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Worried reform is dead? Not this weekend, Baby!


Not long ago, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made the cryptic remark that “liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project.” Though it was never clear exactly what that meant, if George thinks the dream of church reform inspired by Vatican II has collapsed, he should have grabbed a cab and shown up at the Cabrini Retreat Center in Chicago July 24-26. It would have been clear that rumors of the death of aggiornamento have been greatly exaggerated.

Over that weekend, Call to Action sponsored a “Next Generation” retreat. The event brought together 16 young adult Catholics, roughly in their mid-20s to early 40s, to identify core issues for people in this age group and to discuss how Call to Action -- the nation’s leading advocacy group for church reform, with approximately 18,000 members -- could offer programs, services and experiences of interest to them. NCR was invited to sit in on the retreat on the condition that participants not be quoted or identified by name, so as not to turn a personal conversation into a press conference.

People often try to read the generation coming of age for hints of what the future may hold. For progressive Catholics, this has lately been a somewhat discouraging exercise. Younger priests tend to be fiercely conservative, while lay members of the so-called “Generation X” are less invested than their elders in the institutional church, and hence less passionate about the need for reform.

Yet it’s clear from the Next Generation event that these observations, valid so far as they go, are not the whole truth. The group in Chicago was composed of ferociously bright, articulate young adults, all of whom share a positive belief in Catholicism as a precious light to the world -- and a negative conviction that this light is presently being smothered under a bushel basket by the ecclesial powers that be. All declared a commitment to keep the vision of a transformed church alive in their generation.

The event began with each person sharing his or her life story. Listening in, it was striking how the goals that so many Catholics fought for in the 1970s and ’80s -- liberation theology and the struggle for justice in Central America, the role of Catholicism as a partner in the ecological movement, feminism and the quest for women’s ordination -- exercised such a profound influence in the lives of these young people.

One person explained how his conversion to Catholicism began with political activism against Reagan’s policies in Latin America, where he noticed that the real prophets -- the ones bearing witness often at the cost of their own lives -- were mostly Catholic. Through reading Penny Lernoux, he came to understand how Catholicism could inspire and sustain resistance like that, and he wanted to stand with those who were practicing it. He came into the church with his eyes open, knowing that the very movement that had so attracted him was being snuffed out by church authorities.

Sifting through the ashes now, in the waning moments of a pontificate bent on recasting so many Catholic prophets as enemies of the faith, it is easy to wonder if all their effort was worth it. So many heroes -- Leonardo Boff on liberation theology, Matthew Fox on creation spirituality, Mary Daly on the role of women -- have been driven out of Catholicism, or have left in despair of change. But listening to the idealism and passion expressed by the group in Chicago, it was clear that the witness of those heroes was not in vain, that someone saw and remembered.

It was also clear, however, that this group did not plan to follow Boff and Daly out of the church -- in the words of the old cigarette ad, they’d rather fight than switch. “Defecting in place” sums up their stance.

Also impressive was the extent to which these young people have acted on the principles they espouse. One teaches in an inner-city school. Another has a part-time job in Catholic social services, which she treats as a full-time vocation. Another lives in an urban commune and runs a program that connects young people with the elderly. Clearly, these are people for whom social justice is not an abstraction, a philosophical desideratum, but something they punch in and work for every day.

A faith that speaks to younger adults will, perforce, be a faith that calls people to action for justice. And by that logic, a church reform movement that resonates with young adults will be one that doesn’t treat reform as an end in itself, but as a means to allow the church to speak credibly about justice to the world.

Sexuality surfaced repeatedly as a flash-point for many Catholic young adults, a moment when they experience a disjunct between church teaching and their own experience. In some cases, the conflict revolves around homosexuality. Or it may be the issue of birth control or the near-exclusive emphasis in Catholic sexual morality on procreation. Whatever the case, young Catholics often become alienated from the institution over its dim view of sex. The Next Generation group felt that helping their peers recover a more balanced, affirming Catholic approach ought to be a key priority.

In response to the question of how to identify reform-minded young Catholics -- who, after all, probably aren’t milling around in the vestibule after Sunday Mass -- many suggested pop culture venues such as the Lilith Fair, a traveling concert series featuring female musicians such as Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant. Idealistic, spiritually sensitive young Catholics show up in droves at such events and they present an obvious organizing opportunity. More generally, pop culture is an arena in which young people explore questions of spirit and meaning, away from the religious institutions they sometimes find confining. The Catholic reform movement should be alert to these teaching moments, the group in Chicago seemed to say, and use them to start conversations.

Other issues surfaced as well -- what to do about the transition from the college Newman Center, where many young Catholics find a dynamic, progressive faith community, into parishes where that spirit is absent? What to teach your kids, whom you want exposed to the riches of Catholic tradition but not warped by the authoritarian packaging in which it too often is presented? How to form adhoc communities when the “official” ones -- school, church and family -- too often fail you? All are questions a revitalized church must address.

Also clear were some of the generational tensions within the church reform movement. Virtually all of the young adults in Chicago are Call to Action members, and most had stories of being at meetings where references to church teachings, documents or traditions left them “out of the loop.” One person quipped that for the longest time she thought aggiornamento was a pasta dish (it’s an Italian term meaning to bring something up to date, widely used to reform inspired by the council). The lived knowledge of church lore, so much a part of growing up for the Vatican II generation, is simply missing for Gen-Xers. An in-group/out-group dynamic can develop, even within a movement premised on inclusion if its leaders aren’t careful.

No one walked away from the weekend believing all the challenges of sustaining reform had been solved. But it was clear that young adult Catholics have a place at Call to Action’s table, that the organization is deeply serious about making itself relevant and accessible.

In the end, it felt like this “exhausted project” may have some energy left after all.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. His E-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998