Destroying From Within

The attempted legislative takeover of the Church in Connecticut exposes
once again the partnership between Catholic dissenters and secularists.

Connecticut’s Catholics and their clerical leaders are still reeling from a whirlwind week that began on March 5 when State Senator Andrew J. McDonald and State Rep. Michael Lawlor, both Democrats, introduced Bill 1098, called “An Act Modifying Corporate Laws Relating to Certain Religious Corporations.” The bill would have allowed the state of Connecticut to control individual parishes’ governance and financial affairs, relegating the priests and bishops to an advisory role in their own parishes.

Had the law passed, it would have required:

A corporation may be organized in connection with any Roman Catholic Church or congregation in the state by filing in the office of the Secretary of State.

The corporation would have a board of directors consisting of not less than seven nor more than 13 lay members. The archbishop or bishop of the diocese would serve as an exofficio board member, but could not vote on issues.

The board members would be elected from among the laypersons of the congregation.

According to Senator McDonald, the impetus behind the bill was what he called the worst case of financial mismanagement in a Connecticut Catholic parish, in which a priest in the city of Darien was convicted of stealing more than $1.4 million from donations by parishioners. In local press reports, Mc- Donald claimed that his constituents asked for his help to address the priestly scandal. But there is much more to this story.


On the surface, the proposed bill looks like an unconstitutional takeover by the state of Connecticut. And while that is true, the motivation behind the legislation reflects a much bigger issue. The evidence surrounding this takeover points to yet another example of what sociologist Peter Berger calls the “secularization from within” the Church itself. The real force behind this bill is a small but well-organized group of Catholics—unhappy with Church teachings on moral and governance issues—attempting to enlist the state as a partner in radically transforming the Church from within.

To understand the real story behind the proposed legislation, one only has to look closely at some of those promoting the bill. Fairfield University Catholic Studies Professor Paul Lakeland, a former Jesuit priest, has been on the front lines in leading the charge for the legislation. As a spokesman for the bill, Lakeland has long lobbied for an end to what he calls “the structural oppression of the laity” by the clergy. Lakeland is a frequent presenter at conferences sponsored by organizations like Voice of the Faithful and CORPUS, which dissent from magisterial teaching.

Lakeland has been a longtime critic of the Catholic Church. At the spring 2009 Voice of the Faithful Conference at Fairfield University on April 26, Lakeland’s speech—titled, “Who Owns Our Church? A Theological Perspective”— focuses on many of the same themes of his book, Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the Laity Can Save the Church. As the title suggests, Lakeland has spent the past few decades trying to re-make the Church “from the inside” by toppling the hierarchy.

The National Catholic Register reported that in June 2003, Lakeland was the keynote speaker at a conference for Voice of the Faithful affiliates in Newton, Massachusetts, where he told the gathering that lay Catholics were “suffocating from structural oppression.” The newspaper also reported that Lakeland advocated the abolition of the College of Cardinals, the ordination of women, and lay participation in the election of bishops. And he also predicted future priests would consist of “some married, some not, some straight, some gay, some women, some not.”

In a similar speech at the 2007 Annual Meeting for CORPUS, an organization of former priests—mostly married— who are still angry over the Church’s priestly celibacy requirement, Lakeland promised to “help our sisters and brothers exercise their baptismal priesthood.” Claiming that his newest book identifies the task of the laity as working “to build a non-clerical church,” Lakeland’s hour-long speech (available as an audio-file on the CORPUS website) is replete with his oft-used phrases, including his stated desire to “overcome the lay-clerical division” and address the “structural oppression of the laity” within the Catholic Church.

Criticism of the privileged status of priests and bishops in leading the faithful is at the basis of the Connecticut legislation. Marginalizing the bishops’ teaching authority in favor of dissenting theologians and removing the distinction between the ordained and the followers are the real goals of organizations like CORPUS and Voice of the Faithful. Even the role of the deacon in the Catholic Church has come in for criticism by Lakeland. In his speech to the 2007 CORPUS Conference, he scathingly referred to the “monster species” of the deacon who belongs to a “layecclesial minister species.”


