Keep the Faith, Change the Church

Author: Richard Conklin '59M.A.

Two decades ago, cardiologist Jim Muller, a 1965 Notre Dame graduate, helped launch an effort of American and Soviet physicians to oppose nuclear warfare, a movement that resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize. Now he wants to reform the Catholic church.

On a sunny September afternoon, Muller sits in his modest office in Boston’s West End and talks about a lay initiative called Voice of the Faithful (VOTF). A few blocks away in Superior Court, the Archdiocese of Boston is handing $10 million in funds from its insurance coverage to 86 victims of sexual abuse by one of its priests. Muller’s earnest words echo the organization’s trademarked motto: “Keep the faith, change the Church.”

The nationally publicized revelations early last year of sexual abuse by some Catholic clergy and the tragic failure of their bishops to protect victims left Muller and many other committed Catholics in a crisis of faith. The scandal “awakened me to the terrible flaws in our church,” Muller says. “I reached the painful conclusion that I must either attempt to correct these deep structural defects or leave the Catholic church.” The “deep structural defects” Muller and VOTF see in the church center on what they perceive as a lack of a significant voice for the laity. Had there been such a voice, VOTF members argue, there would not have been a sexual abuse scandal.

Voice of the Faithful began in January 2002 in Muller’s parish, when 30 persons gathered for a session about the church scandal in the basement of a parish school in the upscale Boston suburb of Wellesley. These lay-led discussions were soon joined by members of other parishes and augmented by e-mail correspondence. “One night in March,” Muller recalls, " I was unable to park within four blocks as more than 500 people overflowed our small meeting rooms. A holiness, a spirit, guided the meetings. We knew by April that we had the germ seed for a world movement."

Muller has some experience with world movements. In 1980, he co-founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Within five years the group had 150,000 members in 41 countries, and Muller was in Oslo to witness the Nobel Peace Prize award to IPPNW. When it comes to growing Voice of the Faithful, he has one great advantage over organizing the physician’s group — this time around he has the Internet. VOTF is very much web-driven, with its comprehensive site getting about 20,000 hits a month.

The reform movement now claims more than 25,000 members in 21 countries. It is rooted among the 62 million American Catholics who represent about 6.5 percent of the world membership of the church. Media coverage, particularly at the beginning, was an enormous help in recruiting members; 125 reporters attended VOTF’s first national conference last July.

“I seem to be a specialist in novel organizations,” Muller comments. He traces his unusual combination of medical researcher and social activist to his time at Notre Dame. “Notre Dame in the early 1960s gave me two things: an excellent educational grounding in science and an appreciation of the full meaning of being a Catholic.” He was graduated in 1965, the year Vatican II concluded with the publication of its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, which proclaimed, “As sharers in the role of Christ the Priest, the Prophet, and the King, the laity have an active part to play in the life and activity of the Church.” He remains a close friend of President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, and holds up notes he has taken on Hesburgh’s 1946 doctoral dissertation on the role of the laity in the church.

The discussions in the parish school basement clarified one thing for Muller: “The problem is a concentration of power in the hierarchy,” he asserts. “It is as though the executive, legislative and judicial branches were combined. We want to give a significant voice to the laity, and to that extent we want — I know the word is inflammatory — more ‘democracy’ in the church.” Muller makes it clear it is not a democracy of theology he envisions — there will be no votes on the Nicene Creed. He sees a governance partnership that would call for substantial consultation with the laity by bishops. The VOTF website defends lay input in this way, “We have intellectual, emotional and spiritual contributions to make and knowledge to impart on myriad real-life issues. These include, but are not limited to, human sexuality, women’s rights, democratic processes, and the contextual roles of science and history in the healthy life of the church.”

In spring 2002, Muller outlined his vision to the Boston Globe. “If I had a dream of what this would look like three years from now, our enrollment would be half the Catholics in the world, every parish would have a chapter, and every diocese, every nation, and the world would, too, and that organization would be a counterbalance to the power of the hierarchy — it would have a permanent role, a bit like Congress.”

History does not favor VOTF. As church historian John O’Malley of Weston Jesuit School told The New Yorker last year, “There has never been a truly significant revolution from within the Catholic church by lay people.” And the U.S. bishops’ guarded — at best — reaction to VOTF might well stem from their memories of the ill-fated Call to Action conference in 1976, which pushed the Catholic Left envelope well beyond what they could embrace.

Muller, now chairman of VOTF’s board of trustees, knows he must keep conservative Catholics in the tent. In his analysis, progressives and traditionalists agree on the problem — sexual abuse by clergy and a subsequent “institutional cover-up.” They disagree on possible causes: Liberals cite such factors as a clerical culture of secrecy and a lack of women priests, while conservatives tend to list such bete noires as moral permissiveness and ordination of homosexuals. He hopes, however, they will come together on what he stresses is the underlying cause: centralized power.

Can the center hold?

Voice of the Faithful thus far is deliberately centrist. The organization refuses to take official positions on such hot-button topics as mandatory celibacy, women’s ordination and birth control. But the crucial question remains: Can the center hold? VOTF has a three-part mission, and there is little potential for disagreement in two of them: Support for victims of clerical sexual abuse and encouragement for the vast majority of priests ministering with integrity. It is the third objective — structural change in the church — that holds the seeds of divisiveness that some bishops have accused VOTF of fostering.

