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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

July 22, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 74




Joe Feuerherd Leaving the baggage behind

By Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

They come to the discussion with none of the ideological baggage of the "professional Catholics" of left, right and center. They admit they don't know who Richard Neuhaus is, haven't read NCR, couldn't distinguish a "Commonweal Catholic" from Adam, and when someone says The Wanderer they're likely to assume the discussion is about Dion and the Belmonts.

They are Catholics who, since the sexual abuse crisis re-erupted in January 2002, have come to the fore as problem-solvers. Many have served their parishes and dioceses as Eucharistic ministers, parish council members, finance committee leaders, religious education teachers, RCIA sponsors and the like.

But now they're acting like they own the place.

I noticed it first last September. I was interviewing Robert Bennett, the high-powered Washington attorney who had recently been named to the review board investigating the clergy sex abuse scandals. Bennett was the subject of one of Fr. Richard Neuhaus's zingers. The priest-editor favorably quoted a Bennett critic charging that the attorney had "no conspicuous record of devotion to the Catholic cause." Bennett's response: "Who is Mr. Neuhaus?"

Mr. Neuhaus.

It happened again yesterday. It was at the conclusion of my interview with a prominent Catholic business leader -- a man who has poured many of his millions into Catholic causes. He thinks his management and business experience could be of some assistance to the church he loves and, NCR-like, believes most everyone should be involved in the discussion.

"Now tell me again," he asked, "what is your newspaper? I'm not familiar with it."

What this suggests to me is the emergence of a new and fresh group of Catholics who love the church and want to see it set back on course. They don't know where the bodies are buried, haven't staked out positions on hot-button issues, and while they respect the Roman collar, they are not cowed by it.

The awakening they face -- the one that disturbed and disgusted former Okalahoma governor Frank Keating -- is that the closer they get to the institutional structure, the more clearly they realize how flawed it is and how many topics (you know the ones) are verboten.

However these folks are labeled -- conservative, liberal, middle-of-the-road -- they are not used to being told that they cannot discuss certain things. In fact, their experience in the secular realms of business, academia and the non-profit world lead them to seek the broadest range of opinions and options.

And what of the abuse victims? Sadly, if understandably, most seem so disheartened by the church and its leaders that they want no part of the institution, other than to seek compensation and ensure that no children are harmed again.

Letting the "amateurs" in the game has some obvious downsides -- the intemperate Keating's inability to adapt to church protocols being the most obvious example. So they made Keating an offer he couldn't refuse and he resigned. But it doesn't look like this new breed will be brushed aside as easily.

Provided the "pros" give them some room.

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