It is clear that in order to understand the origins of the 2009 Connecticut legislative attack on the Church, it is important to understand the origins of Voice of the Faithful and some of its angriest members. Emerging in the Boston area in 2002 in response to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals, Voice of the Faithful was founded to hold bishops accountable for abusive priests in their dioceses.

But the agenda for many of the members of the Voice of the Faithful now has expanded from protecting children to reducing the power of the Catholic hierarchy, eliminating the requirement for priestly celibacy, and supporting the ordination of women.

Capitalizing on what quickly became defined as “the crisis” caused by the Darien embezzlement case, the Bridgeport Chapter of Voice of the Faithful was revitalized. Voice of the Faithful members mobilized to address what they viewed as yet another example of reckless clericalism when Rev. Michael Jude Fay, a Bridgeport diocesan pastor, was convicted of stealing up to $1.4 million in parishioner donations to lead a luxurious lifestyle with his gay partner.

According to press reports, Fay spent money donated by parishioners of St. John’s Church on limousines, stays at New York hotels, elaborate meals in New York restaurants, jewelry, clothing, and a Florida condominium. The Fay case is most often cited by those promoting the legislative takeover of the Church in Connecticut.

The bill has been promoted by those who have had a powerful incentive to generalize from the Fay case in order to exaggerate claims of priestly sexual abuse and financial mismanagement. Catholic feminists, teaching in theology programs on Catholic campuses, exploited the moral panic that surrounded the clergy abuse scandals of 2002 to criticize what they regard as the deviance of the Church’s patriarchal hierarchy.

In the midst of the scandal, Lisa Sowle Cahill, professor of theology at Boston College, published an opinion piece in the New York Times asserting that the priestly abuse “exposes the weaknesses of a virtually all-male decision making structure.” Her proposed solution was to ordain women, and encourage “all Catholics to withhold funds from all diocesan and Vatican collections and organizations” until the Church agrees to her proposed reforms.

Likewise, contributors to the leftwing National Catholic Reporter have been relentless in drawing attention to the Catholic scandals of the past by presenting the cases as part of a systemic problem caused by the celibacy requirement and the Church’s continued teachings on homosexuality. In an article for the NCR, former Maryknoll priest Eugene Kennedy claims to long for a “post-clerical, de-centered priesthood, in which the adjustments to celibacy are varied.” For Kennedy, the priesthood must be changed to include “the love and understanding of a specific woman, or, in some cases, a certain man.”

While it cannot be claimed that VOTF members had a hand in writing the actual legislation that was promoted in Connecticut, it must be acknowledged that many of the tenets in the nowwithdrawn Connecticut bill mirror those promoted by VOTF’s Bridgeport affiliate. In their Annual Report in 2005, VOTF Chairman Tony Wiggins reported that the Bridgeport Chapter’s “Structural Change Committee identified five proposals for Structural Change for the Church.”

These five proposals were “overwhelmingly approved by the membership of the VOTF Bridgeport Chapter.” The final document advanced the idea of open election of bishops, parish priests, parish and diocesan pastoral and finance councils, and the ownership of church property by the people of the parish. The document supported its proposals with historical notations and argued that this was the model in the early Church. The necessary changes required in canon law were also noted. Bridgeport’s Structural Change plan was then presented to the VOTF National Leadership meeting in Indianapolis in July 2005. However, the outcome of the discussion at that 2005 meeting has been deleted from the VOTF website.

Although the actual membership in groups like Voice of the Faithful continues to decline, this organization reflects the beliefs and goals of a powerful minority within the Church that has been engaged in a 40-year battle with the hierarchy over issues including sexual morality, academic freedom on Catholic campuses, priestly celibacy, divorce and remarriage, and the ordination of women. Unfortunately, the bishops have not always been willing to win these battles by providing a robust defense of the Church’s teachings.


