The Michigan chapter of Call to Action reported in its Summer 2003 newsletter that itıs now sharing meetings with the VOTF chapter in that region.

An Inside Look at Voice of the Faithful  By Danny DeBruin  8Jan 04

Why did VOTF invite a liberation theologian to address and instruct its members? ŠThe leadership of VOTF denies that itıs an ideological group and goes to great lengths to avoid the label ³liberal.²


As I pulled into the high school parking lot of the affluent Long Island suburb of Manhasset one July evening, I passed a BMW with a Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) window decal. Clearly, this was the place. I entered the building, passing a number of elderly people standing behind tables covered with pamphlets. A very pleasant grandmother handed me four or five leaflets, including a printout of the Nicene Creed, a flier for the groupıs September ³Faith Convention,² and some other VOTF reading material.


Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Paul Lakeland‹the liberation theologian from Fairfield University‹who was the guest speaker for that eveningıs meeting. Iıd never actually seen Lakeland before, but I did read several of his essays and his book Can Women Be Priests? (You can guess his answer.) Lakeland stood in the schoolıs vestibule, surrounded by a small group of elderly and middle-aged women. They crowded around the man, who‹dressed sharply in a blue blazer‹looked more like a celebrity than a college professor.


My initial thought was a question: Why did VOTF‹a self-proclaimed non-ideological group‹invite a liberation theologian to address and instruct its members?


I maneuvered my way through the growing crowd and found a seat close to one of the mounted wall speakers at the front-left side of the auditorium. I was surprised, a few minutes later, when Lakeland sat down directly in front of me. At the time, I hadnıt realized I was sitting where the board of directors for the Long Island branch of VOTF (LI-VOTF) usually sits during each meeting. In the months that followed, I would be seeing a lot more of them. Not only was I a member of LI-VOTF, but I would soon become cochair of its Communications Committee.


*   *   *


The LI-VOTF had about 1,600 members as of September 2003 (out of 1.5 million Catholics living in the Diocese of Rockville Centre). Cochair and branch founder Dan Bartley noted, ³We do not Œrepresent,ı in an elected capacity, any Catholic. We do believe that we represent, through our mission and goals, what many Catholics would like to see happen in our Church.²


Many LI-VOTF board and general members are part of the current Catholic educational system. As one observer of the group put it, ³They are the backbone of the Church. Many of them teach CCD, religion, and are [pillars] of their parishes.² Bartley himself is a theology student at the local diocesan seminary.


And heıs not the only one. Other LI-VOTF board members have passed through the doors of the diocesan seminary or the Pastoral Formation Institute or have some formal religious training. At least two have Master of Theology degrees from the local seminary. Many of them are active in one way or another with their local parishes as eucharistic ministers and religion teachers. Bartley is an instructor for marriage preparation in his parish and was a coordinator for RENEW 2000. Another board member was the lay chaplain at a local community college who attended the Marist Institute  of Theology; his brother is a deacon. Still another former board member is married to a deacon. At least three of the 15 are lawyers.


The larger organizational structure of VOTF is a shadow of the Roman Catholic system, with headquarters in Boston instead of Rome. Like the leaders of LI-VOTF, the national leaders tend to be heavily involved in their local parishes as eucharistic ministers, lectors, and religious educators.


The national VOTF has regional chapters, which correlate to dioceses. Then come the Parish Voices, which function as chapters for each parish. The group stresses the importance of the grassroots level. It believes change will occur from the bottom up (similar to the Faith-Based Communities in Latin America under liberation theology).


Patricia Zirkel, another leader in LI-VOTF, said, ³Remember the old Sixties slogan, ŒPower to the Peopleı? Parish Voices are empowerment.... Meaningful change will occur first at the parish level.... Parish Voices are the means to this change. Parish by parish, step by step, brick by brick.²


But exactly what that change involves is a matter of some debate. Critics (like Crisis) have charged that the organization acts as a front group for Catholic dissenters‹a kind of wolf in sheepıs clothing. The groupıs leadership, on the other hand, denies this vigorously, saying itıs merely an organization of mainstream, church-going Catholics. They claim they do not challenge Church teaching and‹at least according to LI-VOTFıs Web site‹³accept the teaching authority of our Church, including the traditional role of the bishops and the Pope.²


For my own part, Iıd read the claims of both sides. I also visited VOTFıs national Web site and read its declarations and goals carefully. When I joined the organization, I believed that at least some of the criticisms leveled against it might have been based on faulty information (everyone has critics, after all). Indeed, I had no bias against the group and was genuinely interested in its mission.


