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Visions for the future

Special Report Writer

For thousands of Catholics the renewal organization Call to Action represents the future of the Catholic church, keeping alive hope for some imminent institutional reform even as the Vatican continues to crack down on innovation. Yet the vision of that future may not be as clear as it once was, and it will certainly be shaped in part by new forces and a growing debate within Call to Action as it nears its 25th anniversary.

While old-time members have battled for more than two decades to remain in the church even as they tried to alter it, some are discovering that their children are not interested in the church they have struggled so hard to change. For some younger Catholics, the issues their parents keep fighting for are not particularly pressing; for others, an alternative church has already begun to grow amid discontent and impatience with the institution; and for still others, attachment to the church comes in dedication to its social justice tradition with little concern about the ecclesiology or doctrines their elders find divisive.

Not surprisingly, Call to Action members in their 50s, 60s and 70s worry about the future of their 20,000-member organization. Will younger Catholics want to take up their reform campaign or will they evolve an alternative church of their own? The answers, given conversations with a number of young members of Call to Action, seem to be “a little of each.” Nor are the lines of disagreement exclusively along generational lines.

For instance, a form of alternative church already exists and should be acknowledged as “church,” according to some long-time members. It is a church that manifests itself in alternative liturgies celebrated without a priest, by married priests, by women or lay presiders. Often these are liturgies conducted in homes or in small faith communities outside the local parish structure.

A charter Call to Action member, who asked that his name not be used because he works for a church-run agency, said: “There are voices in CTA who want it to be more aggressive. They want to declare these alternative models as church.”

Staying in the church or forming a church of one’s own is not a new question within Call to Action. It’s an “eternal” one, said Linda Pieczynski, a former president, board member and now spokesperson for the organization. “Lots of parishes are doing their own thing,” she said, “priests are granting annulments in the confessional,” and home Masses are being widely celebrated.

Younger Catholics, unlike the baby boomers and seniors, don’t feel guilty about not going to church, Pieczynski said. “They look more at the substance of Catholic teaching than at its obligations.” Their staying away is not a lifestyle issue, she said. They’re not saying: “I won’t go to church. I’ll play golf.” Rather they’re asking: “Why should I stick with an institution that discriminates against women? They figure why fight for women’s ordination and a non-celibate clergy? This is a done deal. It’s coming.” It’s the social justice issues that draw them, she said.

Catholics with a small ‘c’

Pieczynski, a lawyer in Hinsdale, Ill., held that Next Generation Catholics -- as they are referred to in Call to Action circles -- are Catholics with a small “c.” She predicted that they will “dabble” in different denominations and religions during their lifetime. “They’ll do a little Buddhism and a little Catholicism and maybe something else. They simply don’t have enough regard for the church to spend energy on it.”

Still, Call to Action has been reaching out to younger Catholics for more than three years. At last year’s annual conference in Milwaukee some 400 of the 4,000 persons present represented the Next Generation -- a catch of Catholics aged 20 to 42. Many came on scholarships provided by some 40 local and regional groups.

The Next Generation group held conversations with the post boomers or “Wisdom” generation as seniors in the organization are often called. In recent months they’ve also conducted a lively dialogue online and at Next Generation leadership and family retreats, which drew 75 participants this summer in Chicago and in Colorado. In a few weeks these Next Generation Catholics will gather to discuss their religious and spiritual needs and their hopes for the church in the new century. Their meeting will occur during the annual Call to Action conference, to be held Nov. 3-5 in Milwaukee.

Abandoning organized religion

What alarms many long-time members -- including Tim Schmaltz, a member of CTA-Arizona, is the precipitous decline of church faithful. Studies show that 70 percent of the World War II generation embraced an institutional religion, 55 percent of baby boomers have done the same, but only 29 percent of GenXers have any allegiance to organized religion. The trends among GenX Catholics mirror the wider public. According to an NCR/Gallup survey (see NCR, Oct. 29, 1999), only 39 pecent of Catholics age 18-38 say that church is among the most important pars of life. that figure compares with 46 percent for those 39-58 years old and 66 percent for those 59 and older.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Schmaltz said. “Over the next 20 years, we’re going to have empty parishes just like the other mainstream churches have had.”

But the drop in numbers is not just a result of disinterested youth. Don Wedd, regional coordinator for Call to Action at its Chicago headquarters, acknowledged that over time older members have become increasingly “frustrated with the slow rate of change.” Some have gone elsewhere, though none is known to have formally started a new church. Of those who remain, 90 percent attend Mass at least once a week.

Wedd said there was no movement within the organization either to split from the Catholic church or to officially acknowledge an alternative liturgy as church -- even if some may have broached the idea in person or by e-mail. The reason people abandon the church is because they’re not getting nurtured, he said, noting that the priest shortage has caused even more to leave. In his native Australia, Wedd pointed to recent surveys indicating that in Sydney and Melbourne 97 and 94 percent respectively of young people had stopped attending Mass within a year of leaving Catholic high school. Finding a way to avoid such erosion here prompted the group’s outreach to the Next Generation.

When Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz threatened to excommunicate members of Call To Action in his Lincoln, Neb., diocese, many of its members sought renewal groups elsewhere in the state. Patty Hawk, 37, chairperson of CTA-Nebraska and a member of the Next Generation Advisory Committee, has often been asked: “Why don’t you just walk away?”

Hawke is convinced, “You can’t effect change from outside. You can’t be heard, understood or understand what’s going on in the church unless you’re in it,” said the college instructor who lives with her husband in Crete, Neb. Besides, “CTA is the healthiest part of the church,” she said.

The questions that many members -- young and middle-aged -- in the Lincoln diocese had to ask themselves were: “Where can I be when I don’t agree with the church?” and “What can I do not to walk away?” The group felt a strong need to worship in the same parish weekly, Hawk said. Since Advent of last year several families have journeyed 150 miles round trip to attend a Saturday evening liturgy in a small town parish in the Omaha archdiocese. After Mass they gather for supper and fellowship in the town, forming what Hawke called “an intimate faith community.”

Hawk was one of the 50 persons who came to a Next Generation retreat in Chicago in July. She was pleased to see so many lesbians and gays attending, noting: “There must be something we do that is seen as inclusive.” CTA-sponsored retreats offer GenXers a place to speak freely and to question safely, she said.

Retreat attendant Dana Myer, 29, a psychologist and teacher in Tacoma, Wash., characterized most of the Catholics she knows in Washington and in her home city of Portland, Ore., as people who’ve neither left the church nor become active in it. “We’re not as hung up on liturgy as the older folks. We follow our consciences and don’t get too upset. There isn’t the sense that if I do this or that, I’m leaving the church.”

But for Chris Stampolis of Santa Clara, Calif., who also attended the Chicago retreat, CTA may be courting younger Catholics for the wrong reasons. Is it recruiting them “to insure its future or to further its mission? If the answer is ‘both’,” then Stampolis wants CTA to clarify its mission.

Does it support the objectives in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes document and the U.S. Bishops’ 1976 “Call to Action” statement? Is its raison d’être closer to The Call for Reform that CTA outlined in its March 1990 New York Times ad, which ran with 4,500 signatures and invited more signers? Or is it moving more toward what he called an attitude of “the heck with the church; let’s try something new”?

Stampolis, 34, community relations manager for a Santa Clara environmental agency thought that Call to Action’s Web site -- containing full texts of its cornerstone documents -- indicated the value the organization places in them. While he found the early goals of the group to be “extremely progressive, specific and challenging,” he regretted that they have “not been remotely enacted.” While most of the foundational documents deal with social and economic justice issues, the thrust of today’s Call to Action is “geared to gender concerns,” he said.

If the organization were “to put as much push” into sweatshops, union organizing and “the huge inequities in American society,” as it gives to gender concerns, “its tent would be much broader,” Stampolis said. In his view, CTA pays insufficient attention to economic issues, because they challenge the lifestyle of most of its members.

Too long in opposition

Stampolis thought that older members were often to blame for their children’s abandoning the church. “The hubris of these parents is huge. They feel they hold the key to renewal.” More often than not, they are “obstructionists,” he said, comparing them to the Republicans in the last three Congresses. “They have been in opposition for so long, they don’t know how to lead.”

If the organization is looking for counsel from Silicon Valley, Stampolis advised them to put their beliefs into action. This would mean affirming most of the encyclicals of Pope John Paul and the majority of the U.S. Bishops’ statements, he said. Call to Action boomers need to recover their balance. “Criticize where appropriate and commend when deserved.”

For Bridget Brownell, 24, the organization offers young and old different interests among social justice and church reform issues. A member of the St. Francis Catholic Worker Farm in Lacona, N.Y., Brownell works with 16- to 19-year-olds. “I try to open them to God by helping them understand rural poverty.”

Brownell said she thinks that GenXers’ greatest gifts to Call to Action are their high levels of energy and technical knowledge. “We can make services more upbeat.” It’s her hope that the organization will work so that more people are “welcome at the Lord’s table.”

“I feel that the divorced, gays, lesbians, those who’ve remarried outside the church and those who’ve made a different choice for birth control are being squeezed out,” she said.

For Jeanne Hidalgo, a young mother of four in Grosse Pointe, Mich., the GenXers are “struggling with a church they feel is patriarchal, homophobic and where social justice is not on the table. We are frustrated and don’t know what to do,” she said, adding that she and others have formed faith-sharing groups[.]

