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BC is leading the way on church reform

By Scot Lehigh Boston Globe

IT'S THE IRONY of the age for the Catholic Church.

For more than a decade, the Vatican has been trying to bring this country's Catholic universities into line. Now one of those universities is starting an effort that could lead to a discussion of reform and change that the church hierarchy has been unwilling to countenance.

Back in 1990, the Vatican, concerned that Catholic academic institutions in this country were on a secular drift, commenced a process to ensure orthodoxy. The result: Every professor of theology would have to receive a mandatum, essentially a stamp of approval from the local archdiocese that his or her teaching comported with church doctrine.

A deadline was set for June 1 of this year - but then came the scandal of the pedophile priests. Since then, worries about certifying Catholic academics as theologically correct have taken a backseat. And now, with Boston College planning a major look at the church, a reform impetus seems to be growing. As has been reported, this fall Boston College will begin a two-year examination of the current crisis confronting Catholicism. And in contrast to last week's meeting of the Catholic bishops in Dallas, the effort won't be narrowly focused on preventing abuse and reporting and discipling predator priests but rather on a broader range of issues confronting Catholicism and how the church should respond.

''What we are proposing to do is have a balanced look at all the questions, a range of perspectives,'' says the Jesuit president of Boston College, William Leahy. That will likely include two matters the Vatican has fiercely resisted: permitting priests to marry and ordaining women. Leahy says those issues could well come up in the context of ensuring an adequate number of priests for the church.

There's a strong argument that a Catholic university is just the place for the sort of wide-ranging discussion of Catholicism that the hierarchy has been unwilling to engage in. ''To discover what is wrong and to propose how to put it right calls for a multidisciplinary approach that a university can offer,'' says Thomas Groome, author of ''What Makes Us Catholic'' and a professor of theology at BC. ''It is all going to be on the table.''

The significance of that isn't lost on close observers of power relations inside the church. With an infirm pope seemingly unable to appreciate the magnitude of the problem in the American church, the BC initiative - which will also include prominent scholars from other universities - could quickly become the focus of attention for those who want to change the church.

''They were trying to reform the colleges,'' says one prominent local Catholic. ''Now the colleges are looking to reform, renew, and revitalize the church. What BC is saying is that since the church isn't talking to the faithful, the university must start the dialogue.''

Is the notion that sweeping change could start with the BC initiative farfetched? With the Vatican viewed as unresponsive to one the biggest crises the church has faced since the Reformation and with the laity upset and actively organizing around the country, it becomes increasingly easy to imagine an alliance of scholars and laity rallying American Catholics around an American program of reform. ''If anything, the momentum seems to be increasing,'' says Leonard Swidler, author of ''Toward a Catholic Constitution'' and a professor of Catholic thought at Temple University. ''People feel shut out by the structure and secrecy and top-down decision-making that runs so counter to the contemporary ethos.''

Certainly this sort of thing has happened before. As Hans Kung recounts in ''The Catholic Church: A Short History,'' universities have periodically played an important role in changing the church; perhaps most notable is the role the University of Paris assumed during the time of the great schism, when there were two - and then three - rival popes at the end of the 14th century. As the situation currently stands, Boston College probably has a stronger claim on the loyalties of the region's Catholics than does Cardinal Law. Certainly many of the most influential Catholics in Boston are BC graduates, as are many of the priests who serve the archdiocese. With that dynamic at play, the place to watch for meaningful discussion about changing the Catholic Church won't be the Vatican or the Boston Archdiocese but rather Boston College.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globecom.
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This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 6/19/2002.