By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MONTGOMERY - When members of Voice of the Faithful gather today for their first conference in the Cincinnati area, they will spend much of their time talking about the sexual abuse crisis that plagues their church.
But the conversation won't end there.
Topics could include everything from women in the priesthood to married priests to new rules that would allow parishioners to choose their own pastors.
While some Catholics consider such ideas extreme - even heretical - members of Voice of the Faithful and other reform-minded groups are convinced their church is in need of dramatic change.
Their goal is to use the momentum of the clergy abuse crisis to propel the church toward major structural reforms, some of which have little or nothing to do with sexual abuse.
Whether they can succeed - and whether that would be a good thing - is a source of considerable debate within the church. But no one disputes the abuse crisis has given Catholics an opportunity to challenge their leaders in a way few could have imagined just two years ago.
"The scandal has opened the door to a lot of hidden flaws in church governance, church administration and church culture," said Luise Dittrich, a founding member of Voice of the Faithful's first chapter in Boston. "We have seen the underside of this culture, and we don't like it."
Many of the Catholics who will attend the conference today at Good Shepherd Church on Kemper Road in Montgomery share Dittrich's view of church leadership.
They believe the abuse crisis is the product of an arrogant, out-of-touch hierarchy that has neglected the needs of rank-and-file Catholics. They want change and they want it soon.
Not everyone is so eager. Some mainstream and conservative Catholics accuse Voice of the Faithful and its supporters of exploiting the crisis.
They see the sexual abuse scandal as a tragedy that can be overcome without drastic change. And they view the reformers as dissidents who are trying to push a liberal agenda that could destroy their traditions and, ultimately, their church.
"I think Voice of the Faithful is sincere in their interest in protecting kids ... but I do think they have a hidden agenda," said Susan Greve, a Catholic from White Oak who is active in the church. "What they want is a heretical, old guard liberal, modernist church."
Feelings on both sides run so deep that the debate among Catholics will likely continue long after the abuse crisis fades from the headlines.
The outcome of that debate could determine whether the crisis is remembered as a tragic historical footnote, or as the impetus for reforms that fundamentally changed Catholicism in America.
"Changes are coming," said Terrence Tilley, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton. "The question is, what will they be?'"
Polls in Cincinnati and around the country show widespread disillusionment with church leadership. But the numbers offer few insights into what, if anything, most Catholics think should be done.
Some believe the bishops already have taken the steps necessary to fix what ails the church. Priests have been suspended, apologies have been made and new rules are in place to ensure the dismissal of abusive priests.
That's not enough, however, for Voice of the Faithful and other reformers who believe the church hierarchy is as much to blame for the abuse crisis as the abusers themselves.
They say the solution is more direct involvement of lay Catholics in every aspect of the church, from finances to personnel decisions.
"We want to do more than pay, pray and obey," said Nan Fischer, chairwoman of the Cincinnati chapter of Voice of the Faithful.
Voice of the Faithful tapped into that frustration last year in Boston when the group was formed in the early days of the abuse scandal.
The group's slogan - "Keep the faith. Change the church." - struck a chord, prompting some 30,000 Catholics nationwide to join the movement.
There's some confusion, however, about what the phrase "change the church" means.
Members of Voice of the Faithful tout any number of ideas. Some have suggested that congregations should oversee their own budgets and help select their pastors, while others advocate opening the priesthood to women and married men.
The group's leaders stop short of endorsing any specific change. They say their goal is to start a conversation, not a revolution.
"We want to let the discussion take place," Dittrich said. "Questioning and dialogue used to be part of the Catholic Church."
Critics of the group are convinced it has a hidden agenda. Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic monthly Crisis Magazine, recently wrote that Voice of the Faithful's claim that it is open to all Catholics is "demonstrably untrue."
"It would demonstrate far more integrity for VOTF to simply acknowledge and defend their liberal theological agenda," Deal wrote.
Conservatives say the group is sympathetic to dissidents who are using the abuse crisis to make their radical ideas more palatable to mainstream Catholics.
They fear that if Voice of the Faithful gets its way, the church will be a step closer to openly gay priests, female priests and an end to celibacy rules.
The group's leaders acknowledge they count a few radicals among their members.
"There are going to be people who are going to be opportunistic," said Mike Knellinger, co-founder of Voice of the Faithful in Dayton. "But that's not anything I have an interest in. That's not the driving force of Voice of the Faithful."
John Bookser-Feister, assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, went to Boston last year to find out for himself what the group was after. He said he learned that most members were middle-of-the-road Catholics deeply concerned about their church.
"They got lambasted for being outside agitators, but they're not," Bookser-Feister said. "They struck me as people who had become activists because of the scandal."
Even members of Voice of the Faithful acknowledge there are limits to how much change can be made before the Catholic church ceases to be, well, Catholic.
"There is the potential that some of the things (reformers) are asking for are not possible under the universal law of the church," said Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
But before the debate is over, Tilley said, some accommodation will have to be made for the reformers.
He said the abuse crisis is a challenge unlike any other the American church has encountered. The voices of the faithful, whether they are liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, will have a say in the outcome.
"What the future holds, I don't know," Tilley said. "But there will be substantial change."
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