Just two years before the 2009 legislative proposal to take over the Church’s governance, Connecticut’s bishops reversed an earlier decision on emergency contraception by acquiescing to the state’s demands to provide the morning-after pill (also called Plan B) to victims of sexual assault at the four Catholic hospitals in the state. While the bishops’ statement on the Connecticut Catholic Conference website claimed that the administration of the morningafter pill after a pregnancy test is “in accordance with Catholic moral teaching,” the Vatican statement on that pill, issued in 2000, condemns its use outright. The Pontifical Academy for Life states that “the absolute unlawfulness of abortifacient procedures also applies to distributing, prescribing, and taking the morning-after pill.”

The bishops’ decision on emergency contraception helped open the door to state interference in Catholic hospital procedures. So it should be no surprise that lawmakers continue to ignore Catholic concerns about legislative decisions in other areas. This is especially true with abortion laws, as the bishops have been unable to contribute effectively to any of the conversations surrounding limits on late-stage abortion, parental notification laws, waiting periods, and other strategies that have been shown to reduce abortion in other states.

On a national level, Catholic Connecticut Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro was one of the sponsors of the Freedom of Choice Act. And, within the state, Catholic lawmakers have passed some of the most permissive abortion laws in the nation. As a result, Connecticut continues to experience a significant rise in the number of abortions each year (especially for black and Hispanic women), while national abortion rates continue to decline.

Beyond abortion, Catholic lawmakers have been especially eager to pass homosexual-rights bills in the state. Catholic State Senator McDonald and State Representative Lawler, sponsors of the now-dismissed Church governance bill, are both openly gay men and outspoken same-sex marriage advocates. Both have been tireless in their efforts to usher in gay marriage in the state, and both have been critical of the Catholic Church’s opposition to laws dismantling the current definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

So convinced that the proposed state takeover of the Church was a form of “payback” for the Church’s efforts to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state, Bishop Lori told a reporter for a local newspaper that he believes that the proposed Church governance bill was an effort to “silence the Church on important issues of the day—especially with regard to marriage.” It appears that this may in fact be true as the Church governance bill was proposed the day before the samesex marriage bill was to be heard.

Despite the efforts of the supporters of the governance proposal, faithful Catholics and their leaders were gratified that the Democratic sponsors abruptly withdrew the controversial bill just a week after they proposed it. Responding to the thousands of phone calls, faxes, and emails from angry Catholic constituents, McDonald and Lawler cancelled a public hearing for the bill.

The two lawmakers told newspaper reporters that they “plan to host a gathering of legal and religious scholars from throughout the state to discuss the issue.” Despite the cancellation of the hearing, thousands of faithful Catholics traveled to the state capitol in buses provided by their parishes to protest the takeover attempt. While Lawler and McDonald stayed away from the capitol on the day of the protests, McDonald issued a published statement saying that the issue had “spun out of control.” He acknowledged that “my attempt to create a forum for a group of concerned Catholic constituents offended a group of similarly devout Catholic parishioners.”

It is likely that the attempt to pass this legislation will continue in Connecticut— and elsewhere—not because of a perceived need by most Catholics for state oversight, but rather because there are so many within the Church who can gain so much by keeping this issue alive.

For feminists lobbying for women’s ordination, the image of the “problem priest” like Father Jude Fay points to the need for women to fill priestly roles. For angry former priests like Paul Lakeland and the members of CORPUS, marginalizing the power of the bishops and elevating the power of theologians like themselves opens the door for them to return to the priesthood—especially if the parishioners like Lakeland are given the power to vote in favor of it.

For gay-rights activists intent on denouncing what they view as the Church’s hypocrisy on homosexuality, the Fay case is often used to illustrate what can happen when gay men are not allowed to express their sexuality openly as priests. And for organizations like Voice of the Faithful, which desire that the Church become a “democratic” institution, it became an opportunity to enlist the state as a partner in trying to create an egalitarian Church that reflects the will of the people rather than magisterial teaching.


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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)