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Call to actions that speak louder


Call to Action took over downtown Milwaukee on Halloween weekend. In case you’re from very far away -- such as Outer Mongolia or the diocese of Lincoln, Neb. -- CTA describes itself as “a national church renewal and social justice organization of over 19,000 laity, religious, priests and bishops who believe that we, all of us, are the church.”

But the Catholic church, whose wings stretch from Jesus to John Paul II to ourselves, has never been neat. Compared with 400 years of buttoned-down belief after Trent, this group has panache, always a papal nightmare. Every expert in America should be watching CTA closely because it’s a rare fragment of the human condition poised either for oblivion or some miraculous breakthrough.

I arrived late for a talk by the eloquent Anthony Padovano, president of CORPUS, the national association for a married priesthood, and sat at the back. What struck me was all the white hair and all the bald heads. Hard to believe this group is threatening holy mother church.

Yet at their annual conference one could see these 3,500 CTA souls did not mean business as usual. The theme was “Created in God’s Image: Women and Men Seeking Equality.” A purple leaflet claims, for example, that 82 percent of all parish ministers are women but only 25 percent of top diocesan positions are held by women; that 57,000 parishes worldwide are without a resident priest; that in the United States approximately 81 percent of administrators of priestless parishes are women. And more of the same, more than enough to rock the boat.

The CTA speakers roster glittered with luminaries. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza gave a keynote address on equality (see story, Call to Action celebrates equality sought and earned). Everyone said she was great. Another keynoter was Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. She gave a challenging talk. The dominator model that got us where we are, “ranking one half of humanity over the other, with disastrous results,” must be replaced by a partnership way of living, Eisler said.

This is not a search for matriarchy, she pointed out. Sturdy women such as Margaret Thatcher and Jeane Kirkpatrick, she who blamed the four El Salvador women martyrs for their own deaths, flashed through at least one mind.

“Women need the involvement of men,” Eisler went on. It was a timely reminder. Women are overwhelmingly the religious half of humanity. In most countries and cultures, it is women who “practice” Catholicism -- go to church and support it. They just don’t get to make the big decisions.

However, the supply of willing men is drying up, even for leadership roles. What kind of church, then, can the women hope to find when they emerge in the light at the end of their tunnel? Will theirs, when they get it, be a priesthood worth fighting for? It’s ironic that women want priesthood so badly at a time when men have largely lost interest in it.

The magisterium and everyone have been telling us, especially since Vatican II, that the Eucharist is the heart of our particular religion. The Eucharist in turn is dependent on priesthood. However, the same leadership that preaches that Eucharist is primary fails to find enough priests to provide it.

Women, thwarted in their effort to fill this need, began some years ago to celebrate eucharistic liturgies. Thousands of them meet in groups nationwide, as NCR has frequently reported, not to pretend Mass but to find a fulfilling substitute while they wait for a new pope or a new wind to be blown by the Spirit.

Now, however, many women no longer find this enough. A substitute is by definition temporary, and time is running out. They have gone through the non-Mass eucharistic liturgy phase and are looking for something else on the other side, according to this view.

What is vital to remember -- lest anyone at the Vatican ever read this, or lest it come ashore in a bottle in a thousand years -- is that these are, in ordinary English, good people. They are not troublemakers. Nor flakes. For two days in Milwaukee we all had a blast. NCR set eyes on very few of the luminaries, but that left approximately 3,450 men and women who are salt of the earth. They are not radicals. Radicals would long since have gone elsewhere.

The conversations went around in circles. As its name implies, however, Call to Action won’t be satisfied to go on talking forever. It says up front that “we are the church.” But does that leave the pope out if he fails to come along? The circles we went around in were not new ones, but they rippled wider. Eisler said her search for the partnership way took off when she left linear logic behind and embraced chaos theory, which suggests that a small change in a small system can result in massive and unpredictable changes elsewhere. That could take Catholics on a wild ride.

The circle invariably returned to one fundamental question: What, then, is a Catholic?

Even if we’ve been at it forever, this is a great project for the millennium: After 2,000 years to strip away the debris of all the old arguments and find a new definition or description or, if it’s all we can do, a new metaphor for what is a Catholic. All sides should be in on the debate, including Human Life International, whose book Call to Action or Call to Apostasy? was making the rounds in Milwaukee. (Sometimes one wonders why this pope is not dismayed by the sheer lack of kindness, the sheer contentiousness so often found on the right.)

We might, indeed, burn each other at the stake in our frantic search for truth, as we have done before. Or we might, if we gave goodwill a chance, make breakthroughs, learn things, become good Catholics even as we find out what “good Catholic” means.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998