air of expectation filled Conte Forum on the evening of September
18. As the crowd streamed in and spilled far up the stands, greetings
were exchanged across rows, hands waved to friends spotted in more
distant sections. "From Crisis to Renewal: The Task Ahead"
marked the inaugural event of the Church in the 21st Century project,
Boston College's two-year academic grappling with the implications
of the recent clergy sexual abuse scandals and exploration of the
contemporary Church. A majority of the audienceestimated at
4,000seemed to be middle-aged and older, though students and
young adults collected in small pockets. If fashion can be trusted,
there was a diverse mix of liberals (men with shaved heads, women
in Birkenstocks) and old-school Catholics (the men in blazers, the
women in seasonal two-piece suits). There were local business and
media chieftains, faculty and students, suburban parishioners, prominent
Protestants, scholars from local colleges, nuns and priests. Heads
turned as minor celebrities entered the arena. One almost expected
the concession stands to be open.
The upbeat tenor of the crowd conveyed a confidence that thoughtful
and honest Catholic scholars and laypeople could wrest the Church
they love back from the precipices of revolt and neglect. But if
the pain of the recent scandals was buffered by hope, it was still
a presence in the room. When University President William P. Leahy,
SJ, during his welcoming remarks, solemnly intoned, "Trust
must be restored and accountability ensured," when Jack Connors,
Jr. '63, the BC trustee and advertising executive, said that the
leaders of the Archdiocese of Boston had become "leaders in
title only," when BC theologian Roberto S. Goizueta lamented
that "clerical and episcopal abuse has desecrated the Body
of Christ," Conte Forum seemed to silence briefly before bursting
into long and sustained applause. People were angry, and they were
unafraid to show it.
If hope won out by evening's end, it was because speaker after speaker
urged those in the arena, and alumni taking part by broadcast across
the nation, to seize the opportunity within the crisis to renew
and revitalize the Church. That won't be easy, Fr. Leahy said, but
he gave comfort that it was possible. "As we strive to heal
and to think and act anew," he said, "we must recall that
God does not leave us orphans, and that the Spirit is moving among
The Church in the 21st Century project will examine three main themes,
said Leahy: "The roles and relationships of lay men and women,
priests and bishops, and how to enhance them; sexuality in Catholic
teaching and in contemporary culture; and the challenge of living,
deepening, and handing on the Catholic faith to succeeding generations."
The project will serve as a resource for the Catholic Church in
coming to terms with issues that have arisen during the scandal
over clergy abuse and the hierarchy's response to it. Project activities
will include public conferences, seminars, and lectures, which will
be augmented by publications, reading lists, and other aids.
The program, said Leahy, is for BC students, staff, faculty, and
alumni, as well as for "the Catholic community of Boston and
beyond, and for all people, Catholic and non-Catholic, who are concerned
about the present crisis in the Catholic Church."
The opening event was notable for its big-tent approach, addressing
all Catholics on all manner of issues raised by the scandals. But
it was not just another high-caliber academic assembly, a key fact
underscored by the opening prayer of Joseph A. Appleyard, SJ, BC's
vice president for University mission and ministry. Fr. Appleyard
reminded the audience that praying together for a moment could not
just be a hasty or formal prelude to an evening of heady thoughts
and polemics. Indeed, the entire two-year program of the Church
in the 21st Century will fail, he said, if it is not ultimately
"an act of prayer, an act of faith, and an act of hope."
But soon Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek
and the magazine's longtime religion writer, as well as the author
of seven books, took the podium. Woodward seemed to take delight
in casting out as many heady thoughts and polemical points as possible,
on subjects from civil union for homosexuals to transparent confessionals.
Woodward discussed the inevitability of a greater push to end celibacy
and ordain women arising from the recent scandals, although he said
that he did not see either outcome as desirable. (Digressing on
the topic of all-male bastions, he added, "Come to think of
it, we'll probably have ordained women sooner than we will have
female ushers," to laughter from the audience.) He corrected
critics who complain that laypeople have no role in the Church.
He noted that the numbers of lay ministries and lay Church workers
now dwarf the number of clerics; but he said that laypeople, while
having much to do, "have no real voice." He also said
that while he was appalled by the bishops' response to clergy abuse,
he disagreed with those who call this the most serious crisis in
the Church since the Reformation.
