Faithful Revolution: A Conversation with Tricia Bruce

Phillip Sherman talks with Tricia Bruce about a movement that arose within the American Catholic church as a response to revelations of abuse.

Tricia Bruce is Associate Professor of Sociology at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. The paperback edition of Faithful Revolution was released today. This interview took place on the campus of Maryville College and was transcribed.

Tricia Bruce, Faithful Revolution, How the Voice of the Faithful is Changing the Church, OUP, 232pp. $24.95.
Tricia Bruce, Faithful Revolution, How the Voice of the Faithful is Changing the Church, OUP, 232pp. $24.95.

PS: Can you begin by telling us a little bit about the nature of the research that led to this book, what this group (“VOTF”) is, and what they attempted to accomplish within the life of the Church?

TB: The Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) emerged in 2002, at the peak of revelations regarding the crisis of abuse within the Catholic Church. The outrage stemmed from not only new knowledge that Catholic priests abused children, but in discovering the complicity and institutional cover up of leaders who transferred abusive priests from parish to parish. So, VOTF emerged first in Boston. They were a group of enraged parishioners who loved their Church and yet felt it needed to change in light of these revelations. They mobilized together in order to find a way to act from within to change the Church so that this abuse would no longer occur.

PS: What were some of the major goals of the movement as they were starting out, and how did those goals change over the course of the first few years as they had more and more people join?

TB: Initially, they mobilized around the goal of supporting survivors of abuse. That was central to their mission from the beginning. However, fairly early on, they realized there were a couple of other key pieces to this puzzle. One was supporting priests who had not abused. They would call this second goal “supporting priests of integrity.” And their third goal was a bit more amorphous: “structural change in the church.” That brought a fair amount of contention because there was some debate and confusion about what exactly it means to say that you are looking for “structural change” within the Church. Clearly it related to the changes that would help to prevent abuse in the future but also had a fairly large umbrella. It included, for example, an increase in lay participation in the Church, a fulfillment of some of the ideals introduced by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. They sought a way for people to feel more engagement/participation in the Church, and a way to build greater accountability for its leaders. But those, in short, were their three goals: (1) to support survivors of abuse, (2) to support priests of integrity, and (3) to promote structural change within the Church.

PS: One of the things that struck me when I read this was how they were received in a number of different ways, depending upon their geographical location or even the makeup of the group. What was the response by the hierarchy initially to this group, and how did that response shift over time?

TB: Key in the development of this social movement was a negotiation of their identity in light of the Catholic hierarchy’s response. VOTF began in Boston but spread throughout the country and encountered a variety of responses from local bishops. Some allowed the group to meet in local parishes, making announcements in the parish bulletin. On the other hand, some bishops around the country began banning VOTF from meeting. So, they were forced to get creative as far as finding ways and places to meet, including Protestant churches, firehouses, libraries, and restaurants. They also found ways to use the existing resources of the church. For example, many parishes have pastoral councils and many dioceses have diocesan synods. These are both means through which Catholic leaders can hear the voices and input of laity. VOTF members would oftentimes join these committees to make sure they existed and had representation on them. So in this case, even if their own organization might have been banned or not welcomed in the parishes through the name VOTF, they could — as lay Catholics — get involved in these pre-existing strategies to inform change.

PS: What was the cause of concern on the part of the hierarchy that led to the banning of this group within some areas? It wasn’t a universal ban.

TB: It was not a universal ban and certainly some priests and some bishops were very welcoming to VOTF. But the sense oftentimes was that they should use existing channels that the church already had. And that maybe they were doing something that wasn’t “Catholic” enough. This was really challenging for the group. I spoke to members who had belonged to the church their entire lives — 50+ years — who had been in the choir, who had been Eucharistic ministers, who been faithful to the church. And so it was terribly painful for them to be called, in essence, “not catholic” or not catholic enough. There was this fear on the part of many of Church leaders that this group was either being disrespectful by raising these questions or by approaching change as a social movement. They really had to be creative in coming up with strategies and ways to implement change from within rather than looking like outside protestors who were trying to break down the church.

