If there has been a social movement studied so soon after its emergence as VOTF, I haven’t heard of it. Funded by the Louisville Institute and published as part of the Boston College Church in the 21st Century Series, D’Antonio and Pogorelc offer a sociological study of the origins of VOICE OF THE FAITHFUL (VOTF) as an incipient social movement that began in response to the Boston Globe’s 2002 reporting on the clerical sex abuse scandal. Their data include 60 one hour, taped interviews, 35 with founders and leaders, 25 with area clergy and academics and a national membership internet survey (2003 - 2004) of 4,542 members, about one in six, with a 28% (N: 1,273) return. Appendix E gives the 85 item questionnaire for VOTF members and Appendix F three part tables comparing VOTF Leaders, VOTF members and a 2005 National Survey of Catholics. The co-authors enlisted the interpretative help of two sociologists of religion (Nancy T. Ammerman and Michelle Dillon), two theologians (Mary E. Hines and Robert P. Imbelli) and two social movement theorists (William A. Gamson and John D. McCarthy). Each get their own chapters.
The catalyst date for the formation of VOTF was January 26, 2002 when the Boston Globe Sunday’s headline shouted: “Church allowed abuse by priest for years”. The Monday headline read: “Since 1985, Law had reports on repeat abusers”. And so it went for most of the year, with the Boston laity, and soon the nation’s, thinking the story couldn’t get worse, until it did. The reaction of the Boston laity is well represented by the most common words appearing in the interviews: shocked (appearing 10 times alone on just the two pages 13-4); outraged; astounded; embarrassed to be catholic; arrogance; sickening. Less than six months later, in June 2002, Steve Krueger, executive director, opened the VOTF national office in Newton, Ms., beginning with $12,000 and one full-time employee. VOTF started simply, with a parish listening session, and grew quickly. The internet was important. So too was an encouraging pastor. “The pastor’s willingness to address the effect of the scandal in a public forum is seen by many of the St. John’s parishioners as an important element in VOTF’s formation”. The national survey of VOTF members similarly found that “More than half said their pastors publicly responded to the scandal, with about a third supportive of VOTF and a third neutral“. Jim Muller, a member of St. John’s parish, Wellesley, Massachusetts, a distinguished physician and a 1985 Nobel laureate (for his role in the formation of International Physicians against Nuclear War), more than any other person, the authors say, was responsible for taking the actions that led to the formation of VOTF. The current President is a fellow parishioner, Dr. James Post, a professor of business management at Boston University. The naming of the group was experienced as a significant moment. Some early suggestions at the first “listening sessions” included the Newmanesque sensus fidelium and then someone suggested Voice of the Faithful and “It just clicked”. St. John’s Parish, it must be emphasized, had extraordinary resources: parishioners who were highly educated and with organizational skills; affluence, visionary pastoral leadership, and the resource of time - over forty percent of the men, and thirty percent of the women, report that they are retired.
Participants viewed their VOTF membership “as part of their Catholic vocation” and more than a few used “calling” language. D’Antonio and Pogorelc identify 36 of their interviewees as founders and current leaders. Women comprised 60%, the same as the general VOTF membership. Very few came from the post- Vatican II generation, that is, born after 1960. VOTF is not ethnically diverse. Three out of four women leaders and almost half the men say they are totally Irish. Almost all the women are at least partially Irish, and more than half of the men. Followed by German (20%). Similar European-ethnic demographics prevail among the general VOTF membership. The founders and leaders are highly educated, and two thirds have advanced degrees, with almost half having the doctorate or a professional degree. More than half report household income of $100,000 or higher. Most attended Catholic grammar and high school and two thirds of the women and one third of the men catholic college. Most are married with a catholic spouse and most have children, a fifth with four or more. The men (71%) were even more likely than the women (57%) to say they attend daily or weekly mass, while the women (80%) were more likely than the men (50%) to pray at least once a day and to say (74% vs. 36%) that the church was the “Most or among the most important” parts of their lives. Only about a third (24% of the women, 43% of the men) said they might consider leaving the church, about the same as the VOTF membership generally and more than twice the percentage of Catholics in the national sample (14%). So a small paradox. The most active are more likely than the less active to say the clergy abuse might lead them to leave the church. More than three quarters of VOTF leadership were members of a parish committee, more than half were Eucharistic ministers and CCD/RCIA teachers. More than a third “are or have been members of at least one organization promoting social justice”. Almost half subscribe to America and NCR, while about one quarter add Commonweal and their local diocesan newspaper. While almost three quarters of the women say they are democrats and only one third of the men, both are most likely (56%) to describe themselves as political and economic moderates. No women leader self-described herself as a political conservative, while one third of the men did.
The authors surveyed (by internet and with a return of 28%) VOTF Members and compared them with a 2005 general catholic survey conducted by D’Antonio et. al. The VOTF membership is very similar to the founders’ and leaders’ profile, while both are very different demographically and religiously from the more ordinary Catholic. VOTF, as many of the commentators point out, represent the crème de la crème, the best and the brightest, the leaven.
