BOSTON – Pope John Paul II isn't the only one rallying faithful to his cause this summer. In far smaller numbers, so is a group that blames papal authority and the hierarchical structure of the Church for the clergy abuse scandals.

Calling themselves the Voice of the Faithful and moved by outrage over the Church's sexual-abuse crisis, a group of Boston-area Catholics have organized a national movement that has gained in numbers and credibility seemingly overnight.

But, critics note, the voices of those who dissent from key Church teachings have been far louder at Voice of the Faithful gatherings than the voices of those who are doctrinally faithful.

The group, which grew out of meetings at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Wellesley, Mass., claims a membership exceeding 23,000 in more than 40 U.S. states and 21 countries. It recently announced the opening of a home office in Newton Upper Falls, Mass., and the hiring of former investment banker Steve Krueger as interim executive director.

Since its formation in February and a lay congress attended by 4,200 people here July 20, the group has spawned 68 chapters and attracted $275,000 in contributions, surpassing an initial goal of $50,000. The money collected includes $100,000 from the family of New York businessman Terence Meehan, several anonymous donations exceeding $10,000 each and a number of $500 and $1,000 donations from religious orders. Krueger said none of the funds has come from other Church-reform groups.

One thing is clear: the group sees papal authority and the current hierarchical structure of the Church as a very bad thing. It wants to democratize the Church, give the power to the people and de-emphasize the contribution the Pope and the hierarchy make to Church governance.

But just whom the organization represents and what it will be able to accomplish is not clear.

Although Voice of the Faithful claims to be a centrist group with a goal of supporting “priests of integrity” and victims of clergy sexual abuse and shaping structural change within the Church, the organization has drawn criticism for being weighted too heavily toward the Church's liberal voices. Leaders say that impression was unintentional and is one they plan to correct.

Attorney Philip Moran, who attended the July 20 lay congress, said he was disturbed by the slate of speakers, which included Debra Haffner, a former official of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington; Boston College theology faculty members Thomas Groome – a former priest – Lisa Sowle Cahill and Stephen Pope; and Leonard Swidler, a Temple University religion professor who proposes rewriting the Church's constitution.

“All seem, from my understanding, to have no use for the hierarchy of the Church,” said Moran, who serves as general counsel for the Catholic Alliance, a group headed by Raymond Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. “They don't believe in Catholicism as I do.”

Moran wondered why voices like Flynn's and Harvard Law School Professor Mary Ann Glendon, both of whom live in the Boston area, were not asked to speak.

Krueger said, however, that several “conservatives” were invited to the Congress, and none agreed to attend. They included former education secretary William Bennett, columnist Rod Dreher, papal biographer George Weigel and theologian and author Michael Novak.

Voice of the Faithful's interim executive director said the group views itself as inclusive and not founded on a particular point of view on any issue.

“We're trying to establish a playing field where a legitimate dialogue can take place between Catholics and between the laity and the hierarchy to discuss the issues of the Church,” Krueger said. “I think that differentiates us from some groups that have been founded on a particular agenda for reform.”

Krueger said the group counts conservatives among its members and would like to attract more, along with minorities and young people.

Where Do They Stand?

However, some Catholics think the group needs to be more specific about its loyalties. The Catholic Alliance's Flynn, a former mayor of Boston with a long history of political involvement, said, “You don't go to a convention and endorse a candidate and not discuss the issues. I want to know their objectives, the goals and values of the organization.”

Flynn said he would like to hear Voice of the Faithful's position on the ordination of women, married priests, homosexuality in the priest-hood and abortion. “These are all issues that are very important,” he said. “Admittedly people have differences of opinion with the Catholic Church hierarchy on these issues. I understand that. But so far, all everybody thinks is they're getting a seat at the table to change the Church position. They think getting involved can change Church doctrine.”

He said he asked Krueger those questions on his radio program on WROL-AM and was told “we'll work that out in time.”

“What is there to discuss?” Flynn asked. “Church doctrine is uncompromising on a number of these issues. This is the teaching of Jesus Christ.”

Krueger said Voice of the Faithful believes any positions it takes need to be developed through a collaborative process. “For us to take a particular stance on an issue, not having reviewed it through an appropriate process of the membership, would be premature. I think that the organization views itself as kind of creating an organic, grassroots process by which the laity can discuss matters of their faith and Church in a way that gives them a sense of ownership.”

Tom Smith, a Voice of the Faithful co-founder, said he thinks the group's goal of working within the Church for changes that will allow for more lay involvement in decision-making is healthy.

Although he said he believes in following the Holy See and the magisterium, he does not think the Church's leaders have been good administrators. “Someone else should take part in the governance of the Church,” he said. “That lies outside the duty of the holy man who heads up his diocese ... I think that points to laity involvement.”

Austin Ruse, a spokesman for Catholics for Authentic Reform, a coalition of 16 Catholic leaders founded in June to respond to the sexual-abuse scandal, disagreed. He said the laity are not called to govern the Church but to evangelize the world.

“These people are too concerned with the inner workings of the Church,” Ruse said. “They want to serve on church committees. That is such a crabbed view of the layman's role. The layman's role is not facing toward the Church, but with the Church backing him up, facing the world to evangelize it. That's the message of Vatican II.”

Ruse said he thinks Voice of the Faithful has been able to gain members and public presence quickly because so many people joined via the Internet. “And they were able to claim a lot of media attention because supposedly they were a grassroots group that was not ideological and out to change the Church,” he added. “It was a very wise marketing strategy that has worked very well.”

According to C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, it is now clear Voice of the Faithful is dominated by promoters of dissent. Doyle noted that representatives from Call to Action, which dissents from Church teachings on an array of issues; from Corpus, which promotes married priests; and from the Women's Ordination Conference were all prominent at the Boston convention.

Doyle also cited the comments of Father William Kremmell, chaplain of Regis and Framingham State colleges, at the convention's closing Mass. Father Kremmell told worshipers that “hopefully” in 25 years, such a Mass could be celebrated by a married woman, The Boston Globe reported.

On its Web site, the Voice of the Faithful lists celibacy and the all-male priesthood as “possible proximate causes” of the scandal, and suggests that the root cause is the very structure of the Church and papal authority. It says that Second Vatican Council II, if fully implemented, would democratize the Church.

But this runs directly contrary to the teachings of Vatican II, which teaches, in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church: “[T]his Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God” (No. 18).

“It is grotesque hypocrisy for an organization which claims to be Catholic to promote the views of those who reject Catholic doctrine and repudiate Christian morality,” said Doyle in a press release. “As an organization marketing itself as Catholic, Voice of the Faithful is engaged in consumer fraud. “

Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.