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Call to Action returns to Detroit roots

NCR Staff

Call to Action, the nation's largest organization promoting renewal in the Catholic church, is on a roll. Attendance at this year's convention was up 25 percent over last year, and regional groups are springing up around the country.

Leaders attribute the growth -- 5,000 new members in the past year for a total of 18,000 -- in part to Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz, whose excommunication edict last May against Call to Action members and other groups in his Lincoln, Neb., diocese, gave the organization unprecedented publicity and brought in new members.

But the most striking effect of Call to Action's heightened visibility was a counter-convention called Call to Holiness. Sponsored by Catholic traditionalists in the Detroit area and drawing nearly 2,000 participants, it was held in suburban Sterling Heights concurrently with Call to Action. Organizer Gino Vitale said traditionalists wanted to oppose Catholics "who confuse the will of the people for the will of God."

Though both groups claim to be loyal Catholics, rooted in church teaching, differences between the two meetings could not have been more striking in both substance and style.

A spokesman for Call to Holiness said the decision to meet simultaneously with Call to Action was intended to throw down the gauntlet, in effect a call to war between two strikingly different visions of church.

The days are gone, warned Jay McNally, spokesman for the Call to Holiness Conference, when Call to Action's annual convention, usually held in Chicago, would be the only show in town.

From now on, he said, "there will be a determined effort to follow Call to Action wherever they go into eternity. We feel that Call to Action must be rebutted on their own turf. If they go to Memphis, we will certainly go there and teach the lay orthodox folks down there how to counter some of their influence.

"The big difference between us and Call to Action is that Call to Action seeks to change and reform church teaching. We seek to defend it," McNally said.

'Our Father, Our Mother'

At weekend worship services in Cobo Hall, Catholics reflected their change-oriented principles in worship. "Our Father who art in heaven; our Mother who art in heaven," they sang in opening lines of the Lord's Prayer.

Worshipers, who included many nuns and priests as well as laypeople active in their parishes, viewed rather than heard the homily, its thoughts expressed in interpretive dance rather than in words. They sang spirituals, folk songs and contemporary chants: "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus," "O Healing River," and "Nada Te Turbe" from the ecumenical Taize community in France.

A few steps away, in the exhibition area, "women of cloth" were for sale for $34: female priest dolls dressed in white albs with brightly-colored chasubles and stoles.

Worshipers -- a third of them in their 50s according to an informal Call to Action poll -- raised their arms in joy; many clapped and bounced in rhythm and appreciation. Nearly all stood during the consecration of the bread and wine.

Conference speakers included three controversial church figures under some form of Vatican penalty: theologians Fr. Hans Küng of Germany and Fr. Charles Curran of the United States, and Bishop Jacques Gaillot of France. Most recently, Gaillot was removed from his diocese in Evreux for his public support of women's ordination, married priests and full acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Speakers also included excommunicates from Lincoln and two bishops in good standing: Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., who gave a workshop on small faith communities, and Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of Detroit and widely known peace activist, who addressed a large assembly Saturday night.

As in the past, many sessions were held concurrently, allowing participants to choose, and options were divided among performances, workshops featuring various forms of spirituality and sessions dealing with theology and church reform. A few talks -- mainly those by Küng, Gaillot and Gumbleton -- pointed to a broader social agenda, but the main agenda by far was determined by internal church issues.

'We Are Church' petition

A Washington-based nun, Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler of Washington, called on participants to sign a "We Are Church" referendum, a petition similar to one signed by 2.3 million Catholics in Austria and Germany and now circulating in the United States and other countries. Among its propositions it calls for the equality of all the faithful, participation of the faithful in selecting bishops and pastors, equal rights for women and their inclusion in all ministries, and optional celibacy. It affirms the goodness of sexuality, the primacy of conscience and the human rights of all persons regardless of sexual orientation.

In general, Call to Action Catholics believe church teaching and practice should be defined with input from the laity and drawing broadly on their experiences.

"The primary source of God's revelation is not in the Bible. It's in life," said Medical Mission Sr. Miriam Therese Winter, professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and Sunday morning plenary session speaker. "Scripture is really script," she said. "It shows us how some carried out their faith in other times and cultures. But we have to write our own script. We are truly in the oral stage of another scripture."