“It is a struggle to keep traditional Catholics in VOTF,” Muller concedes, “but we must keep ‘structural change’ undefined until its specifics can be determined by a lay voice that includes all spectrums.” This means first establishing a functioning vehicle for representative and effective lay influence in church decision-making, then discussing controversial issues. Empower the laity and then let them take positions on issues.

Muller hopes VOTF can carefully move to this goal in ways acceptable to the right, center and left. For example, the governing council of VOTF is expected to push for parish personnel review boards that will have access to the dossiers of priests assigned to a parish. He believes this is the kind of proposal that will have across-the-board support. VOTF has already devised a “bishop monitoring form” so parish affiliates can track the progress of their local ordinaries in implementing the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People approved last June by U.S. bishops meeting in Dallas (and later modified at the Vatican’s insistence). How successful VOTF will be in finding a middle road is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, some conservatives are referring to the “Voice of the Not-So-Faithful.”

Muller has another concern. Not many young people are joining his movement. Indeed, its membership looks a lot like Muller himself, well-educated middle-class people who grew up in the church prior to Vatican II and for whom Catholicism is a native language. He thinks young people today don’t have the same relationship to the institutional church as older generations. He hopes they will be attracted to VOTF as a vehicle for creating a church they consider relevant.

When asked what the recourse of the laity is when they are consulted by their bishops but ignored when the final decision is made, Muller points to the one area in which the laity is in complete control — money. Some VOTF members call it “the oxygen of the church.” Muller would invoke the leverage of financial support to enforce what he stresses should be the accountability of the hierarchy to the laity in nondoctrinal areas. (This position was seconded in October 2001 by Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, who heads a commission appointed by U.S. bishops to monitor church follow-up to the sexual abuse scandal.)

In Boston, VOTF has promoted a tax-deductible means of giving to archdiocesan causes that bypasses the cardinal’s fund. Church officials have said they will not accept money in this manner.

On the inside of Muller’s office door hangs a white coat, reminding a visitor that the occupant is, first and foremost, a physician. Muller has a lifelong research interest in the onset of heart attacks and is currently director of clinical research in the cardiology division of Massachusetts General Hospital, a major teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School. He also continues to teach young cardiologists at the hospital clinic, a short walk from his building. The majority of his professional time is spent as director of operations at the Center for Integration of Medicine & Innovative Technology, a nonprofit consortium seeking to apply the newest technology to medicine in ways that range from developing an artificial kidney to using wireless communications in the operating room.

His ability to speak Russian (a language choice suggested by his father after seeing Sputnik cross the Indianapolis sky) has accounted for an unusual dimension of his medical career. Muller studied the language at Notre Dame, and while at Johns Hopkins Medical School he ferreted out a travel grant to do five months of medical study in Moscow. The experience solidified his Russian, warmed him to another culture, introduced him to Soviet medicine and started him thinking about the possibility of international cooperation in areas of common concern.

A dramatic parable

It was at an Oslo news conference preceding the awarding of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize to IPPNW that the cooperation between doctors in the two countries was dramatized in an incident that seemed taken from a Hollywood script. A correspondent for Moscow radio and television collapsed from a heart attack, and in the midst of a gaggle of international print, radio and television media, Muller, aided by the American and Soviet doctors who had worked together on nuclear issues, resuscitated the victim. “It was a dramatic parable underlining the message of international cooperation the Peace Prize was intended to convey,” says Muller. For his work with the physician’s group, he received an honorary doctor of laws from Notre Dame in 1986.

Some of Muller’s investigations of heart disease have entered the popular press, such as the fact that most heart attacks occur in the morning, that moderate drinkers have a better chance of surviving a heart attack and that tea drinking benefits those with cardiovascular disease. But his most important heart-related research has contributed a medical term to the English language — “vulnerable plaque.” It has long been known that most heart attacks are caused by plaque blocking arteries that nourish the heart. Only recently, however, have researchers like Muller demonstrated that some arterial plaques are stable and unlikely to rupture, while others, named “vulnerable plaque” by Muller, are unstable and trigger 80 percent of heart attacks.

Currently, doctors cannot reliably distinguish between stable and unstable plaque. There is an estimated billion-dollar-plus market for such a diagnostic tool, and Muller thinks he has one. He is co-founder and chairman of the board of a start-up company called InfraReDx, which has developed a catheter-delivered infrared light that can reveal the chemical composition of tissue and thus detect vulnerable plaque.

Muller’s dual career as social activist and medical scientist has not been easy. His co-workers in VOTF, who are used to receiving Muller e-mails written between midnight and 5 a.m., describe him as serene under pressure. Muller, however, is candid about the stress his hyperactivity has caused over the years. Family considerations caused him to resign as IPPNW secretary in 1984, and he gave himself over to organizing VOTF only after talking with his wife, Kathleen, who shared his concern about the church and urged him to go ahead.

Muller is often asked if his movement will outlast the uproar over the church scandal. “The scandal has given us enormous liftoff,” he says. “We shall see whether it puts us in orbit.”

Dick Conklin recently retired as associate vice president of University Relations at Notre Dame.