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For Catholic faithful, a rift widens

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist
December 22, 2002

I do not speak for him. He is a young, conservative priest, abruptly transferred to an unfamiliar parish to replace a pastor accused of sexual assault. He thinks I exploit scandal in the church to advance a hidden agenda.

I do not speak for her, a widow, accosted on her Sunday visits to Holy Cross Cathedral by angry demonstrators. She thinks I incite them to fuel anti-Catholic bigotry.

I do not speak for them, parents whose son returned to church because of the dynamic youth program run by a priest removed after revelations that he had fathered children and failed to summon help when his mistress was suffering an overdose. They think I blind myself to the good that even flawed men do.

In a year of unprecedented pain in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, not all the suffering is borne by those who were raped as children by their parish priests. Not all the anguish is felt by the faithful who would change their church. In a year when so many dark secrets have been exposed to daylight, the orthodox Catholic seethes in the shadows.

''Keep the faith; change the church,'' is the rallying cry of Voice of the Faithful, the grass-roots reform group that grew out of the sexual abuse scandal. ''Grow in faith; love the church,'' is the defiant response of some traditionalists who call themselves the Faithful Voice.

Of all the wounds opened this year, this might prove the hardest to heal. Victims will sue or settle and, in their pursuit of justice, they will find the support and comfort denied to them when the details of the crimes against them were locked in chancery files. Bishops will resign or resist calls for their resignation and, in hundreds of lawsuits, they will be called to account for their role in exposing children to harm and shielding predatory priests from prosecution. But what means will emerge in the midst of so much anger and hurt to reconcile the people in the pews with one another?

The tension is not new. Doctrinaire Catholics have long denounced more liberal practitioners of the faith as ''cafeteria Catholics,'' who pick and choose what to believe. Liberal Catholics have long disparaged those who accept without question that the church's man-made rules are divinely ordained.

Until this wrenching year, though, confrontation has played out only at the activist extremes. It was possible to recite the same prayers in unison during Mass and hold disparate views in private.

Now, it seems, nothing about Catholicism is private. It is as though Harry Potter's sorting hat has swept through the sanctuary, separating the faithful according to their views on celibacy, homosexuality, and the ordination of women - what conservative Catholics suspect is the real hidden agenda of Voice of the Faithful. But the Catholic Church is not Hogwarts, and one would have hoped that the divisions between believers would be trumped by mutual abhorrence of these crimes.

Certainly, Catholics of all stripes have been horrified by the revelations of the last year, but their divergent prescriptions for curing the ills of the church - a stricter obedience to a more devout hierarchy versus a greater role for a more diverse laity - have made adversaries of men and women who should be allies.

By voice mail and e-mail and snail mail, the anger grows louder at those who would presume to change a church that withstood the revolt of Martin Luther. ''Let Voice of the Faithful form its own church,'' reads one. ''Join the Unitarians if you want secular humanism,'' advises another.

''You are not a voice of grace and forgiveness,'' reads an e-mail received yesterday. ''You do not speak for us ordinary Catholics.''

It's worse than he knows. I don't even know what an ordinary Catholic is. I do know that if attention is not paid to the suspicion and mistrust between Catholics of good will, the victims of sexual abuse will heal long before the church does.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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