Representatives from several European countries and Africa promoted signing the petitions, pointing to a growing international, reform-minded network. Call to Action leaders hailed that network as another sign of strength.

Nun dolls

Some 20 miles away, in suburban Sterling Heights, worship was formal, solemn. Participants chanted parts of the Mass in Latin: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison; Sanctus, Sanctus Sanctus; Agnus Dei. They sang old hymns, ratifying their traditional male and triumphal imagery: "Faith of our Fathers," "Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King," "Hail Queen of Heaven the Ocean Star."

At a booth in the exhibition hall, dolls dressed as nuns in traditional long habits and headgear were for sale.

The main speaker was Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network, a cable network based in Irondale, Ala., that promotes conservative Catholic views. Wearing a long habit and the traditional wimple, coif and veil, she talked about courage and forgiveness as paths to holiness, sprinkling her remarks with denunciations of liberals and references to conflict in the church. "We shall not lose this battle," she said.

Other speakers praised Bruskewitz for his punitive action, while conservative theologians sanctioned theological retrenchment under Pope John Paul II. Participants in the conservative conference strongly back his penalties against theologians, his determination to hold the line on sexual morality, his ban on discussion of women priests.

At Call to Holiness, where church is generally defined as the magisterium, leaders denounced the whole notion of church reform. Truth, they said, was unchanging, rooted in the Bible and tradition.

In a telephone interview after the conference, McNally said, "The church has defined most of its doctrinal elements and moral elements in a fairly rigorous way. There's no question," he added, that a majority of Catholics agree with members of Call to Action. Polls have shown, for instance, that strong majorities of U.S. Catholics disagree with official church teaching in several areas, including sexual teachings and celibacy and male-only rules for priests.

"So what?" McNally said. "Our response is it's like trying to change gravity. Some might wish the teachings were different. It would be easier, more fun. But you can't change gravity. It's there."

"Our view is what if a majority of people felt that wife beating was okay, would that make it a moral good? We believe the teachings are immutable, and that they will not and cannot be changed," he said.

'A de facto schism'

McNally noted that one speaker at Call to Holiness, Jesuit Fr. John A. Hardon, had said "there is already a de facto schism in the church." But Linda Pieczynski, a lawyer from Hinsdale, Ill., and president of Call to Action's board, said, "There's room in the church for all of us." The night before the conference, she was reading the Bible preparing for her talk, she said, and turned to I Cor 12, a section that makes an analogy between the spiritual body and the importance and interconnectedness of each part of the human body.

She added: "We're flattered that Mother Angelica's group views us as such a threat that they have gone to the trouble of putting on a conference at the same time as ours."

"I understand where Mother Angelica's coming from," she said. Changes in church practices after the Second Vatican Vatican Council (1963-1965) were "very difficult for my grandparents. But I was raised to expect change and to believe I would find God by going out into the world."

Increasingly, as divisions become more public, bishops are speaking openly about their concerns. Writing in The Michigan Catholic about a month before the conference, Cardinal Adam Maida, archbishop of Detroit, strongly discouraged parishes from supporting Call to Action by sending representatives. Nevertheless, he said, he considered holding a counter-conference unwise.

Regarding Call to Action's program, he said, "I've noted there are modules and speakers covering a variety of topics that appear to be in conformity with church teaching and discipline. Some could even be very helpful. ... Unfortunately, however, the overall climate of the conference creates the appearance of dissent from teaching or practice."

Regarding Call to Holiness, he said, "Especially lamentable" is the practice by "some of these individuals and groups" to "criticize -- even campaign against -- select pastors or other priests, accusing them of infidelity to our Holy Father or church teaching. ... If we truly love and respect the church, we will at the same time love and respect the ministers of the church."

Bishop Gumbleton struck a contrasting conciliatory note in his talk. "I am very happy to lend my support to all the fine people in Call to Action," he said. But he also said he hoped for a unifying "miracle" in the name of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who, just before his death in mid-November, was backing Catholic Common Ground, a project aimed at healing fractures by sponsoring discussions among Catholics of different points of view on church teaching and life.