If It Looks Like a DuckŠ


The leadership of VOTF denies that itıs an ideological group and goes to great lengths to avoid the label ³liberal.² One revealing example of this effort was the LI-VOTFıs board of directorsı April 28, 2002, letter to Bishop William Murphy, the head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. In the letter, describing the differences and ideologies that comprise LI-VOTF, the board wrote, ³Long Island Voice of the Faithful is, not unlike most groups or organizations, made up of people working toward a common purpose. Some are optimistic, some are pessimistic, some are reactionary, and some are conservativeŠ.² Conspicuously missing from this list is the term ³liberal² or any acknowledgment that some in LI-VOTF are left-leaning. (No one, after all, has ever accused VOTF of being ³conservative² or ³reactionary.²)


Given all of VOTFıs fervent denials, what basis do the critics have for claiming the group is made up of dissenters?


The criticisms can be boiled down to three points: (1) The leadership of VOTF is composed almost entirely of dissenters; (2) VOTF gravitates toward dissenters as advisers and speakers at its events; and (3) Its goals are ambiguous enough to hide just about any kind of agenda.


Despite the objections of VOTF leaders, during my time in the organization, I found truth in each of the three charges. The July meeting with Lakeland bore this out.


After the group recited the Nicene Creed and then meditated with eyes closed to some New Agey­sounding music, Lakeland delivered a talk titled, ³Empowering the Laity.² Like many other theologians who speak at VOTF meetings, Lakeland is a member of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Predictably, he supports womenıs ordination and rejects most Catholic moral teachings related to human sexuality. For his 20-minute talk, he received a $300 stipend. (When some VOTF members criticized the invitation of Lakeland to the July meeting, they were met with jeers from the others, including some LI-VOTF board members.)


While at the podium, Lakeland compared LI-VOTF members to Holocaust concentration camp survivors. He observed that both Holocaust survivors and LI-VOTFers have the ability to ³take an attitude² when they experience oppression. Although Lakeland admitted that ³we do not go in fear of our lives,² he did reinforce his analogy by adding, ³But we nevertheless suffer from a more insidious form of oppression, that of the structural oppression of the laity. Here, the villains areŠstructures.²


The ³oppressive structure² rhetoric is the same language that the Catholic extreme left has employed for more than 30 years. Liberation, feminist, womanist, and Latin American mujerista theologians had been making the ³oppressive structure² argument long before VOTF formed.


Expectedly, Lakeland was a big hit among the VOTF crowd. But there were others. During the October regional meeting, Svea Fraser, who holds a Master of Divinity degree and was one of the founding members of VOTF in Boston, was the guest speaker. Fraser, a full-time VOTF employee, joked that a gathering of bishops in Washington, D.C., looked like Ku Klux Klansmen with their white robes and ³pointy hats.² The audience roared. She told the crowd wistfully how her pastor allowed her to preach from the pulpit when she was a graduate student. Again, the audience loved it.


While VOTF leadership repeatedly states that speakers are invited to express their own views and do not necessarily reflect the organization, the speakers are nevertheless chosen and invited by the board. And frankly, despite claims to the contrary, itıs a fairly easy thing to detect the leftist slant of VOTF and most of its members. One need only attend one of the conferences where a largely liberal audience listens raptly to a liberal speaker. Applause is a sure thing whenever one of the speakers says something contrary to Catholic teaching.


And this observation is hardly confined to ³conservatives.² Dr. Paul Ginnety from St. Josephıs College on Long Island, complimented VOTF as being a ³fairly liberal² group of older Catholics who ³cut their teeth² during the protest era of the 1960s in a Newsday op-ed published in July 2002. In the article, Ginnety went on to ridicule younger Catholics who agree with what the Catholic Church teaches, calling them nostalgic. Ginnety, an occasional contributor to Newsdayıs editorial pages, also spoke during LI-VOTFıs September Faith Conventionıs ³working lunch.²


Richard McBrien Comes to Town


For faithful Catholics, perhaps no single person better represents the face of dissent than Rev. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame. From promoting womenıs ordination to condemning the Churchıs ban on contraception, McBrien is a reliable fixture of the Catholic far-left. And he was also the primary speaker at the September Faith Convention.