Among the VOTF general membership, forty-four percent are members of an affiliate group, and almost a third attended a meeting during the past year and donated money. They too are cradle catholics, catholic educated, and are in catholic marriages. While half of their children attended parochial schools, they estimated that only one in three of their adult children attended mass regularly. The larger number of “singles” among them are probably priests and professed religious. “Twenty-two percent of the men and women professed religious vows; 16 percent of the men had been ordained and some remain in active ministry… Thus, a small but important minority of VOTF members has very deep roots in the Roman Catholic Church, through ordination and religious profession”. On all measures, the membership was just a little less elite than the leadership sample. For example, almost a third, versus a half, report family incomes of $100,000 or more. Fifty-eight percent of the VOTF membership attended Catholic college, compared to 12 percent of the National survey of Catholics. Sixty-two percent said that their church membership was the most or among the most important parts of their lives, compared to 44 percent of the general sample. About one in five had read all the documents of Vatican II and only a fifth said they seldom or never helped in service programs for the poor, such as soup kitchens or tutoring programs. Four in ten were affiliated with an organization such as Pax Christi and Habitat for Humanity. While about one third of the national sample attend mass at least weekly, two thirds of VOTF do. “In sum, VOTF members demonstrate extraordinary levels of participation in the intellectual and sacramental life of the Catholic Church, as well as in its mission and organizations”.
And their abuse related attitudes? Vast VOTF majorities (98%) say the laity should “decide how parish income is spent” and have the right to participate in the selection of priests for their parish (84%) and select bishops (85%). It’s significant that these percentages are similar to the ordinary Catholics in the 2005 national sample. About half of the VOTF membership said they’d be willing to devote two to five hours a week in playing a more active parish role.
Somewhat surprising for activists stirred by the clergy abuse scandal, they have not devoted much homework time to examining the available expert studies of Catholic clergy abuse. While only one in four members were not familiar with either the Bennett Report or the John Jay study, only “four in ten said they had some knowledge of each group and of their respective study and report”.
While vibrant in church participation, VOTF membership is grey. About half of the men come from the pre-Vatican II era (born by 1940) , and half of the women from the Vatican II era (born between 1941 and 1960). In other words, very few - 11% - come from the post-Vatican II era (1961 and after). Grey is faithful. Research has shown that the pre-Vatican II generation is the “most loyal, church-going, and prayerful”. The young are not as habitually faithful. On all measures of religious beliefs and practices, they lag behind the preceding generations, from mass attendance (60%: 41%: 20%) and daily prayer 83%: 78%: 69%) to the importance of the church in their life (most or among the most important things in my life): 70%: 62%: 56%. They followed the scandal less closely than older Catholics. Forty two percent of the Post-Vatican II generation answer that they are not familiar with the Bennett Report and 37% the John Jay Study (as contrasted with, respectively, 23% and 22% of the pre-Vatican II generation). About 12% (contrasted with two-fifths and one quarter of the pre-Vatican II groups) say they read The National Catholic Reporter and America. The young have less trouble with the “L” word. Post Vatican II respondents are more likely to say they are political liberals (61% to 41%) and socio-cultural liberal (63% to 53%).
The sociologists of religion commentators (Nancy T. Ammerman and Michelle Dillon) highlight the very different VOTF and ordinary laity demographic social worlds (education, income, age, race and ethnicity, religious literacy). Ammerman notes the organizational irony that VOTF’s legitimacy rests with the very church leadership it wants to change and Dillon the unlikelihood of changing church structures without any reference to church teaching (as in “keep the faith, change the church”), which is VOTF’s way of avoiding a lay liberal-conservative polarization and a hierarchical rebuke. “It is, she writes, “sociologically and theologically naive to assume that doctrine and structure, or culture and structure, are separate domains… The imperative for VOTF then is to desist splitting the goal of structural change from talk of doctrine. Instead, the inherently Catholic question that VOTF needs to ask is: “What in the doctrine can be used to empower structural change?” She points VOTF to the doctrines of Vatican II, citing sections of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World that especially resonate with laity involvement and hierarchical collegiality (such as nos. 43, 44, 62).
The theologian Mary E. Hines offers “an ecclesiological reflection”, citing canons 215, 216, 298, 299, 300, 301 which, among other things, instruct that the laity have the right to form private associations as long as they do not purport to teach Catholic doctrine in the name of the church or include the word "Catholic” in their organizational titles. She complicates Dillion’s point by referring to the still contested interpretations of Vatican II - which she purposefully simplifies into an “ecclesiology from below” that emphasizes the continuous role of the holy spirit and an “ecclesiology from above” that stresses hierarchy and authority - and adds that the Council is “still in its relatively early stages forty years after its last session”. Hines, reflecting on the different origins of CALL TO ACTION (CTA) and VOTF, writes that the former’s emphasis on the church’s mission to the world gives it a staying power that VOTF’s focus on structural reform might not achieve.
