A recent Boston Globe article claimed that Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston was considering lifting the ban on Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) chapters in his archdiocese.
The Globe piece entitled “O'Malley to reconsider policies against lay group,” quoted VOTF President Jim Post and archdiocesan spokesman Rev. Christopher J. Coyne at length. In the article, both observed that the VOTF meeting with the archbishop “was considerably more cordial” than past meetings with other leaders, and both men were hopeful that relations between the group and the archdiocese would improve in the future.
Frankly, I was surprised by the tone of the article it made it sound like support for VOTF from the archdiocese was practically a done deal.
Then this morning I saw an Associated Press (AP) article “O'Malley has 'positive' meetings with Voice of the Faithful” that was even more enthusiastic about the meeting. In it, O'Malley is described as being on the brink of accepting funds from VOTF's fundraising arm, Voice of Compassion, and open to a discussion about removing the ban altogether.
If that was unexpected, the closing lines of the piece nearly knocked me out of my chair. It reads, “Coyne said the Church does not consider Voice of the Faithful members dissidents.”
This I could hardly believe. How could Coyne claim to be speaking for the entire Church? Surely, that's a bit beyond his jurisdiction. By giving such a sweeping statement to AP, it sounds like the Church has now awarded an imprimatur to the group.
As far as VOTF members not being dissidents, it's true that some are indeed faithful Catholics who simply want to address the sex scandal and make sure it never happens again. We all want that, and I don't blame them for looking for ways to address the problem.
But the VOTF leadership appears to be out of step with some of their members. If you recall last year's special CRISIS E-Report, “When Wolves Dress Like Sheep,” you know all about that.
And yet Coyne's comment makes it sound like the Church itself has approved the group. They're portrayed as a harmless organization that was unfairly silenced by evil bishops who felt threatened by discussions with the laity.
In both articles, VOTF comes out smelling like a rose.
I knew there had to be more to the story. For one, I noticed that O'Malley is never actually quoted in either piece. All of his comments are paraphrased by Coyne or Post.
I decided to speak with Father Coyne this afternoon to get his side of things. I'm glad I did Coyne said his comments were completely misrepresented.
“I was asked a question to characterize the meeting of Voice of the Faithful with the archbishop,” Coyne told me, “and I responded by saying that they [the members of VOTF] told the archbishop that they were not dissidents. In making the statement, I did not in any way express the position of the Church or the archdiocese in Boston regarding Voice of the Faithful” (where the bans against them are still in effect).
Now that's a big difference. According to Coyne, he wasn't giving his own opinion, let alone the Church's position. He was merely telling the reporter what VOTF told the archbishop. But that brings up another point: Why would he simply repeat back to newspaper reporters what VOTF had told him about their organization? Coyne made a classic media gaffe in allowing VOTF to define itself through his own mouth. Because Coyne said it in a major media organ, his credibility will now be used to give VOTF legitimacy.
What if, for example, Sen. Ted Kennedy met with Archbishop O'Malley and told the archbishop that he was pro-life? If O'Malley or Coyne repeated that, without comment, to the media, it would look like they themselves accepted the truth of the statement.
It's the same case here. If Fr. Coyne had investigated VOTF himself, he would have found plenty to question their inviting known dissidents to speak at conventions, for one, or the fact that Jim Post has recently gone on record saying that the laity should have a role in electing bishops (The Arizona Republic, September 17, 2003).
But Coyne inadvertently let VOTF's spin go unchallenged, and now it appears that he and the Church have signed off on them.
Coyne told me that he was going to talk to the AP reporter about the sentence claiming that the Church supports VOTF, and I'm grateful that he took the time to speak with me and clarify his position. I told him to try to have the statement corrected nationally, through AP itself if possible. It's the only way to make sure the article won't be used by VOTF to claim fidelity to the Church.
And what about Archbishop O'Malley? Does he support VOTF?
Highly-placed sources close to this issue (who can't be named at this time) have told me that it's highly unlikely O'Malley will be lifting the ban at this point he's merely listening to their concerns. He's going to look more closely at the group before he makes a decision, but from what I've been told, I'm betting those bans will stay firmly in place.
It's vital for Church leaders to understand that most Catholics (and non-Catholics) get their information about the Church through the mainstream media. People are bombarded with information from television, radio, the newspapers, Internet, etc. If our priests and bishops don't learn how to use those tools effectively to their own purpose, they'll be used against them.