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One of the most powerful pieces of literature to come out of the civil rights era was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Written in 1963 as an explanation of nonviolent direct actions such as sit-ins and marches, the letter was a response to a Good Friday statement by eight white ministers, titled “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.”

The white ministers, generally considered moderates and in favor of change, were fearful that a scheduled march on Birmingham, one of the most segregated Southern cities, would cause a disruption to the peaceful routines of the city.

At issue in the two statements is the nature of social change: How does it happen? How are social injustices and immoral structures transformed?

The ministers took a gradualist approach that begged the black population in Birmingham to look to existing institutions and structures such as law enforcement and the courts to bring about peaceful, gradual change.

From Birmingham jail, King responded, in part: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ ; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ ”

I thought of this discussion of gradualism vs. activism over the King holiday weekend. It was easy to apply to the thousands headed for the streets to protest war, and to the questions raised by the Supreme Court case involving the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy. But I thought it also applied to the hundreds of Catholics who turned up at cathedrals and churches in recent months to demand changes in church structure and governance, and to the Boston priests who publicly advocated the removal of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston in the wake of the scandals there.

In the case of the church, King’s fundamental point applies -- those in power are not easily going to encourage deep change to the status quo. It is the fundamental dilemma faced by anyone advocating social change, and that goes for Catholics in the church.

Undoubtedly that tension is felt keenly by members of Voice of the Faithful as they go through contortions to simultaneously advocate for change while trying to convince bishops that the changes will not be bothersome to members of the hierarchy. Sr. Joan Chittister (see story on Page 16) wonders if they have not set themselves a near impossible task. For their basic point -- the need for greater lay involvement in the church’s governance, no matter what language is used to convey that idea -- is a profoundly revolutionary concept.

We’ve already received some calls asking about our plans for a Lenten series of meditations this year. I’m honored to announce they’ve been written by Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, the retired archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil, and a champion of the poor and of human rights during that country’s 21 years of terror under military dictatorship.

His reflections will begin appearing in the issue dated Feb. 28, a week before the beginning of Lent. Each installment will appear a week early to allow use of the series by small groups and individuals.

Arns, in the series, wrestles with the questions of justice arising from the issues of the day in a powerful, personal approach that emanates from a life of deep faith lived in service to those on the margins.

Here’s a sneak preview:

“When first asked by the editors at the National Catholic Reporter to write a Lenten series I asked myself, ‘What does an 81-year-old Brazilian cardinal, retired archbishop of São Paulo, have to say to a Christian community he has only visited occasionally?’

“Then my heart answered my head! I could feel how much I wanted to speak out in favor of peace, of the poor, and against violence and a certain type of globalization. I wanted to make an appeal for a new ecumenical dialogue. But, above all, I wanted to be a voice in favor of hope. Without hope we have no chance of avoiding war and violence. Without hope we become fatalists and close our minds and our hearts to the possibility of change or of alternatives.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington was in Rome recently for an event sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (see story on Page 12). NCR’s John Allen Jr. sent along a note that while the event was concerned mostly with matters of war and peace, during a news conference Jan.18, McCarrick, in answer to a question, also addressed the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law.

“He was certainly a lightning rod and his resignation helps to speed up the healing,” McCarrick said.

Reporters then asked where Law will go, and McCarrick’s reply was swift.

“The answer to that,” he said, “is beyond my pay grade.”

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003