A bit of history

Ironically, Bernardin, folk hero to some renewal-minded Catholics, was responsible for burying proposals by the first Call to Action conference in 1976. That meeting was held under auspices of U.S. bishops in conjunction with the U.S. bicentennial and after two years of consultations involving 800,000 Catholics. The assembly became embarrassing for bishops when participants adopted by proclamation an agenda calling for sweeping church reforms similar to those in the "We Are Church" referendum circulating today. Bernardin, then president of the bishops' conference, quietly buried the proposals in a maze of bureaucracy.

After that, Call to Action died almost everywhere, except in Chicago. In 1990 the Chicago group gained national prominence following its decision to publish a statement on church reform, signed by 4,500 Catholics, as a full-page ad in The New York Times. In 1993 a national conference in Chicago drew 2,800 people; this year, 5,000 came to Detroit.

Call to Action's recent growth has been in the direction of regional chapters. Two years ago there were three such chapters; last fall there were 15. This year, by convention time, the number had climbed to 33, and some had begun holding regional conferences.

In a Saturday session, Jim and Carol McShane of Lincoln, Neb., said Call to Action members of their chapter are planning a gathering on May 16 to mark the first anniversary of their excommunication, It followed their letter to Bishop Bruskewitz notifying him that they were forming a Call to Action chapter in his diocese. The McShanes also said they had prepared a 92-page packet and mailed it to every U.S. bishop before the bishops' mid-November meeting in Washington, asking them to try to persuade Bishop Bruskewitz to repeal his excommunication edict.

Personally, Call to Action members in the Lincoln diocese vary in response to the edict, the McShanes said. Some regard it as unjust and continue to take communion. Others do not take communion, and some no longer go to Mass at all, Jim McShane said. "I don't know of anyone who's been refused the sacraments," he said. But, he added that being shunned by other Catholics is common, both at church and elsewhere.

Küng's 'Global Ethic'

Küng, among the few speakers focusing on social action, touted the 14-page "Initial Declaration Toward a Global Ethic," which he drafted and which was signed by 250 religious leaders meeting at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1993. Insisting "there will be no world peace until there is peace among the religions," Küng is attempting to forge a consensus on fundamental values that can be universally adopted as a basis for "a new world order."

Catholicism demands a "focus on the outer mission," said Küng, professor emeritus of dogmatic and ecumenical theology at the University of Tubingen, Germany, and author of many influential books. At a news conference after his talk, he said he first wanted to answer questions about his global ethic rather than his battles with the Vatican, which led in 1979 to withdrawal of his canonical mission to teach Catholic theology.

"I'm very encouraged by this enormous meeting," he said. "It's clear that all these laypeople, priests, even bishops are representing millions of Catholics. Yes, we are the church."

Gumbleton said his prayer was that Call to Action would develop a five-year plan for action for justice and peace. On Saturday afternoon, Gumbleton led a march to support workers involved in a 17-month strike at The Detroit News and Free Press. The striking workers have been replaced with new staff.

In his talk, Gumbleton denounced "busting unions" along with all forms of violence and injustice. "We do not have a right to our excess wealth," he said. "It belongs to the poor. God made this world for all, not for a few."

Of the dual Catholic conferences in Detroit, Gumbleton said, "It may seem that these two conferences are in opposition. But think about it. You cannot respond to a call to action and work for justice unless you first respond to a call to holiness."

The miracle he hoped for, he said, was that "the spirit of Joe Bernardin, living in the spirit of Jesus, will be the spirit that brings us together. That certainly was his dying wish."

Too much emphasis on pope

Gaillot, the French bishop ousted from his diocese, spoke on "My Option for the Poor," drawing large and enthusiastic audiences to his three sessions and drawing criticism from a fellow Frenchman.

Gaillot said, "If we take as our starting point the poor, everything will be renewed -- liturgy, catechism, the life of the church. It changes the way we think, pray, our very lifestyle. But if we take as our starting point the status quo, we will never be able to catch up with the Good News."

At another session, Gaillot, who spoke through a translator, said, "I think people put too much emphasis on the pope and the papacy. I firmly believe the reform will come from grassroots movements, not from the hierarchy."