Hidalgo lamented, “Ninety percent of my Catholic peers have left the church. Everyone I meet is an ex-Catholic. They find it ‘bizarre’ that I still go to church,” she said, describing her own spiritual journey as “a very lonely walk.” Hidalgo and her husband, Albert, attended the Chicago retreat where she found other young people “doing it, living it, devoting their life to the poor, working in soup kitchens, volunteering.”

Unlike older Catholics in Call to Action, Hidalgo is not upset by the lack of vocations. She saw it as “almost a gift,” because “we lay people are supposed to be transforming and redefining what should be church.” A lot of the GenXers that she meets tell her that they had “awesome” liturgy in college, are lost without it and can’t find it in their local church. She said she hopes that campus ministry programs would ignite the church’s next generation.

In Denver, Amy Sheber Howard, 29, is raising two toddlers with her husband, Jeff, and studying for her master’s degree in theology at Iliff School of Theology. In August she organized a Next Generation Family Retreat in nearby Estes Park.

Sheber Howard said she finds it “difficult to live in a community of faith with such internal contradictions” as the Catholic church poses for GenXers. “We can’t fathom how an institution has survived to this day that discriminates against women, doesn’t welcome gays and treats the races unequally. … What attracts us are its traditions and social teachings.”

How many will remain loyal?

Just how loyal GenXers will be to a church that many of them see as too hierarchical and too authoritarian remains crucial not only to Call to Action’s future, but to that of the entire church. “Most of us feel a freedom not to be held under by an institution. We listen but we’re not tied down by the same struggles” that have engaged boomers and their elders in Call to Action, Sheber Howard said. “Our greatest hope is to work in our church. Our greatest pain is that there are so few opportunities.” As a student at a United Methodist seminary where her peers come from some 20 to 30 denominations, she’s seen “the glass ceiling” in Protestant churches too.

Sheber Howard, a member of Call to Action’s national board, is one of 12 young persons who have been meeting for the last three years to plan events for young singles, young marrieds and young people with families. The debate over where the organization should invest its efforts is ongoing in Colorado and across the nation, she said. “Do we grow in faith and spirituality as faithful Catholics? Do we affirm all the foundation statements? Or does it make more sense to put our energy and resources into alternative models of church?” she asked.

“Many GenXers bring advanced degrees in theology to the debate. They’re used to thinking critically,” she said. They understand that “by limiting the public face of the church to celibate males, we’re limiting those who could be the church’s visible outreach,” she said. While younger Catholics agree that “Yes, Father can speak for them,” the priest’s view is but one view, Sheber Howard noted. We have learned from contextual theology that “the more reflections there are on the gospels, the richer we are for it.”

She and her husband, Jeff Howard, remain active in Call to Action because “We want a church that will be a home to our children,” she said.

“We want our children to know that the church we follow is modeled after Jesus who was so radically loving and radically inclusive.

“My dream,” she continued, “is that every member of the Catholic community would live more fully the gospel call to love in a radical way. All too often that kind of loving is left to a 12-member justice and peace committee.”

Should church leaders be panicked by the exodus of youth? “I think we ought to create a new liturgical position,” said a New Jersey priest who didn’t want his name used. “We need an official kisser -- someone designated to kiss all the young people goodbye as they leave the church on their Confirmation Day, few of them ever returning.”

The dozen GenXers who spoke with NCR all conveyed their need to stay in the church in one way or another in order to renew it. “The whole reason for reforming the church is fidelity to Jesus Christ. Where but in the Eucharist can one practice communion with Jesus Christ?” asked theologian Tom Beaudoin, who has written and spoken extensively about Gen-X Catholics.

Pieczynski is happy that the Next Generation members are “picking up the torch and re-energizing CTA.” Many in Call To Action await a new pontificate, hoping it will favor the ordination of married men and allow women to be full partners in the church’s sacramental ministry. At the same time, online discussions and the Chicago and Colorado retreats suggest that younger Catholics who’ve chosen to stay in the church will continue to be more interested in its justice agenda than its renewal agenda. As delighted as long-time Call to Action members are to have younger members aboard, they worry the Next Generation will not pursue Call to Action’s reform campaign -- begging the questions: What next? And who next?

Despite the vast decline in numbers of younger Catholics in the pews, Hawk in Nebraska believes that the Next Generation will continue to influence the direction of Call to Action and of U.S. Catholicism. She said, “The church is our culture. We are the church.”

A Call to Action movement in transition and wanting to attract younger folks must decide if its goal is to “build up the Kingdom of God and make our Catholic tradition more vital and rich, or is it to kick down the structure?” It’s as obvious as that, Stampolis said.

For Sheber Howard, rocking her babies high in the Rocky Mountains, “the Spirit of Jesus is alive” in GenXers. “We can effect change more than we think. Young people are working hard for renewal. We’re not left alone. We’re being directed.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000 [corrected 10/20/2000]