Voice of Faithful Goes after Biggest Issue of All: Authority

By Joan Chittister
Downloaded January 31, 2003

I'm never sure about how to respond when people ask me what I think about Voice of the Faithful. The fact is that I admire this group. But they confuse me. They have shown courage, integrity and control in the midst of great upheaval, deep pain and an incredible amount of shock.

When people were shocked at the rising tide of adult survivors of clerical sex abuse in childhood, even inclined to be disbelieving of the survivors, Voice of the Faithful stayed faithful and insisted that the survivors be seen, heard and attended to.

When people were shocked at the legal maneuverings of a church whose record for social compassion and public ministry to the oppressed stands with the best of them, Voice of the Faithful continued to pledge support for those ministries even while withholding funds they feared would be used for hush money.

When people were shocked at Vatican statements about the whole hoary mess being nothing but a media attack on the Catholic church, Voice of the Faithful held firm, demanded accountability from church officials, claimed a place for the faithful in the process and determined not to mix particular issues with their overall political purposes. They will not, they say, espouse any particular change in church policy: not the ordination of married men, not the ordination of women, not the question of liturgical norms. Not anything particular.

They are neither conservative nor liberal, they say. They are simply looking for a way for both conservatives and liberals to take their proper places in the experience that is church. Which translated means, it seems, to be consulted, to be included, to be part of the decision-making process of a church in process in a world in flux. While I myself try to avoid terms like conservative and liberal because of their power to label, stereotype, divide and categorize, I nevertheless get the point: We should all be heard.

We should all count in the process of determining what the Holy Spirit is really doing in the church. We should all be part of the discernment of the "particular" spirits, which Voice of the Faithful as a group is not espousing one way or the other.

But, admire them as I do, that's exactly where they confuse me. Do they really believe that they are agenda-free? Do they really think that they are independent of issues? Or is such a statement simply a kind of ecclesiastical guarantee of quality: We don't stand for any particular issue -- like those other people do -- so you don't need to be afraid that joining us will compromise your faith.

I can't help asking myself if these people are this disingenuous or this holy? How can anyone possibly think that what Voice of the Faithful asserts they are about to do -- give a voice to the faithful in the machinations of the Roman Catholic church -- is not the single major determining issue in the church today?

Bigger than Luther's commitment to the use of the vernacular in the reading of scripture, greater than Bartolomé de las Casas' commitment to the full humanity of Indians, bigger even on a daily basis than the implications of Galileo's commitment to the notion that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe, shocking as that was to the sensibilities of "man, God's highest creature."

The truth is that to aspire to give lay people a "voice" in the ongoing development and direction of the church stands for the biggest issue of them all: It stands for declericalization. And declericalization is the foundation for the renewal of the church. If the church is declericalized -- if the laity really begins to be included in the theological debates, the canonical processes, the synodal decisions of the Roman Catholic church -- every issue on the planet will become grist for its mill. The gospel of Jesus' walk from Galilee to Jerusalem, curing lepers, healing paralytics, raising women from the dead, will live again.

Do they not realize that by concentrating on lay participation rather than on specific theological issues, they are really striking at the core of church development and power? They are targeting the biggest issue of them all, authority.

Clearly, whether they know it or not, Voice of the Faithful is definitely not issue-free. And, whether they realize it or not, their audacity is shaking the foundations of an imperial church that, until this time, has seldom felt the need to explain anything, let alone ask questions of anyone other than those in their own inner circles. Sensus fidelium or no sensus fidelium.

Before this is over, thanks to Voice of the Faithful, issues like a married priesthood, the ordination of women, the use of inclusive pronouns in scripture and the choice of postures during the canon of the Mass will seem to be exactly what they are -- very, very minor. That's why I admire them: They are into the biggest issue of them all.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003

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