Remaking the Church

1 Year After Parish Leadership Restructuring Attempt, Voice of the Faithful Maintains Hopes

‘OPPRESSED CLASS?’ Women recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass at the Voice of the Faithful national conference in Melville, N.Y., in 2009.
‘OPPRESSED CLASS?’ Women recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass at the Voice of the Faithful national conference in Melville, N.Y., in 2009. (photo: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Editor’s note: One year ago this month, Catholics in Connecticut mobilized against a proposed law that would severely restrict a pastor’s authority in his own parish — and the bishop’s as well.

In a four-part series beginning today, Deacon Thomas Davis, associate director of the Pope John Paul II Bioethics Center at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., ( and a practicing attorney, demonstrates how such a law fits in with parish restructuring proposals of Voice of the Faithful, the national organization that sprang up in the wake of the clerical sexual-abuse revelations of 2002.

Deacon Davis also explores Voice of the Faithful’s connections to dissident theologians and its plans to spread doctrinal error among Catholics.


The Failed Connecticut Putsch of 2009

On March 5, 2009, the co-chairmen of the Connecticut General Assembly Judiciary Committee introduced Raised Bill 1098 mandating reorganization of Catholic religious corporations.

Under the bill’s terms, all Catholic parishes in Connecticut would come under the control of lay boards with bishops and pastors holding only nonvoting membership. Although the parishes would remain free to abandon organization under the state’s religious corporation statutes and restructure as nonstock entities, the attempt to muscle the Church was plainly aimed at eliminating clerical control of parishes.

The genesis of Raised Bill 1098 was the work of Tom Gallagher, a local lawyer who approached legislators with a plan that would have left the bishop and pastors with voting rights, but only in lay-controlled boards. The actual text of the bill eliminated any voting rights for the bishop and pastors, but that was a small side story.

The real story was and remains the active participation of members of Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport (VOTF-Bpt) in promoting restructuring plans at the parish and diocesan level, as well as other VOTF groups in Connecticut and nationally.

Raised Bill 1098 was supported by VOTF-Bpt, with the qualification that the bishop and pastors should have voting rights, albeit on lay-controlled boards.

Both the Hartford affiliate (VOTF-Hfd) and the national VOTF released press statements asserting that they did not support the bill, but those statements came only after the bill was withdrawn in the face of public, political and legal reactions that consigned it to the legislative dust bin.

Moreover, neither organization expressed outright opposition to legislatively mandated lay majority boards, and neither publicly repudiated the unconstitutional and doctrinally offensive bill while it was still pending.

Deeper investigation suggests more was happening than the press releases revealed: something very much about power and control over doctrine, protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

Clues abound. One officer of VOTF-Bpt is also a board member of the Woman’s Ordination Conference. VOTF-Hfd, while carefully parroting the party line regarding faithfulness to the Church and “nonsupport” of R.B. 1098, has repeatedly promoted amendments to the state religious corporation law by providing forums for Gallagher to press his case.

The Connecticut VOTF online e-letter “Our Voices,” a project closely associated with VOTF-Hfd, included an article by Gallagher advocating change in the religious corporations act (March 2007), a favorable report of a VOTF-Bpt officer’s statement that Gallagher’s approach may be “fruitful” (May 2007), and a prominent announcement of Gallagher’s planned keynote address at a VOTF-Hfd meeting along with an article outlining his proposal calling it “long overdue” (July/August 2007).

The September/October 2007 issue reported on Gallagher’s call for the state attorney general to get involved in financial oversight of Catholic parishes and separately reported at greater length the keynote address he delivered at VOTF-Hfd’s September 2007 meeting.

In March 2008 it reprinted a letter Gallagher sent to The (Stamford) Advocate crudely suggesting that Catholic pastors are compromised by their ordination promises of obedience and therefore suffer from a conflict of interests in managing the financial affairs of parishes.

VOTF’s affinity to Paul Lakeland, a professor at Fairfield University, is also telling. In the face of the justified fury generated by the bill’s proposed violation of religious liberty, Lakeland joined Gallagher at a March 10, 2009, press conference to request withdrawal of the bill, notwithstanding their support for lay control of parish corporations.

Lakeland, a self-described member of VOTF and “member of the oppressed class of laypersons,” declared in Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church (Continuum Books, 2007) that the laity must be liberated “from the systemic oppression” of the hierarchy: “First, it will be necessary for the laity to take charge of their own liberation,” he wrote. “It cannot be the work of bishops or priests, though they can certainly assist. The primary way they can help is by standing aside. … Those who have occupied that center stage can stand aside willingly or be pushed aside. That is up to them.”

VOTF-Hfd, whose leadership includes a national VOTF board member, invited Lakeland to be its keynote speaker at its March 2008 meeting. He was also a featured speaker at VOTF-Bpt’s 2008 annual conference. A 2007 issue of “Our Voices” announced a VOTF-Bpt conference entitled “Follow the Money: Financial Accountability in the Catholic Church” that featured Lakeland as a speaker.

In 2005 VOTF-Bpt published a proposal for structural change in the Church bearing striking similarities to R.B. 1098, including parish boards with lay-majority control. It also called for term-limited election of bishops, term-limited appointment of pastors subject to a lay committee veto and establishment of lay-controlled parish and diocesan corporations that would own and be freely able to sell “unneeded” property while retaining to the entire parish membership the right to dissolve the parish and sell or donate its assets if insufficient numbers or “other valid reason” so warrant. The proposal is linked on the national VOTF website under the “Structural Change” index of documents.

VOTF’s fingerprints are all over Raised Bill 1098. Subsequent articles will examine the flawed theology behind VOTF’s agenda, one aimed at wresting authority from the hierarchy and remaking the ministerial priesthood in its own image.

Tomorrow: Flawed theology joined to a political agenda.