"We are in the situation of people who hold the key, but the key will no longer open any door," he said.

Gaillot's critic, Christian Terras, editor of Golias magazine in Lyons, France, said in an interview at the Call to Action conference that the bishop, while "absolutely sincere" in his commitment to the poor, had in part brought the Vatican penalty on himself. He was on an "ego trip" and had isolated himself from other bishops, Terras said.

"You have a perfect example here of a bishop not cooperating with other bishops, going his own way, while for 10 years the extreme right led a campaign against him," Terras said. "He is a loner and didn't know how to bring others into his movement. He didn't care that much about the institution."

According to Terras, Gaillot's most formidable opponents had been a right-wing Catholic group, former followers of traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefevre, living at Le Barroux, a monastery near Avignon.

Adult church 'sucks'

Young adults, though a small minority at Call to Action, held a caucus on Saturday afternoon to talk about the church's future as they see it. Judy Speer of Chicago said, "A lot of young people feel 'why bother. The church is a dinosaur and it's going to die.' "

An optional questionnaire seeking data on conference participants showed that 7 percent were under 30, 9 percent 30 to 39, 18 percent 40 to 49, 33 percent 50 to 59, 23 percent 60 to 69, 10 percent over 70.

Youthful heads bobbed in agreement when Joe McGovern of Arlington, Va., said, "The Catholic church is not even a suitable coffee-drinking subject" among his peers. "It doesn't seem real," he said. "It seems fuzzy. It's lost its punch." Still, said McGovern, many young people feel a powerful spiritual hunger. He said he sees the future not in large parishes but in small faith communities "where people are not allowed to hide."

Aimee Sutton, 24, of Roseville, Minn., said of Call to Action, "I can't believe this has been going on for 20 years and I've never heard about it." She added: "Our pastor is saying Call to Action is a bunch of heretics."

Several young adults said they long for a voice in parish life, but find older people unwilling to take them seriously. "How many ice cream socials can you go to?" asked Theresa Bean, 25, of Columbus, Ohio. "Priests -- especially priests -- have difficulty knowing what we want."

Paul Stoltz of West Haverstraw, N.Y., said he often finds himself defending Catholicism to his peers despite his negative reaction when returning to his home parish after college. He said he thought: "This is the adult church? This sucks."

However, two young adults participating in an international forum were more hopeful.

"I'm struck by similarities," said Emma Winkley of England, who represented Catholics for a Changing Church. "We've all started the same support groups. That means millions of people around the world share the same discomfort, the same frustrations, the same determination. I think that's wonderful."

Thomas Arens, representing Wir sind Kirche in Germany and Austria, said the church was vital to his sense of identity. "I'm in university learning how to make my way to a job. You learn to use your elbows, not how to care for things besides money and getting in a top position."

'The church' says 'Amen'

Despite the challenges from conservatives and pressures to conform, Call to Action leaders predicted the organization would continue to thrive. "There will be difficult days ahead," Pieczynski told convention-goers. "People will lose their jobs, and outsiders "will tell lies about Call to Action, distort our principles and purposes."

She said she hoped members would "continue to be open to the truth ... treating oppressors with love and compassion as Jesus taught us."

In an interview, Dan Daley, Call to Action's codirector in Chicago, said, "There's a whole lot of forward motion" regarding issues involving internal church affairs, as well as broader social ethics.

"Some people see us as bashers and naysayers," he said. "That's unfortunate, because this is a very positive movement. We are trying to be a compass, while acknowledging that the church is a broad tent."

At opening sessions on Friday night, leaders presented an award to U.S. women religious collectively, citing their "commitment to church renewal." And Monsignor Jack Egan of Chicago, cochair of the U.S. bishop-sponsored Call to Action conference in 1976, praised the group's ongoing work. "This organization has kept the dream alive for 20 years. We need to commit ourselves to its noble goals."

He got a rousing response when he asked, "Do I hear the church say 'Amen'?"

Undoubtedly many would have also affirmed the sentiment of Larry Mullins of Naples, Fla. He said he goes frequently to Call to Action's annual meetings to see old friends and "to celebrate the great mystery that is the church."

Patty McCarty of NCR contributed information for this story.

National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1996