Patricia Zirkel, who holds a Ph.D. in theology and is a former associate professor at St. Johnıs University, gave the priest a rousing introduction. After reminiscing about reading McBrienıs book Catholicism as a graduate student, she explained McBrienıs relationship with VOTF: ³Very pertinent to us today, Father McBrien advised [VOTF cofounder] Jim Muller in the formation stages of VOTF. They had many conversations about what VOTF should address itself to, and our mission statement and goals. A very simple mission statement andŠthree goals came out of those conversations to a great extent.²


McBrien spoke about his role and influence in the present Catholic education establishment. Referring to the increase of Catholic laity getting involved in religious instruction since Vatican II, McBrien boasted, ³One of the most satisfying elements in my time as a theologian was the time I served as the director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College‹I think still the largest and I think the most vibrant program training those who are in the ministries of religious education around the countryŠ. Many of these graduates‹of places like Boston Collegeıs Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry‹now serve as parish directors of religious educationŠand as directors of liturgy or as religion teachers in Catholic high schoolsŠ.²


For anyone who has read McBrienıs writings, the speech had a familiar ring. Much of it was a mixture of previously published columns with some sections from his popular books, Catholicism and Lives of the Popes, spliced in. For example:


In what sense, if any, can Jesus be called the founder of the Church? The answer is that Jesus is not the founder of the Church if by the word ³found,² we mean some direct, explicit, deliberate act by which he established a new religious movement, organization or community, complete with a set of ready-made structures and institutional practicesŠ. But Jesus is the founder of the Church if by the word ³found² we mean that he laid the foundations for the Church in various indirect ways‹mainly, through his gathering of disciples and the establishment of a memorial meal, ³Do this in memory of me,² by which his disciples would remain together after his death.


After dismissing both the ban on womenıs ordination and the concept of apostolic succession, McBrien asked, ³What specifically in the Church can we attribute to the will of Jesus himself, so that these structures and practices can be said to be of divine law and therefore not subject to change by the Church? The answer is, structurally, almost nothing.²


Referring to VOTF as a ³progressive group,² McBrien followed Ginnety in describing younger Catholics ³to the right² of him as being nostalgic. This was followed by approving laughter from the 650 attendees.


Indeed, throughout McBrienıs speech, the audience was captivated. They laughed at his jokes, applauded his points, leaned forward when McBrienıs tone became serious, and gave him an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end. Responding to an audience request to make his amalgamated speech available, McBrien said, ³I donıt circulate my unpublished papers because I keep changing them and I donıt want them out as if theyıre finished products.²


Why would a non-ideological group‹as VOTF claims to be‹ask the most recognizable Catholic dissenter in America to speak to its members? Bartley told me he invited McBrien ³because I read some of his material as recommended reading at the seminary. I found his books‹particularly his book Catholicism‹to be very well written. He is a good speaker, well-known, and highly respected.² McBrien received ³about $2,000² for his time.


After the talk, the still-buzzing crowd was shepherded to a working lunch, where prefabricated questions were provided to the crowd so they could ³participate² in shaping the direction of the organization. Each table picked a secretary and a spokesperson who approached the podium to present the conclusions of their respective tables. Among the calls for Bishop Murphyıs resignation, more lay involvement, financial openness, and complaints about homilies, one spokesperson fired up the crowd by saying, ³We also feel very strongly at one point, to sue for ownership of our church facilities in a court of the United States of America.² She was given loud applause. Once it died down, she helpfully gave out the name of a person in the New York State assembly for LI-VOTF members to contact.


Behind Closed Doors


If dissent was on display during the conferences, it was no different in the private meetings of the board. As co-chair of the Communications Committee, I updated the LI-VOTFıs Web site and even proposed a redesign of the site (for which I received positive feedback from some   of the board members). During a Communications Committee meeting, one member started complaining about how the Church discriminates against married people and women, and how before Vatican II, the Church taught that the body was evil. He pulled out Gary Willsıs book, Papal Sin, to prove his point. As this board member is an intelligent man, I was puzzled to see how readily he accepted the embittered Wills as an authority on Church history. But he certainly wasnıt alone. According to LI-VOTFıs minutes, the invited guest speaker to the November 2002 regional meeting was the Jesuit writer Rev. Raymond Schroth, who also praised Wills during his talk.


Another popular author among some LI-VOTF members is Dr. Phyllis Zagano. Shortly after my e-mail address was listed on LI-VOTFıs Web site, I received a promotion for a lecture she was giving at Hofstra University. The presentation, ³Catholic Women Deacons: Present Tense,² also plugged her book, Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church.


A Little Help From the Press


Few will deny that VOTF has gotten a lot of positive coverage in the press. From the Boston Globe to the New York Times, VOTF is praised and promoted. Meanwhile, opposition to the group is generally portrayed as coming from the unenlightened ideologues of the fringe right.


But some members of the press have gone beyond merely writing about the group. For example, the reliably liberal Newsday failed to report that one of its editorial board members, the Pulitzer Prize­winning journalist Bob Keeler‹a Catholic and a staunch supporter of VOTF‹had addressed a local Parish Voice meeting in January 2003. In fact, Keeler wrote a column on March 17, 2003, covering the very same parish where he was invited to speak two months earlier. Of course, he neglected to mention that in his column. Keeler also spoke at VOTFıs tri-state convention in October at Fordham University.