As Hines complicates Dillon, theologian Robert Imbelli complicates Hines as he offers a dialectical Catholic “depth grammar” (whose three paired both/and code means we must embrace (1) institution and reform, hierarchy and people of God; (2) Catholicism’s Christocentric notion of the Holy Spirit coupling continuity and change; and (3) Catholicism’s evangelical challenge that unites a call to conversion and to transformation. In terms of this depth-dialectic, Imbelli suggests that VOTF amplify its slogan to: Keep the Faith/ Change the Church // Spread the Faith/ Change the World.
The sociologists of social movements, William A. Gamson and John D. McCarthy, write that, to continue and flourish, VOTF must appreciably change. Gamson finds a cultural tension between what VOTF proposes and the nature of the Catholic Church: “They (VOTF) introduce a culture of democratic participation into what is essentially an incompatible, paternalistic culture … This is not to say that some creative accommodation cannot be found to blend the two cultures if there is a good faith effort to find one. But it suggests that this culture clash will be a recurrent tension and difficult at each step along the path to change”. Gamson is not sanguine. He notes - using the metaphors of camel noses and slippery slopes - that “There is a long theme in the social movement literature about the reluctance of authorities to respond to challengers by changing their policies if they can, instead, exercise social control”. To this point, he cites the critical - indeed, hostile - words of Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey: “Through its words and deeds, we believe that this organization has as its purposes: to act as a cover for dissent with the faith; to cause division within the church; and to openly attack church hierarchy…. Married clergy, ordination of women, abolition of the tradition of celibacy, altering Church teaching on sexual morality, and defiance of the apostolic authority that has guided the Church since its founding two thousand years ago by Our Lord Jesus Christ, have all found a place in the ranks of Voice of the Faithful”. Gamson notes that while as an organization VOTF has no position on the issues cited by Myers, the data show that a significant number of its membership would support such changes thus giving rise to “slippery slope” fears among critics. As to whether VOTF can overcome such resistances and fears, Gamson says he “hesitate(s) to venture a prediction”.
Drawing on the extensive body of social movement scholarship, McCarthy more specifically sketches some theoretical guidelines for VOTF leaders to consider as they confront some fundamental organizational tasks. McCarthy finds that VOTF’s framing (diagnostic, prognostic and motivational) is effective, and especially its diagnosis of the problems to be solved. But on the organizational debit side, McCarthy notes that “VOTF has chosen a common and very widespread organizational form that is one of federated local groups. Although VOTF aims to establish chapters in every parish in the United States, at present a significant proportion of members… are not linked to a local group, and/or have not been active in any way. Many such members are supporters only, illustrating the phenomenon of mailing list membership. … Research on similar insurgent groups shows that isolated members are very hard to retain”.
At present VOTF appears to have about 150 local groups with 30,000 members and its next organizational task, McCarthy continues, is connecting these far-flung local groups to one another with the attendant issue of organizational governance in such a large federated organization. Past research shows an ongoing conflict “over goals, means, and, especially, organizational decision making as local groups begin to assert their independence”. He expects that VOTF will experience conflict over governance in the not too distant future as “Federated organizations such as VOTF that aspire to national scope are chronically vulnerable to conflict over governance for a variety of reasons, especially because its far-flung local groups tend to develop very different priorities.“
Its recently formed NATIONAL REPRESENTATIVE COUNCIL will be key. McCarthy wonders if allowing motivated members to form committees aimed at accomplishing specific tasks will serve to keep them interested and motivated. But to build the movement for structural reform, he writes, VOTF “needs to consider a longer-term strategy for continuing its momentum” which includes a frame less tied to the sexual abuse scandal which, he simply asserts, will “fade into the historical past”. A vital VOTF presence requires that it “continually expand its focus to incorporate new substantive issues germane to the core questions of structural reform of the church”. To deal with its narrow demographics of age and Northeastern base, McCarthy suggests targeting college and universities’ campus ministries.
In Chapter Eleven CONCLUSION D’Antonio and Pogorelc summarize the data and the invited experts' suggestions: “VOTF has entered into a tense relationship with church authorities and ultimately with the wider context in which the church is embedded…. It must walk the fine line of orchestrating an effective challenge while at the same time not going so far as to provoke the organization to dismiss it. Because movements stand outside the center of power, they do not have access to the channels used by institutional insiders… and movements must time and again prove that their grievances are just”. “A major challenge for VOTF is how to effectively balance the tension of being members of an organization and challengers to it”. “The immediate challenge for VOTF is how to refocus its goals to incorporate Catholic social teaching so it can share common ground with the new immigrants, successors to the earlier immigrants who built the found on which VOTF Catholics stand. VOTF Catholics need to be agents of dialogue. .. It needs to build relationships with other Catholic groups “ , such as the National Center for Pastoral Life, the National Association for Lay Ministry, the Leadership Roundtable, the Congregation of Major Superiors of Men and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.