Woodward was emphatic and well-received by the audience on one of
his main points: that diocesan management should be in the hands
of competent professional laypeople in order to free priests to
be spiritual shepherds. "I'd rather a bishop with a knack for
holiness than a head for business," he said.
Lisa Sowle Cahill, a BC professor of theology and the first respondent,
faulted Woodward for being complacent in accepting the Church's
"grand, phallic pyramid" power structure and its divisions
of labor by gender. She spoke to the mutable understanding of sexuality
in Catholicism, noting changes in Church teachings on divorce and
the place of procreation in marriage, going back to St. Paul. Goizueta,
a theology professor who specializes in the Latino Church, struck
a poignant note as he reflected on the "inviolable dignity"
of children, "not just our children but all children."
The crisis of clerical sexual abuse, he said "pierces to the
very heart of the Body of Christ."
But it was Connors, the marketing executive and self-described "local
boy," who galvanized the crowd with his simple, plainspoken,
and powerful condemnation of the laissez-faire attitude that some
bishops have taken toward the abuse crisis. Turning his status as
a businessman to his advantage, he said to applause that one did
not need to be a theologian or scholar to know right from wrong.
Without mentioning Cardinal Bernard Law by name, he took aim at
the cardinal by calling it wrong to "sweep [abuse allegations]
under the Orientals" at the archdiocesan chancery and wrong
to treat alleged victims of priests with silence and intimidation.
Connors faulted the Catholic hierarchy for trying to retain "too
much control," and he offered Boston College's evolution into
a largely lay-administered university that nevertheless remains
Catholic in identity and mission as an example for the broader Church.
His simple message, "the Church must change," resonated
deeply with the audience, and the crowd repeatedly interrupted his
remarks with applause. Indeed, regular gusts of applause, more than
50 in all, rolled through Conte Forum during the event, applause
that mostly signaled hearty agreement with a speaker's point but
that at times seemed to indicate gratitude and relief at hearing
someone speak truth to power.
Martha Gill of Westwood, whose daughter Lisa graduated from Boston
College in June 2001, and who describes herself as an "old-school
Catholic," said she came to Conte Forum with many questions.
They were not all answered, but she said the openness encouraged
her. "It was very encompassing, with no holds barred, which
I think is good," said Gill.
Another audience member, Alice Campanella '59, of Wellesley, agreed.
"Some people were asking why Boston College would host such
a thing. My feeling is, how could they not host it? There were things
said tonight that were exactly what we needed to hear."
Recognizing that feedback was essential, the evening's organizers,
Robert Newton, special assistant to the president, and Mary Ann
Hinsdale, IHM, director of BC's Institute of Religious Education
and Pastoral Ministry, had arranged for cards to be distributed
on which audience members could write questions. As moderator, Hinsdale
read a handful aloud. A Boston College undergraduate asked how the
Church could improve the ways young Catholics are educated. Woodward
responded that he believed the Church could do more to make people
"earn" their identity as Catholics, confirming people
at a later age, requiring service to the aged or the poor. "We're
running walk-in, drive-in congregations, and while lazy people like
me like it, we're going to have to be much more demanding"
in order to build up a firmer Catholic membership, he said.
A parishioner from a local church wanted to know what lay Catholics
can do, beyond meeting, talking, and offering critiques, to push
for change. "The laity controls the oxygen for most of the
activities of the Churchyour money, our money," replied
Connors, to applause. While ceasing financial support of the archdiocese
made him uneasy, Connors said he believed that "redirecting
that support to your parish, to your hospital, to your parochial
school, to your social service" means sending it to "where
it's going to do the most good. For the moment, that may be at the
A priest asked how the growing numbers of Catholics in America will
participate in the celebration of the Eucharist if married men and
women are not ordained. Cahill replied that more lay-people, including
religiously vowed women, are already assuming responsibility in
the liturgical and spiritual lives of parishes. Catholics must not
assume that the sacramental future will look like the sacramental
present, she said. "The important thing is to begin to act
to change in cooperation with many of the wonderful pastors and
leaders that we have, with the pastoral associates and ministers.
. . . The chance is ours, the time is here, and the power is to
Hinsdale expressed gratitude for the audience's questions and said
all would be read carefully and all views given consideration as
new events and programs are added to the Church in the 21st Century
Richard J. Higgins is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.
His interview with David Hollenbach, SJ, "A Public Affair,"
appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of BCM.
Photo: Full houseConte Forum on September 18. By Lee