The Bishop of Bridgeport: Voice of the Faithful’s Latest Target

If it is true, as novelist Don DeLillo once wrote, “The future belongs to crowds,” then the future of the Catholic Church might once have belonged to activist groups critical of the Church, like Boston-bred Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), and the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).  With savvy leaders who have been able to manipulate a media that is desperate for sensational stories of priestly misconduct, these organizations continue to stage well-publicized demonstrations and protests throughout the country in order to demand changes in the Church.  But, the question remains, does anyone—beyond the media—take them seriously any more?

In their most recent attempt to humiliate Church leaders, Barbara Blaine, president of SNAP teamed with a few local members of the Bridgeport, CT chapter of VOTF to organize a protest—replete with the same professionally printed signs they have used for more than a decade—outside the offices of Bishop Frank Caggiano, the new Bishop of the Bridgeport Diocese. Receiving front page coverage—replete with photos of a handful of protestors holding the now-faded protest signs—in the Connecticut Post on Thursday, March 20, 2014, the headline blared, “Victims Groups Demand Investigation Into Priests.”  It is difficult to take them seriously.

But, we must take them seriously because these groups continue to enlist the media as partners in persuading others that the Church is a site of secrecy and deviance. Working cooperatively with an eager media ever hungry for scandal—even if the cases occurred several decades ago—these groups are determined to continue to denigrate Church leaders who have done everything they possibly can to ensure that the clergy abuse of the past can never happen again.

The most recent target of the dissident groups is Bridgeport’s Bishop Caggiano, who in a spirit of reconciliation and good will just a month before, offered to begin a conversation with the local chapter of VOTF.  At the time he announced his intention to meet with the group last month, the Bishop was heralded as a courageous visionary of the Church.  The Connecticut Post published a laudatory article on February 12, 2014, praising what the reporter called his “unprecedented” decision to meet with members of VOTF. Decrying Bishop William Lori’s decision to bar VOTF from meeting in diocesan churches, the Connecticut Post quoted Jamie Dance, a member of VOTF, complaining that Bishop Lori “was secretive … [he] never answered a letter or a phone call … so it was a rather dramatic turn when we found a welcoming bishop in Frank Caggiano…. It’s practically historic.”

 

Bishop w: VOTF

Indeed, it was historic. In fact, the decision by the new bishop to meet with the dissident group was actually shocking for faithful Catholics in the Diocese who were bewildered by the new bishop’s decision to meet with an organization whose individual members had been complicit in the State of Connecticut’s attempted takeover of Church governance just five years before.  VOTF members like Paul Lakeland, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, became strong outspoken supporters of legislation introduced by two Connecticut legislators that would have allowed the state of Connecticut to control individual parishes’ governance and financial affairs—relegating Catholic priests and bishops to an advisory role in their own parishes.

In March 2009, state senator Andrew J. McDonald and state representative Michael Lawler, both Democrats, introduced Bill 1089, An Act Modifying Corporate Laws Relating to Certain Religious Corporations.  Had the bill passed, it would have required that a corporation would have to be organized in Connecticut with any Connecticut Roman Catholic Church or congregation in the state by filing in the office of the secretary of state.  The bishop of the diocese would serve as an ex officio board member of the corporation but could not vote on issues.

The real force behind the bill was a small but well organized group of Catholics—unhappy with Church teachings on moral and governance issues—attempting to enlist the state as a partner in radically transforming the Church from within.  And, while it cannot be claimed that VOTF had a hand in writing the actual legislation, many of the demands of the now-withdrawn Connecticut bill mirror those promoted by VOTF’s Bridgeport chapter.  In their Annual Report in 2005, VOTF chairman Tony Wiggins reported that the Bridgeport Chapter’s Structural Change Committee identified “Five proposals for Structural Change for the Church.” These proposals, which were overwhelmingly approved by the membership of the Bridgeport Chapter, and approved at the national level, demanded open election of bishops, parish priests, parish and diocesan pastoral and finance councils, and the ownership of church property by the people of the parish.

