The Massachusetts President of the Catholic Action League, C. J. Doyle, recently said of the new US body 'Voice of the Faithful': "Now we know what VOTF means by structural change in the Church - Protestant church government, a weakened papacy and women priests. The notion that [it] is faithful to anything remotely resembling Roman Catholicism is an insult to the intelligence of Catholics."
Meanwhile, at least seven US bishops have ordered VOTF groups not to meet on church property - although the group has signalled it may fight this in the US civil courts.
In Australia, on the other hand, the Sydney-based Catalyst for Renewal recently announced its support for VOTF, with one member remarking, "What's so wonderful about this [group] is that it's the middle ground of the Church, not the radical wing."
That claim could be open to question, given that one US observer has described VOTF as a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) is an 18-month-old reform movement which began when 28 Boston parishioners met to express outrage at the mishandling of the clerical sex-abuse scandal in their archdiocese.
Now VOTF claims 35,000 members in over 180 parishes worldwide. Although the Australian contact had not yet responded to enquiries when this report went to press, it is known the movement began parish affiliates in Melbourne and Sydney in July. More Australian parish groups are expected. This followed a visit by VOTF President Jim Post.
VOTF's slogan is "Keep the faith, change the Church", but the fidelity of its aims has been questioned.
Under the cover of justifiable grief and anger at child sexual abuse, VOTF has been proving a useful umbrella for some more familiar groups. While it is basically a lay volunteer movement, many of its US leadership are already associated with dissenting groups including Call to Action, CORPUS, We are Church and women's ordination bodies.
Backed by donations of over $US573,000 to December 2002, VOTF lists three goals: support for victims of sexual abuse, support for priests of integrity, and support for structural change within the Church.
Support services include links with the survivors' network for those abused by priests (SNAP). There is also the very practical $US90 survivor kit (petrol card, phone card, how to find a support group, and $40 cash) to assist victims in coming forward to seek help and lodge compensation claims.
Meanwhile VOTF has also launched a million dollar appeal to cover its own full-time staff and administrative costs.
Programs supporting "priests with integrity" include "sounding board" meetings between approved priests and parishioners, with the goal of helping address clerical feelings of isolation and stress.
One of VOTF's founders and a trustee, Svea Fraser, remarked: "The battle isn't clergy against laity, but laity and clergy against episcopacy." She said VOTF did not want to overturn the hierarchy, but merely make it more accountable and increase lay involvement in Church affairs.
To this end, VOTF initiated its own charity - "Voice of Compassion" - to mirror the Cardinal's Annual Appeal in Boston. As a protest, scandalised parishioners could donate instead to VOC, which in turn would direct funds only to the charities approved by VOTF. So far, this money has been distributed to Catholic charities, but not to any parts of the Church administration, thereby weakening its infrastructure.
It is in defining its third goal that the problems with VOTF become clear. As one critic commented, this goal - if realised - effectively paves the way for a separate Catholic Church founded on popular opinion and public sentiment.
VOTF President Jim Post, recently told an audience during his visit to Melbourne that the facts were grim, with allegations in Australia against several hundred priests by more than 1300 victims. Furthermore, he claimed, this figure was understated and our problem is as bad as the United States in pro rata terms.
He declared that Catholics must choose whether to leave the Church or stay and fight. The faithful, he said, are expected to "just be good quiet Catholics, sit in our pews, say our prayers, put money in the basket when it comes by and don't make waves."
Post added: "Our view is that the Church is capable of cleansing itself from this terrible set of injustices and this evil, and that therefore until there is greater evidence that it's not possible, I think we fully intend to work within the structure of the Church."
However, VOTF's goal of structural change is ambiguous and, as Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said, "I can't support an agenda that seems undefined until they're willing to say what they're for; why would you meet with them?"
A VOTF document on change, titled Discerning the Spirit: a Guide for Renewing and Restructuring the Catholic Church, sheds some light on its underlying philosophy, referring as it does to the "clerical" culture, noted for its "power and secrecy, ignorance of the human body and sex, a mindset that degrades women and marriage, [and] a spiritually distorted, psychologically troubled view of celibacy."
VOTF also selectively cites the Vatican II Document Lumen Gentium to support calls for a more "democratic" Church with active participation in its guidance and governance. The group's website urges: "It is vitally important that the faithful in each parish engage in and support the formation and action of pastoral and finance councils and safety committees."
In the face of such thinking and the prospect of a growing VOTF presence in Australia, Church authorities here will need to take note of the developing battle between the episcopacy and VOTF in the US.
Mary-Ruth Monsour is a Sydney Catholic writer who is active in her children's faith development and in local parish life.