Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in the United States next week. It’s predictable that various Catholic groups will use the occasion to gain visibility for their cause. Such is the case with Voice of the Faithful, whose full-page ad in the April 8 New York Times begins with “On behalf of all Catholics who share our desire to help our Church.”
In many ways, VOTF and the message of its ad together represent the most serious problem Benedict will face in America. Let’s call it “institutionalized dissent”: I don’t mean organized dissent, but dissent woven into the fabric of Catholic institutions, especially Catholic colleges and universities.
Institutionalized dissent, by its very nature, is slippery, difficult to pinpoint because it never says what it really means. Take the case of VOTF. Since its founding in 2002, VOTF’s program “to help the Church” has always been to change the Church. Using the sex-abuse scandal as a launching pad, VOTF traced all the reasons for the priest scandal to the need for “structural change” in the Church.
The ad published by VOTF only hints at its real objective: “The laity continue to be excluded from meaningful participation in decision making. . . . The hopeful vision of Vatican II remains largely unfulfilled.” Unpack these two phrases, and you have the purpose of VOTF and its purported justification.
By “meaningful participation” of the laity, this Boston-based organization would like to dismantle the hierarchy of authority that descends from the Holy Father through the bishops to the clergy and laity. VOTF’s purported concern for victims of sexual abuse has been used as an excuse to seek the “transformation” of the Church through the subjugation of priests and bishops to committees of “enlightened” laity.
This “hopeful vision of Vatican II” is nowhere to be found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which were intended for pastoral purposes rather than doctrinal development. In other words, Vatican II changed Church practice, not its doctrine. One day, dissenting Catholics will stop waving the flag of Vatican II over every challenge they make to Church teaching because the laity will finally get the joke.
This myth of a post-Vatican II Church is still believed by many lay Catholics because it is a constant drumbeat in most major Catholic institutions. It has become the “sacred deposit” of the institutional dissent that opposes the ban on contraception and abortion, promotes female priests and would “transform” the Catholic Church into a democratic body, ruled from below. As the VOTF ad puts it, “Laity would be fully involved in the decisions that impact the life of our parishes and our dioceses.”
The claim that VOTF is a “worldwide movement of concerned mainstream Catholics” is hyperbole, unless you consider the combination of Boston, Long Island, and northern New Jersey “worldwide,” and the few hundred VOTF activists and dissidents “mainstream.”
But in spite of its inability to create a strong national organization, VOTF represents a deep inclination in most established Catholic institutions still controlled by the generation of Catholic leadership shaped by post-Vatican II dissent and its associated mythology.
It’s sad that VOTF has chosen the occasion of Benedict’s visit to unpack its worn-out catch phrases of barely concealed dissent for public viewing. Catholics in the pews simply don’t share the views of VOTF. They never did and they never will. That the laity has not gone along with the institutionalized dissent that pervades Catholic institutions is a tribute to the legacy of Pope John Paul II’s impact on the Church in the United States.
John Paul II helped to create new and orthodox Catholic apostolates throughout this nation that served as a platform for his genuine implementation of Vatican II reforms. Benedict arrives in the United States to continue the work of his predecessor. The Holy Father knows very well that when he meets with the presidents of more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities, there will be only a relative handful who have embraced the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, issued over 18 years ago by John Paul II.
Most of the secular media is trained on what Benedict will say about the Iraq War — but in the life of the Church in this country, the real action will come on Thursday, April 17, when the Holy Father meets at the Catholic University of America with the college presidents. What he will say to those who safeguard institutionalized dissent will not change anything overnight, but it will send a forceful message to the laity to demand their institutions reaffirm their true Catholic identity.