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Heartening discussion of church future

Who are the new Catholics?

Who will be going to church in 10 or 20 years?

Everyone in the Catholic world is asking those questions. The answers will probably become apparent in some future sociology project of extensive and extended proportions. Yet the discussion is underway, and has been for some time, in many corners of the church, including, fittingly, Call to Action, the long-standing Catholic reform group.

What irony that the group of Catholics now in its middle to late years, arguably one of the most religiously literate, deeply involved and committed groups in church history, sees such uncertainty for the church’s future in the generations immediately following.

If the elders made a habit of loving to hate institutions, of arguing with the large structures and systems that govern their lives, the younger set simply ignores them and finds ways to quietly coexist. The older group still wants to change the rules; the younger ignores those they don’t like.

Of course, some rules, like the ban on women priests or married clergy, can’t be ignored. So the younger generation either learns to live with the rules or goes elsewhere. Lots of them, apparently, have been walking.

The reasons for the drop-off in allegiance to institutions in general and the church in particular emerge from a wide range of disciplines. The reasons are theological, cultural, political, and they are entwined in issues of gender and notions of freedom and spirituality that may be alien to those formed in faith in the light of the 1960s Vatican Council II.

Given all the competing tugs and pulls, it is heartening to learn of the growing discussion taking place within the membership -- young and old -- of Call to Action. The Chicago-based group has served a distinctive and necessary role in the U.S. church for the past quarter century as a haven for those who want open discussion of important church issues.

Those whose voices have been silenced in other arenas, thinkers whose ideas have been scrubbed from the agendas of church-sponsored symposia and conferences, ordinary Catholics who have heard one too many boring homilies or who feel beaten down by the Vatican pronouncement mill, all have found a rejuvenating welcome at Call to Action.

As Call to Action in recent years has faced the question, “Who will carry on?” it became clear the answer is not a simple one.

It is, however, an answer worth pursuing in all its complexity, and Call to Action is an appropriate setting. The organization, a safe harbor as well as a place of adventure, has taken its share of licks from conservatives and even some liberals in the church. It is an easy target. It remains, though, the only large gathering that provides a healthy atmosphere for discussion and debate in this time when so much is forbidden in other church venues. The current invitation to New Generation Catholics and the ongoing conversation is further sign of the organization’s health and maturity.

That conversation and the bold, hopeful exhortation by theologian Tom Beaudoin to younger Catholics to consider Vatican II’s call to “full, conscious and active participation” in their church, his pleading for intergenerational reconciliation and wish for blessing and empowerment of young Catholics are powerful and encouraging impulses. They deserve to be taken seriously and encouraged.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000