Ed Micca, a local Catholic and vocal critic of VOTF, said Keeler called Bishop Murphy an ³arrogant rube² at the meeting and that the journalist praised priests who ignore the bishop. ³Keeler said much about the lack of priests and vocations, with the usual call for women priests and an end to celibacy,² Micca told me. ³Keeler did issue a warning: It seems many of the younger priests and those currently in seminaries are leaning in an orthodox direction, and in 15 to 20 years these men will be our pastors. There were reflexive gasps from the crowd.²


Micca added, ³Mr. Keeler did find something to cheer about in the lack of priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre: Because he has few alternatives, Bishop Murphy has to stick with the pastors heıs got, regardless of how he feels about them. This then tilts the weight in the power game between the bishop and the priests in favor of the priests, and some priests use this to their advantage. Keeler then unveiled his system of rating priests who snub their noses at the bishop. He called it the ŒF*** You Factor.ı The more willing a priest was to thumb his nose at the bishop, the higher the ŒF*** You Factorı he had.²


Keeler told me in a phone interview that the ³F*** You Factor² of his speech was a small portion of what he said at the meeting. Furthermore, he noted that the ³F*** You Factor² was a professional journalistıs ³term of art.²


Out in the Open


When I told Bartley I was writing a story, he was non-plussed. ³I have no problem with you writing an article for Crisis,² he said. ³What I do think was unethical is that without disclosing that you were writing an article, you took part in internal discussions of the board and with other leadership members that included personal opinions as well as official VOTF matters. I believe that, ethically, you should have alerted us to your activities so that people could have more carefully evaluated whether or not they wanted to share their personal opinions with you. A better question might be‹why wouldnıt you tell us? Why hide? Personally, had you disclosed it, I would have welcomed it. As an organization we have nothing to hide.²


As of this writing, I still havenıt heard from the other LI-VOTF board members. However, one former board member has kept in touch, and our relationship remains friendly.


The truth is, contrary to Bartleyıs suspicions, I didnıt join VOTF with the goal of writing an exposé. That idea arose only after I witnessed a number of the very problems critics have been pointing out.


Sheepıs Clothing


In the late 1980s, there was a controversy at my local parish on Long Island. A father and son appeared one Sunday in front of the church, handing out fliers warning parishioners about a temporary priest who they said molested the son ten years before. The news media covered the sad event, and it was the talk of the town for a few weeks. Fourteen years later, I would see that same son address the LI-VOTF September regional meeting.


The sexual abuse, he said, started when he was 13 and continued until he was 20. The survivor‹as he prefers to call himself‹said that the priest eventually admitted to his crime. The victim, now married with children, is no longer a Catholic, although his parents remain in the Church. As he spoke, the VOTF audience sat silently, some visibly upset and choked up. It was a heartbreaking story, and they reacted with compassion. And thatıs part of the tragedy of the entire organization. Some of the work itıs done has been good and necessary. But some of it has not. With VOTF, itıs sometimes difficult to separate the positive from the harmful.


Consider its three stated goals: (1) to support victims of abuse, (2) to support priests of integrity, and (3) to shape structural change within the Church.


VOTF‹at least in its Long Island chapter‹seems to be living up to its first goal. And indeed, this is a side of VOTF that few critics address, as most agree with it. The groupıs second goal, to support priests of integrity, is also generally a non-issue (though just what makes someone a ³priest of integrity² is an important question in itself).


It is VOTFıs third goal‹³to shape structural change within the Church²‹that most concerns critics. While it could be understood to refer to small but positive changes in the way bishops run their dioceses (instituting more transparency in their finances, for example), it could also be used to advocate everything from women priests to democratically elected bishops. In short, the problem is one of ambiguity. What exactly does VOTF want? And are we really to believe that McBrienıs left-wing ideology is unconnected with VOTFıs third goal? He did after all advise Jim Muller on the formation of those same goals (why has this fact not been made public?). And yet, VOTFıs leadership continues to claim that what invited speakers say at meetings does not reflect the groupıs official position. One wonders, then, why they were invited at all.


Bartley‹like the other members of VOTF‹is sincere in his beliefs. Heıs genuinely puzzled that anyone would consider VOTF a dissenting or radical organization. A decent, hardworking family man, Bartley believes in VOTFıs cause, which to him boils down to more lay involvement in the Church. But an organization doesnıt exist merely on paper‹and in this case, actions do speak louder than words.


In a fitting end note, the Michigan chapter of Call to Action reported in its Summer 2003 newsletter that itıs now sharing meetings with the VOTF chapter in that region. That, sadly, says it all.


Danny DeBruin is a writer from Long Island, New York.


Copyright Crisis Magazine İ 2001 Washington DC, USA