).

Protestants regularly form such independent caucuses. For instance, the evangelical Confessing Church Movement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), launched last year, has won backing from congregations with 422,512 members. But most U.S. Catholics show little interest in agitating outside official channels.

Voice speakers cited ancient precedents for lay involvement. But in modern times no Catholic lay movement has achieved shared governance with bishops, says University of Notre Dame historian R. Scott Appleby. He thinks Voice must carefully balance "loyalty to the church, including the hierarchy" and "an assertiveness within that loyalty."

"Any attempt at renewal has to proceed in unity with the bishop," insists Carl Anderson, chief executive officer of the Knights of Columbus, the largest U.S. lay organization.

Voice supports abuse victims and otherwise styles itself as a centrist group promoting governance reform, not ideological changes. "Labels divide people," Post said. Voice "is about bringing people together."

The group does not endorse either the conservatives, who say church discipline must be enforced anew to overcome scandals, or the liberals, who want to alter church teachings.

However, one speaker in Boston is an organizer for the Europe-based We Are Church, which agrees with Voice's power-sharing agenda but also advocates liberal views on birth control, sexual morality, priestly celibacy and women priests.

Another speaker was Temple University's Leonard Swidler, who campaigns for a Catholic constitution to give lay Catholics not only powers but sweeping freedom of conscience. Voice's policymaking council will discuss joining that cause at its next meeting, Aug. 8.

A tactical challenge for Voice is to win an equal following among conservatives, who are understandably wary. Russell Shaw, onetime spokesman for the U.S. bishops who considers Swidler's plan "absurd," says the group should beware of becoming "the voice of the not-too-faithful."

Shaw wants greater collaboration in decisionmaking between bishops and the laity. But he warns that this cause was "set back by a quarter-century" when a 1976 conference summoned by the U.S. hierarchy was "taken over by enthusiasts of the left" who wanted to alter church teachings.

William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights predicts that it's only a matter of time before liberals "hijack" Voice, while the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine, another conservative, calls himself "sympathetically skeptical."

Still, Post insisted to the Boston crowd that Voice's future existence is nonnegotiable and vital for the church.

"The hierarchy that failed to protect our children cannot be trusted to exercise sole control over the property, money and the fate of our church," he said.