National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

Closed-door discussion brings lay leaders, hierarchy together


The idea was to bring influential Catholic laymen and women -- business leaders, academics, journalists -- together for an off-the-record conversation with leading members of the U.S. hierarchy.

The invitation-only July 7 meeting, convened by Boston College trustee and Catholic philanthropist Geoffrey Boisi, accomplished that goal.

“The Church in America: The Way Forward in the 21st Century” was the title of the daylong gathering. Topics discussed included the role of the laity, communications, financial and personnel management, and governance structures.

Those attending the work session at Washington’s John Paul II Cultural Center included Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president Wilton Gregory, conference vice president William Skylstad, and Bishops Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., and William Friend of Shreveport, La.

Among the non-hierarchical attendees were AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, journalist Cokie Roberts, Notre Dame University president and Holy Cross Fr. Edward Malloy, U.S. bishops’ Office of Child Protection director Kathleen McChesney, and Catholic Charities USA president Fr. Bryan Hehir.

Members of the business community participating included Caritas Christi Health Care CEO Dr. Michael F. Collins, former Goldman Sachs managing director Thomas Healy, former Capital Cities/ABC chairman Thomas Murphy, Lazard Freres & Co. managing director Jonathan O’Herron and Edmond D. Villani, vice chairman of Deutsche Asset Management.

“The idea,” said one participant, “was to talk as a group and offer our expertise and advice [to the bishops] without getting into big time doctrinal disputes.”

Some, however, feared plotting. The Boston Globe termed it a secret meeting. Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative periodical Crisis, said the participants included “the kinds of liberal and dissident Catholics that would make a Call to Action conference jealous.” In a widely circulated e-mail following the Globe report, Hudson said “that the real criterion for involvement was not prominence or influence in the Catholic church but sympathy with dissenting points of view.”

The lay participants, however, don’t view themselves as “dissidents,” nor do they view the closed-door meeting as particularly secretive.

Participants agreed not to discuss details of the meeting publicly, though several spoke to NCR on the condition of anonymity.

“It wasn’t a secret meeting,” said one participant. “It was a private meeting so that people could speak freely.” Said another: “I would characterize it as brainstorming,” and “Nobody was hiding the fact that these people were meeting.” Journalists, said another, “have off-the-record conversations all the time.”

The meeting was closed, said several participants, at the request of the bishops. “The bishops might be able to say and hear things that they can’t say or hear in public,” said a participant.

The discussions focused on nuts and bolts “Management 101” issues, one attendee said, though it was difficult for some to stay within those parameters. “The problem is that once you start talking about things like financial accountability and the personnel problems of the church, you pretty quickly get into the very difficult issues [such as priestly celibacy and women’s ordination]. It’s very hard to disentangle these issues and operate strictly within the confines of what is now considered orthodoxy, and still make changes that are significant.”

Said another: “Someone tried to raise the issue of women’s ordination, but it just fell flat. It wasn’t part of the discussion.”

The day began with a presentation on the state of the church led by Notre Dame’s R. Scott Appleby and Purdue University sociologist James Davidson. (“Just the facts,” said one participant, with an emphasis on demographic changes among Catholics over the past 50 years). Following that overview, the meeting was structured so that a presentation would be made to the entire gathering, which then split into three breakout groups to discuss the presentation, finally returning to the full group with observations and recommendations.

Journalist and author Peter Steinfels and attorney R. Robert Popeo kicked-off the discussion on the laity; Frank Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, FADICA, addressed financial transparency issues; Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine, and former McKinsey & Co. managing director Fred Gluck addressed financial and personnel management; and former Commonweal editor Margaret Steinfels and Jesuit Fr. J. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, discussed church governance.

The conversations that took place in the breakout sessions, and later with the full group, were not confrontational, said participants. “There was not a sense of wanting to challenge the church or the bishops. These folks just wanted to offer any expertise that they could.”

For example, the business leaders, said one participant, offered suggestions regarding training programs for church workers and establishing performance appraisal systems in a large organization.

Participants gave the meeting mixed reviews. “Putting all these people together for one day’s agenda really wasn’t the most effective or efficient way to go about it,” said Monica Hellwig, president and executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “It didn’t become practical enough.”

Reese termed the meeting a “helpful and useful discussion.”

Meeting organizer Boisi said the gathering was “very constructive.”

Future meetings, he said, will be larger and include a broader group of participants.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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