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Scholars find faith but little range in survey data on Voice of the Faithful

Voice of the Faithful convention, Hynes Auditorium, Boston, July 20, 2002. Photo by Steven Senne/AP Photo

Voice of the Faithful convention, Hynes Auditorium, Boston, July 20, 2002. Photo by Steven Senne/AP Photo


By William Bole

Sociologist William D'Antonio recalls that when he started examining Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) shortly after the lay Catholic reform group was created, he and others "wondered if the organization would last long enough for the study to be completed."

He need not have been concerned. Formed in the spring of 2002 in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, a Boston suburb, where parishioners had gathered to share their feelings of betrayal over revelations of clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese and around the country, VOTF is still speaking today, though it must frequently fend off accusations that it is less than faithful. And the completed study, conducted by D'Antonio and Anthony Pogorelc, SS, both at Catholic University of America, was the centerpiece of an October 23 symposium in Robsham Theater sponsored by Boston College's Church in the 21st Century Center.

The faces of the faithful were in evidence in the audience of some 400, but the voices that were heard were primarily those of scholars who'd been invited to review the survey data about VOTF and its approximately 30,000 members nationwide—a group that Mary E. Hines, a theology professor at Emmanuel College, unsentimentally characterized as "the voice of a particular demographic."

One characteristic of the individuals in that demographic, noted Boston University sociologist Nancy Ammerman, is that they appear to be faithful when compared with other American Catholics. The survey results, a summary of which was distributed at the symposium, report that 65 percent of the organization's members claimed to attend Mass weekly. This compares with a 34 percent rate among general Catholics in the United States, according to Gallup surveys. The survey also reported that 62 percent of VOTF members described the Church as the most important part of their lives or among the most important parts. Gallup reports the same response from 44 percent of Catholics in its national surveys.

The D'Antonio-Pogorelc survey also made clear that the VOTF demographic might well be characterized as individuals who attended Catholic colleges around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Roughly half of its members belong to that specific cohort, said Ammerman, explaining that at institutions like Boston College in the 1960s, these activists "formed a particular way of thinking about the Church and what's possible." There might also be grounds for considering VOTF a voice among older Catholics—a third of its members are fully retired—or a voice of successful Catholics, with more than half its members earning in excess of $100,000 annually. As Ammerman put it, VOTF members occupy a "comfortable place in American culture."

While there was scarcely a chance that the 5,000 VOTF members who responded to the survey would look irreligious when matched up against American Catholics in the Gallup survey, which is a national random sample of individuals who simply identified themselves as Catholic, VOTF leaders reveled in the findings of greater religiosity. "Our members come from the heart of the Catholic Church," VOTF president James E. Post said in a press release distributed at the symposium. Post added, "The study convincingly shows that we are who we claim to be—Catholic women and men who share a deep commitment to their Church."

Just how deep is their commitment to VOTF remains an unanswered question. VOTF's 30,000 members joined by declaring their support on the organization's website—"the weakest form of membership" in a social movement, said University of Pennsylvania sociologist John D. McCarthy in an interview following the symposium. He pointed to findings that the majority of members neither contribute money to the organization nor attend meetings of its approximately 150 local affiliates. The study also shows that while the organization enlists members from across the country, a little more than 20 percent live in Massachusetts, where the organization's 12 staff members are headquartered in the city of Newton.

Still, McCarthy and other analysts said VOTF's force has been felt in many places. Among recent targets have been statute-of-limitations laws concerning child sexual abuse, said VOTF vice president Kristine Ward of Dayton, Ohio. The organization, along with victims' groups, favors repeal of those state laws, a change that could pave the way for criminal prosecutions of bishops who protected priest-abusers.

From the beginning, VOTF has articulated three goals: to support victims of clergy sexual abuse, to support "priests of integrity," and to "shape structural change within the Church." The rallying call is, "Keep the Faith, Change the Church," which highlights the quest for structural reforms such as broader decision-making roles for the laity. The group officially stays clear of third-rail doctrinal questions like women's ordination and mandatory priestly celibacy. Even so, its relationship with the hierarchy is frigid, as became clear at the symposium.

Pogorelc advised the audience that VOTF is "seen as adversarial" by Church leaders, and he told of two bishops who sympathize with the reform cause but complained to him, "I can't do anything right for the [VOTF] group in my diocese." Pogorelc recommended cordial conversations with prelates—at which point an audience member called out in reference to the bishops, "Tony, can I take their names? I'll give them a call." As VOTF members see it, bishops willing to converse with them are few and far between.

Spokesman John Moynihan said such dialogue is happening in a smattering of dioceses, namely Brooklyn and Portland, Maine, and the group plans to send the survey results to every American bishop with a "request for conversation." For now, mistrust abounds. In the D'Antonio-Pogorelc study, 85 percent of the organization's members strongly agreed that the Church's hierarchy is "out of touch with the laity," compared with 19 percent of the wider Catholic population. (The margin of error was plus or minus three percentage points in both samples.) Critics have said that such views show hostility toward the Church's leadership. Sociologist Michele Dillon, of the University of New Hampshire, is not a critic of VOTF, but she pointed out at the symposium, "If you want to hold on to Catholic identity, you have to see the hierarchy as part of that communication" between the faithful and the faith.

"Constructive criticism" also came from Fr. Robert P. Imbelli, a Boston College theologian. He spoke of a need to "purify our language" and deflate rhetoric, disapprovingly citing a VOTF statement on the recent Vatican synod of bishops in which the group referred to prelates pontificating "in a world made immoral by those who are supposed to lead the flock." Fr. Imbelli also suggested that VOTF would be more centered in the Church if, instead of "Keep the Faith, Change the Church," its slogan was, "Spread the Faith, Change the World." The friendly advice drew moans from an audience of VOTF loyalists but also scattered applause—which only confirmed an earlier observation by Imbelli, that this lay reform movement "is a rather large tent."

 

William Bole's articles on religious topics have appeared in the Washington Post, Commonweal, and other outlets.

 


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