PS: And this was one of the things that struck me when I read you book: part of their negotiation was not only with the hierarchy of the church, but also with other Catholic and non- Catholic groups who were addressing the same issues. I wonder if you might say something about what those other groups were and how VOTF related to them. Groups like SNAP.

TB: So SNAP is the “Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.” Now, there are some Catholics who belong to SNAP, but many of them are former Catholics who subsequently left the Church. And many of them are very angry. So SNAP is a group that was much more likely to use, for example, legal means, legal recourse to advocate for the arrest and the charge of Bishops or priests, and to use more external ways to change the Church. To break down the Church, even. Whereas VOTF was really conscious to try to stay within — they wanted to be perceived as Catholics, they wanted to have a seat at the table with other Catholics and Catholic leaders to say that we can do this together. Now, they weren’t always perceived that way and oftentimes they were very conscious to define themselves over and against other groups such as SNAP, which is debatable in itself. That was their way to maintain or advocate for their own Catholic identity.

PS: Well this question of their own Catholic identity leads naturally into one of the, I hope, lasting contributions of this work, which is this notion that I believe you coined, you call it an IISM throughout the book, this is an Intrainstitutional Social Movement. Say a little bit about why that’s an interesting heuristic device for thinking about what this group was doing and a little more about where else these kinds of IISMs might be useful.

TB: Absolutely. Its definitely a bit of a mouthful, but when I was studying the literature in social movements and the literature in the sociology of religion, one thing that was missing was a means by which to better understand and label these movements happening inside institutions. So we could think about movements that happen not only inside of the church, others including those within educational systems looking for curricular reform, those in business and Fortune 500 corporations looking for LGBT benefits, etc. So this become a way in which to understand: How do you move from within — form a group for change — while maintaining your identity and allegiance to the institution? Now within a religious institution, it has that added trickiness because this is something that has this deeply personal and meaningful identification for those who participate. They can’t necessarily take it on and off when they leave work and they can’t “quit” a religion in quite the same way they could quit a job. So there are some differences for sure, but either way, you see the characteristics of movements and what kinds of identity negotiations do they have to deal with given their institutional embeddedness.

PS: I was struck by the kinds of freedom they had — and yet the constraints that were placed on them as a result of wanting to maintain both that identity but also advocate for change. And one of the key mechanisms of freedom I saw was appeal to Vatican II and the importance of much of Vatican II thought on what this movement was trying to achieve. Perhaps you could say something about how they drew on Vatican II as a resource.

TB: Being an IISM means having access to the same set of “tools” as the institution. So, both “sides,” if you want to frame it that way, are drawing from the same “cultural toolkit.” This is a term from Ann Swidler, oft-cited in sociology. And so to your point, you could find different ways to interpret Vatican II to achieve different goals. VOTF looked back to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and read how the Church articulated, for example, lay participation and “the people of God.” Things that would allow them to say: “We have a place at the table; we want to be able to share in partnership how we are addressing this crisis and what we can do to prevent it from happening in the future.” They pulled these shared tools and spoke the language of the Church — a language Catholics and Catholic leaders would understand — in order to promote these aims.

PS: That language of the toolkit is interesting because it seems that part of the conflict they faced was the fact that they were drawing on these tools from their Catholic identity, but given the demographic make-up of VOTF, they were also pulling from a different set of tools. Could you explain what that make-up was and how those two models interacted?

TB: VOTF tended to be older Catholics (50+); it tended to be Catholics who had lived through the Vatican II changes in the early 1960s. Catholics well-off, socio-economically. It tended to be Catholics who had jobs which put them in positions of power, being professional writers, professors, doctors, lawyers, etc. But, as you point out, this also limits their ability to fully represent the Church. The Catholic Church is changing quite a bit demographically, not only in the United States, but globally. There are a huge number of Latino/Hispanic Catholics and many of these are on the younger side — so the Church is becoming younger, it’s changing. The global Church used to be concentrated in Europe, now it’s in Latin America and the Caribbean. We saw that reflected in the election of the new pope. And so, in some ways, VOTF was uniquely situated being able to capitalize on the resources they had in their positions. But they were limited in their ability to truly reflect the current demographics of the Church.

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