the Church needs
pangs, strains, and dislocations of the American Catholic community
were on vivid display on the afternoon of Saturday, June 1, when
about 70 reunioning alumni took up an invitation from University
President William P. Leahy, SJ, to express their opinions on BC's
"The Church in the 21st Century" initiative. [See BCM,
"Natural resource," Spring 2002.] Announced by the president
two weeks earlier in a blitz of interviews with the Boston Herald,
Boston Globe and New York Times, the undertaking
promises a "special academic focus" over the next two
years to examine issues relating to the clerical sexual misconduct
scandal. The program would include, Fr. Leahy said, public lectures,
campus seminars, Web and print publications, and special presentations
for alumni across the country.
The alumni who forsook a clear and sunny spring afternoon to gather
in the tiered seats of a Devlin Hall classroom were middle-aged
and older, for the most part, and dressed like Cape Cod vacationers,
though a few older men were celebrating reunion Saturday in sportscoats
or suits, dress shirts, and ties. All appeared to listen attentively
as Fr. Leahy welcomed them and outlined what he saw as the Church's
immediate tasks (respond compassionately to victims, and change
internal structures so that abuse and cover-ups cannot happen again)
and the related long-term issues BC hopes to engage: sexuality in
the Catholic tradition and in American culture; the interlocking
partnership of lay people, clergy, and hierarchy in the Church;
and what the president called "how we live our faith today and pass
it on to the next generation."
Labeling his audience an "ideal" group from which to gather critiques
of BC's plans, Leahy opened the floor to "comments and questions."
These came quickly and steadily and for more than an hour, sometimes
directed at BC's president, sometimes at other speakers, and sometimes
at individuals who were far away from Boston College; the tone of
the discussion ranging from therapy group, to zoning board hearing,
to boardroom presentation, to revival meeting. Fr. Leahy took notes
on a legal pad throughout and directed the discussion with the restrained
hand of a veteran teacher (he happens to be one), recognizing individuals
who had not yet had a chance to speak, reflecting comments back
at the audience so they took off in fresh trajectories, nodding
his encouragement, and now and again asking a direct question.
"How many people here personally know victims of [clerical] sexual
abuse?" a man in the audience began. About 20 hands rose. "We know
three," a woman in a magenta sweater called out to Leahy. "How has
that affected you?" he asked. "It's galvanized my faith," she replied.
His question was softly phrased; her response was flinty, daring
challenge, and not from Leahy. Leahy pointed to another raised hand.
"What we're looking at is a conspiracy of silence on the part of
[Church] leadership in order to avoid the questions of women and
married priests," a man said.
and an alumnus. Photo by Justin Knight
This brought a man in the second row to his feet. He wore a gray
suit and identified himself as an ordained deacon and a member of
the Class of 1942. Expressing his credo as "my bishop, right
or wrong," he said that a chief problem in Boston was that
lay people had not defended Cardinal Bernard Law sufficiently. "Powerful
forces—the media and lawyers—have been taking this thing
out of context," he said. Around the room, people had begun
to shake their heads and smile. "I can't imagine the cardinal
not caring for children," the man in the suit declared before
sitting down to applause from a few people sitting near him, who
appeared to be classmates and their wives. "[Cardinal Law]
is involved in a conspiracy to obstruct justice," one man responded
immediately. A woman said, "The root cause is abuse of power."
A man in a madras-patterned shirt and with a laborer's broad shoulders
said to Fr. Leahy, "This is not about faith but about trust.
The faith may remain strong but trust has been broken at its roots."
When a man asked "What's expected of the laity now?" Leahy shook
his head and put up his hands defensively, drawing laughter. "I'm
not the pope or a cardinal," he said. "I'm a member of the Church,
just like you. But I'd say that one thing we need is better-educated
lay people." Leahy went on to note that while an estimated 70 to
75 percent of BC's undergraduate students were "confirmed in the
Church, many come in unprepared for college-level theology." The
University, Leahy said, has to lower its expectations for what it
can teach young Catholics about their faith. He said he also believed
that archdioceses would benefit from "a greater sharing of power"
with laity. "BC has been enhanced by the presence of lay men and
women" on the faculty and staff and on the Board of Trustees, he
said, "and while we'll always have a hierarchical church, it needs
the active participation and talents of our lay people."
Not all in the room were absolutely focused on questions of education
or governance. When Leahy asked how trust in the hierarchy could
be restored, a gray-haired woman responded "adoration and prayer,"
but so quietly that she had to be asked to repeat herself. Governance
was what was on most minds, however. "Transparency" was
a condition of restored trust, said a man in a dark green polo shirt—"a
full hearing on all the facts, no matter how painful." Another
man said plaintively, "We need a forum to talk." Another
spoke of "parallels in crisis management" in government
and business and the regular use of "blue-ribbon commissions"
to probe wrongdoing in those arenas. A woman in a white blouse told
how her archdiocese in Texas had years earlier created administrative
structures for reporting child abuse, and said this had given her
a sense of personal "responsibility as a member of the diocese."
