Sociologists Address VOTF Meeting
By Dr. Patricia Ewick, professor of sociology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts
Marc and I thought that we would reflect a bit on our travels with you over the past seven years. What we have learned from younot what we’ve learned about social movements, or activism, or sociologybut what we’ve learned about life and commitment and hope.
When we began this project we had little more than an inkling that something very important was going on. Welike everyone else in Massachusettshad been reading about the abuse scandal and the cover-up and that was obviously important, but what was equally important and significant was the response on the part of Catholics. We knew from these accounts that many Catholics remained staunchly, unquestioningly loyal. Many left the church, and for many who had drifted away from the Church over the years, the scandal and cover-up simply confirmed their disaffection and drift.
But among all of the responses, the most intriguing response was the formation of VOTF. As we’ve said many times before, the group seemed to be an anomalyhere were faithful committed Catholics who were questioning, publically, the role of the Church hierarchy. Here was a group that was made up of people, who didn’t really have a history of social activism, who were holding conventions and marching and demonstrating, and demanding the resignation of the Cardinal.
And here was a group that, despite their lack of experience, not only came together seeking to change the Church, but did so with astonishing speed. It was an amazing feat of organization.
So we decided to find a chapter of VOTF to study in order to understand how this happened. How do people reconcile betrayal with faith? How does a group of Davids imagine and go about challenging a Goliath?
We decided to attend a meeting, hoping that our presence wouldn’t be too conspicuous. We worried that everyone would notice us and we would be put in the position of stating our purpose and of being told that you didn’t want to be studied by a couple of sociologists.
That didn’t happen—we needn’t have worried about being conspicuous. First meeting attended was an event where we sat, inconspicuously, among 300-400 others in the audience. We knew VOTF was growing and thriving, but this event exceeded our expectations on every count.
After the play, we came went downstairs for refreshments and started informally chatting with some of you. I remember talking to Ellen and Mary, Rupert and Barbara. [Note: Pseudonyms used throughout article.] At the end of the night, once we figured out that Rupert was a kind of de facto leader, we asked him if we might be allowed to attend a few meetings in order to study the organization. He seemed open to the idea, but said that he would have to ask the Steering Committee.
Barbara actually admitted to us that she was initially skeptical, perhaps many of you were as well, but Bob seemed to feel it was okay and we got the thumbs up.
We thought we would study you all for a few months, maybe a year at most … and here we are 8 years later …
As sociologists, we are taught about difficulties of getting access, or permission to study a group. People are rightfully skeptical, not comfortable having non-members hanging around watching and listening. Usually you have no reason to trust researchers. In our methods courses, which teach how to approach this tricky task of getting in, we are told to ensure confidentiality, anonymity. To explain why you are interested in studying them, what questions are. Tell them they can withdraw permission at any time. We are supposed to offer credentials and bona fides, degrees and titles.
What they don’t talk about in our research methods courses, what I never anticipated being a problem, was the difficulty of leaving the field. Of saying, “OK, I’ve had enough. I know enough now. See you later.”
Now I suppose that there are groups that sociologists study for which leaving would be a welcome opportunity. Kathryn Blee studied women of the KKK, drug gangs, white collar criminals. But that is certainly not the case of this VOTF, a group with whom we have found friendship and for whom I have developed a deep respect.
When we began our project so many years ago, I obviously expected to learn something about you—how you ticked, what your motivations were, and so forth, but I did not expect to learn something from you.
What’s the difference between learning “about” and learning “from?”
It just comes down to a little preposition, but I think that the difference is huge. To learn about someone or something, is to observe them, to find out something that they may or may not have intended to reveal, The thing or person we learn about is the object of knowledge, not the source of knowledge. Moreover, when we learn about someone we are not necessarily changed by that knowledge. We record it, analyze it, publish it.
To learn from, by contrast, is to stand in a very particular relationship with another; it is to receive something, not to extract it. And in receiving it, to be changed by it.
So what have I learned from you, since first showing up 8 years ago?
First, I have learned the importance of courage. In coming together you all took some mighty risks. VOTF has at various times been condemned and banned by the Church. You were essentially “put on probation” by the incoming priest when he first arrived. You have occasionally withstood the criticism and distrust of some of your fellow Catholics.