As a spokesman for the bill to remove the authority from the Bishops and priests in the State of Connecticut, Lakeland has long lobbied for an end to what he calls the “structural oppression of the laity by the clergy.”  Lakeland, a former Jesuit priest, is a frequent presenter at conferences sponsored by VOTF.  At the spring 2009 VOTF at Fairfield University, Lakeland’s speech, “Who Owns Our Church?” focused on empowering the laity by transferring authority from the ordained to the laity.  Lakeland has advocated for the ordination of women, and the abolition of the College of Cardinals.  According to the National Catholic Register, in a speech to VOTF affiliates in Newton, Massachusetts, Lakeland predicted that future priests would consist of “some married, some not, some straight, some gay, some women, some not.”  Claiming that his goal is to erase the distinction between ordained and the laity, Lakeland often states that the most important task for the Catholic theologian is to help the Catholic laity “name their oppression.”

VOTF continues its commitment to denigrating the leadership of the Church—even Pope Francis.  Claiming that the Pope “does not see that holding bishops accountable for cover-ups and a full release of all secret files are essential for true reform and healing,” the National leadership of VOTF issued a statement posted on their website on March 6,  with the headline that the organization is “Deeply Disappointed in Pope Francis’ Recent Comments on Clergy Sex Abuse.”

It is this continued criticism of the leadership of the Church by VOTF that makes it so difficult for faithful Catholics in the Bridgeport Diocese to understand why their new bishop would tell those gathered at the March 13 VOTF meeting, “We’re family, and that’s how I understand our gathering.”

The leaders of VOTF have made it clear that their goal is to dramatically change the structure of the Church.  And, although they protest that it is just structural change that they seek, they continue to demand that the teaching and administrative authority of the bishops and priests be transferred to the laity.  These goals are best viewed in the context of a book written by sociologist-authors, William D’Antonio and Anthony Pogorelc: Voices of the Faithful, which provides an analysis of national survey data collected from VOTF members on attitudes and perceptions about the Church.  Much of their own data contradicts their “official” statements on their organization’s website.

For example, on their homepage, VOTF claims that the organization’s three primary goals are: to support survivors of clergy abuse; to shape structural change within the Church; and to support priests of integrity.  But, their survey data reveals that only 18 percent of the membership of VOTF indicate that they strongly agreed with the statement that “priests do a good job.”

Even worse, 85 percent of VOTF members polled believe that the “hierarchy is out of touch.”  In contrast, only 19 percent of American Catholics in general, endorse the view that the hierarchy is out of touch.  It is clear that VOTF members are not representative of all Catholics in their highly critical views of the hierarchy and the priests.  Not surprisingly, considering their unhappiness with the Church, VOTF members are much more likely than other American Catholics to indicate that they “might leave” the Church.  The authors indicate that “slightly less than half of VOTF members said they would never leave the Catholic Church,” but 22 percent indicated that they “might leave the Church.”

Yale sociologist, Michele Dillon, provides helpful commentary on the organization’s survey at the end of Voices of the Faithful.  While Dillon shares many of the goals of VOTF, she has written that, “it is sociologically and theologically naïve to assume that doctrine and structure, or culture and structure are separate domains.”  Dillon knows, as all Catholics know, that doctrine and structure in the Church cannot be separated.  Changing the structure of apostolic succession is actually an attempt to change the doctrine of apostolic succession—a doctrine that dates back to Jesus and his commission to Peter.

Bishops can learn the real goals of VOTF by looking closely at the survey data published in their  book, Voices of the Faithful.  It would help them understand why just a week after embracing the group as part of his family, Bishop  Caggiano was confronted with the ugly signage and protesters outside his own office. It would also help them understand why, in yet another attack on the Church on the front page of the Connecticut Post, Barbara Blaine dismissed the bishop’s meeting with VOTF by claiming that “actions speak louder than words.” Since the Church is unable to meet the kind of demands for dramatic structural change VOTF is seeking—including the doctrine of apostolic succession—it makes little sense for its bishops to continue the conversation.

(Photo credit: in-text photo / Connecticut Post.)

Anne Hendershott

By

Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). She is also the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (2013).

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