Critique of "Voice of the Faithful"

What Faith Are They Trying to Keep?

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HYANNIS, Massachusetts, NOV. 19, 2003 ( Several priests in the Diocese of Fall River recently sent out a pastoral letter to parishioners, to clarify the nature of Voice of the Faithful, a group that gained attention in the wake of the clergy sex-abuse scandals. Here we reprint the letter.

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A Pastoral Letter From Your Priests

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In recent days, several parishioners have asked us for clarification about the group called «Voice of the Faithful,» which is trying to make inroads on Cape Cod and within our Diocese of Fall River. Because we think that many parishioners beyond those who have approached us might have similar questions, we thought it would be appropriate to respond by means of a parish letter.

Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) was founded in the basement of a Wellesley church in January 2002 by those who wanted to express their concerns about the clergy sex-abuse scandals. Over the course of subsequent months, many good Catholic lay people, who were horrified (as were we!) by the scandals, joined the group as a means of expressing their justifiable outrage and firm commitment that this dark page in our Church’s history must never be repeated.

When VOTF had its first major convention in Boston on July 20, 2002, many of us followed it closely to try discern its spirit. We were saddened to see the direction it took. The star speakers that day were well-known and oft-quoted critics of the Holy Father who publicly dissent from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. There’s a truism that you can often learn a lot about someone from the people with whom he chooses to associate. The same goes for VOTF, the leaders of which, of course, invited and paid for these speakers to come to address those at the convention.

When faithful Catholic clergy and lay people criticized what was coming out of the convention, spokesmen from VOTF publicly stated that the group does not take any formal positions on the controversial issues being advanced by several of the convention speakers and VOTF members. But this is not sufficient. It is impossible for a group that wants to be authentically Catholic not to take a position on issues such as the ordination of women, sexual morality, abortion, and the divine foundation of the papacy — all of which the Church has taken a position on. Not to take a position on such issues is to take a position; one cannot be both «agnostic» and «Catholic.»

In short, because VOTF has given no indication that it fully supports all the defined teachings of the Church, we have grave misgivings about it and cannot recommend it to you.

As your priests, our foremost duty is to teach and defend the faith that has been handed down to us by Christ through the apostles and their successors. This is the Church’s treasure and is the source of our unity as disciples of the Lord. The Church is not a society of independent thinkers with equally-valuable opinions, but the community of believers founded by Christ that remains faithful to His voice and follows His teaching as it has been handed on to us faithfully by the Church he founded. To be truly Catholic, you can’t pick and choose some truths to follow and others to ignore. Embracing the Catholic faith means embracing all of it.

We have particular concern for those Catholics who want to remain faithful to the Church who now belong to an organization that calls itself Catholic but refuses publicly to embrace authentic Catholic teaching. VOTF says its motto is «Keep the Faith; Change the Church.» But if the leaders of VOTF are unwilling to assent fully to Catholic teaching, what faith — Catholics could legitimately ask — are they trying to keep? And if organization is not really keeping the Catholic faith, then its proposals to «change the Church» should be viewed by faithful Catholics with justifiable suspicion. We encourage faithful Catholics who belong to VOTF to demand that the leadership of the organization explicitly avow Church teachings. If the leaders are not willing to do that, then we urge faithful Catholics to leave the organization.

The burden of proof is, of course, on VOTF to demonstrate its complete fidelity to Church teaching, by dissociating itself completely from groups and individuals that are obviously in dissent from Church teaching and gladly and willingly affirming their Catholic faith in all the defined teachings of the magisterium. No organization could never honestly claim to be the voice of faithful Catholic lay people without doing so — as several parishioners, angry that the group claims to speak for them, have pointed out to us.

Until such time that VOTF demonstrates a transparent faithfulness to the teachings of the Church, no priest who takes his responsibility before God seriously to promote, preserve and defend the faith would countenance allowing the group to use Church property for their meetings. The people of ancient Troy learned a valuable lesson once and pastors would be derelict in their duty to do otherwise. We love you and love Christ too much to do otherwise.

If you find some of the statements of Voice of the Faithful to be attractive, we want you to know that we do, too. For instance, we agree with several of the organization’s stated objectives:

1) We all support those who have been abused and want to prevent any recurrence of abuse.

2) We all support «priests of integrity» (although you might find it interesting that no priest from any of the parishes on Cape Cod present at our last meeting stated that he has received any sign of support from VOTF, which makes one wonder whether for VOTF this is just a paper objective).

3) We agree that there is a need for «cultural change» in the Church, if we define cultural change to mean a transparently greater cult (worship) of Christ among all of us in our daily decisions. The scandals resulted from the failure of priests to be faithful to Christ and to their promise of celibacy and of bishops to protect the flock from wolves in shepherd’s clothing. But this grew within a general culture that was taking its moral obligations before God less seriously. Truly positive change will be directed toward a culture of greater fidelity to Christ in all the persons and activities of the Church.

4) We agree that there is a need for greater education of the laity in the teaching and ways of the faith, which is why, over the course of this year, we will be doing an extensive adult education series and why we have already started discussion sessions for parents of those in our CCD program and school.

5) We also welcome and strongly encourage a greater lay involvement in the mission of the Church, bringing Christ’s teaching and love as leaven into our world.

In all of these areas priests and laity are already working together and, with God’s help, bearing much fruit. If these were the only objectives of VOTF, the organization would not be objectionable.

The reason why VOTF is controversial, however, and why we cannot support it or recommend it to you is because VOTF has given indications by its deeds that its objectives transcend these publicly stated ones. By its failure to subscribe openly to the whole deposit of faith while at the same time publicly associating with groups that oppose the faith, VOTF has done nothing but strengthen suspicions that, while appearing to promote dialogue and cooperation, it actually promotes an agenda in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic faith.

There is a better alternative than VOTF for lay Catholics who want truly to «keep the faith and change the Church» in ways that are manifestly consistent with our Catholic faith. We invite them to become more involved in the mission of the Church here at St. Francis Xavier. We encourage them to join their priests and fellow lay people as together we strive to fulfill the mission which the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II h
ave entrusted to us: to live the faith and thereby, with God’s help, strengthen the Church so as to change the world.

Yours in Christ,
Fr. Thomas A. Frechette
Fr. Paul T. Lamb
Fr. Roger J. Landry

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