And many of you even wrestled with your own resistance to what you were doing. So many of you told us in different ways that you weren’t joiners, weren’t rabble rousers, were happier in many ways sitting quietly in church.
In other words, it wasn’t easy to come together to publically commit to what was—at least initially—an unpopular and even suspect response. You all obviously took on the challenge. And I might add met it exceedingly [well].
The courage you have shown, however, is not simply in response to others’ criticism or skepticism. At the heart of your project is something fundamentally risky. You are trying to change something—the Church—that you cherish and is an integral part of you who are. There are dangers in that.
At one meeting a few years ago, Howard put it this way: “I don’t know if anybody else in the room has ever fixed a ship at sea, but I have and it is intense and it is gut-wrenching. There are times that we had to open the ship more to let more water in, in order to be able to get at the thing that we needed to get at, to stop the problem.”
Howard’s use of the analogy is stark and telling. It conveys the urgency and the danger. Exposing the sins of the Church is like letting more water in, to be able to get at the problem. But too much water and the ship is sunk. But if you are on a ship in danger, you really don’t have much of a choice but to do the best you can.
And you have.
Second, I have learned from you the meaning and significance of respect. This group was born out of a crisis—out of a profound betrayal. We weren’t present at the beginning, but from your accounts emotions ran high and deep. No one knew what to do exactly, how to proceed; most of you were not used to expressing the kinds of emotions—at least publically—that were being expressed.
That kind of situation—volatile emotions, uncertain purpose, deep insecurity—is a recipe for the kind of incivility and polarization that characterizes so much of public life today. In those situations, it is often who can speak forcefully or loudly enough, who can attack or undermine someone else’s position, or insinuate something about their motives or abilities [who gains].
But I have witnessed the opposite here. Differences within the group exist and are acknowledged—over the years some have disagreed about what kinds of structural change are appropriate, about whether the support of survivors should be the primary goal of the group.
But in the face of these differences, the group self-consciously adopted a dialogic style of interaction that serves to contain or hold those differences. William Issacson characterized dialogue as a conversation that has a center but no sides. Out of the center, greater capacity and understanding emerges over time.
And you do not simply offer respect to one another but to others outside of the group. You respect the clergy who have integrity, the pain and plight of survivors, even the right of other Catholics who have not joined in your project, Catholics with whom you continue to serve and worship.
So many groups mark a boundary around themselves [and] derive a sense of purpose and identity from not being like others, or maybe even emphasizing the difference. You seem to transcend the boundaries rather than let them define you.
For all this, you have clearly earned the respect of others as well. Father has spoken of this group, “as the conscience of the Church.” … I guess you’re off probation.
Third, I have learned from you the importance of commitment and tenacity.
Soon after we began attending the meetings, Rupert moved away. This change presented a challenge to the group. We had the grace to have met Rupert—if we had come a few months later he might have already left.
He was a humble, quiet, respectful leader who did an amazing amount to work. I still recall the meeting in which you all divided up the various tasks he had been performing each week. I honestly thought to myself that this crisis of leadership might very well be the beginning of the end for this VOTF chapter. I had obviously served on too many faculty committees, and thus vastly underestimated your own willingness to step up and keep at it.
All I can say is, it was a good thing that we didn’t find another chapter closer to where I lived—or anywhere else—to study. I can’t imagine that any other group would have persisted long enough to fit our pace of work.
But no need for us to worry, you will outlast even us.
What is really interesting is that many of you told us that initially you all thought that your work would be more or less complete in 5 years or so. But as you came to realize the enormity of your goals, you never flagged; in fact you seemed to me to become more committed and more emboldened every year. I think what fuels that commitment is a greater sense of agency.
In fact, one of the lessons I think that you have taught yourselfis that changing the Church ultimately means changing yourself, becoming the change you seek.
And you have done that. You have taken those aspects of Catholicism that you cherish and value: weekly Sabbath, the prayers, the fellowship, the spirit and openness of Vatican II. You have left behind aspects that you do not value: the hierarchy, the top-down monologue, the secrecy and pomp, and, I think, the idea of sin and judgment. And out of this you have created an open, prayerful, respectful version of your Church, right here in this hall.
I also think that your commitment is nourished by a sense of hope, a vision that you share and that you continually work toward. So I will end by quoting from Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who passed away this spring,
“History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”