Leahy, who was familiar with the Texas program, said that it was
a model that deserved duplication. Another man, who said he was
a deacon, spoke of the Church's need to develop "appropriate
advisory bodies" and "youth protection models" like
those used by youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts.
meeting of the advisory committee. To Leahy's right, codirectors
Robert Newton of the president's office and Mary Ann Hinsdale
of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.
Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert
The U.S. Church's special circumstances in a pluralist and democratic
homeland seemed to be another important issue for the alumni. When
Fr. Leahy asked how many in the room belonged to parishes that had
"functioning parish councils," many hands went up. "The
question is how functioning," a woman added, to general laughter.
Another woman spoke of having become embarrassed to identify herself
as a Catholic during workplace discussions of religious issues with
people of other faiths. An alumna in a white T-shirt and shorts—perhaps
the youngest person in the room—asked whether "The Church
in the 21st Century" would include "debates about women
priests or married priests. As a woman in America, I can run a company.
But as a Catholic, I go into a church and there are many things
I can't do." Leahy said all questions that surfaced during
the initiative would be openly discussed. "A lot of these issues
are serious and important," a man in a blue button-down shirt
responded, "but they don't get down to the root cause of how
this happened. There's been a lack of candor." Another man:
"The Church is not a democracy, but it has to be more democratic."
"Without moving from the universality of the Church, we need
to allow for American culture," said another. A man then asked
how the views of the bishops and authorities in Rome "will
affect the [BC] program." Leahy let the knowing laughter subside.
"There is a fear of Americanism in Rome," he said. "But
a university ought to be a meeting place where the issues are discussed—maybe
not resolved, but discussed."
The list of concerns swelled. A man grieved that the scandal had
"paralyzed" the American Church, "deflecting us from other issues."
A blonde woman who identified herself as a catechist said that of
24 ninth-grade [Catholic] students she'd surveyed, none went to
Mass regularly. "None," she repeated. Another woman asked "How do
we handle the debilitation of the pope?" Others in the room raised
the "loneliness" of priests, alcoholism among priests, and "having
accurate information" regarding the scandal and the Church's response.
"Can BC address that?" a man asked. Fr. Leahy nodded and wrote on
his legal pad.
"What happens to priests who did something 20 years ago?" said the
1942 graduate in the dark suit. "Can they serve the Lord no more?"
"Would you have him as your priest?" someone called out.
"What if your grandchild was in the parish?" someone else asked.
An earnest-looking, dark-haired younger man who said he was "concerned
about the credibility of the Church in America" asked whether BC's
presentations would include views from "law enforcement." No, Leahy
said. Another man called out "Who does the pope talk to?" Leahy
laughed and again put up his hands as though to stop a charge. "To
my knowledge," said the native Iowan, "no one from Iowa gets phoned
by the pope."
And finally, a man raised his hand and said, "These are the things
that need to be done," and then without breaking a sweat ran through
a consultant's crisis management to-do list: "full disclosure,"
"own the responsibility," "re-establish trust," and "change processes
to share power."
Leahy called the session to a close a few minutes later (and 15
minutes past the allotted hour). Noting that "the interest of Catholics
in their Church has been deepened by what has gone on these last
five months," he said that he was grateful for what he had learned
and that, while it was time to call the session to an end, he would
stay afterwards to take any further comments. Even as he spoke,
people began gathering around him. A thin dark-haired woman sitting
near me, who had said nothing during the session, whispered "Bravo."
The alumni reunion gathering was not the only source of counsel
for planners of the BC intiative. Fr. Leahy, the Alumni Association,
and other offices received more than 400 e-mails and letters in
the weeks after the announcement. Most came from alumni and all
but a handful praised the University for, as one writer to Fr. Leahy
said, "put[ting] forth a proposal that will be an avenue for people
like my wife and I to address and help to reconcile the direction
of our beloved Church." More responses came as a result of a direct
solicitation from Fr. Leahy to deans and faculty.
A 33-member advisory committee of faculty, staff, alumni, and students
was appointed in late June. Its codirectors are Robert Newton, special
assistant to the president, and Mary Ann Hinsdale, director of BC's
Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.The committee
has been meeting through the summer to set programs for "The Church
in the 21st Century"
The first event in "The Church in the 21st Century" initiative
will take place on September 18th at 7:30 p.m. at Boston
College. Featured speakers will be University President
William P. Leahy, SJ, and Newsweek religion editor Kenneth
Woodward, with a panel of respondents drawn from alumni
The event is free but requires a ticket. For further information,
go to www.bc.edu/church21
or e-mail email@example.com
or call (617) 552-0470. The event will be Web cast live
and transmitted live by satellite in conjunction with the
National Boston College Club Network. For further information,
go to www.bc.edu/alumni
or call (617) 552-4700.
Top Photo: Fr. Leahy and alumni: "I'm a member of the Church,
just like you.".
Photo by Justin Knight