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A nod of gratitude to Call to Action at 25


The familiar rap on Call to Action is that it is a bunch of gray heads marching off into the ecclesiastical sunset, stubbornly held dreams in tow.

There is a certain truth to that. These are stubborn and mostly gray heads who have hung on for the past quarter century, and they were abundantly in evidence at Call to Action’s recent Chicago conference, one of three this year, to celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary (NCR, Aug. 24).

A certain truth, but such characterization is also a cheap shot, at least an incomplete picture. For one thing, this group is doing more than hanging on. In recent years, it has been growing rapidly. Since 1993, when its paid membership was 8,173, the numbers have jumped to 23,687 today, with a strong contingent of “next generation” members, those between ages 18 and 42.

Stubborn as they may appear at times -- and as difficult as they may make life for the hierarchy in some cases -- members of Call to Action have remained protectors of a dream that was once significant enough to occasion a worldwide meeting of the church.

It is a vision worth keeping even if, in the current dispensation, groups such as Call to Action find little favor in high places. Face it, that outsider role has a lot to do with the dynamics of institutional change. A reform group can’t expect to be named a personal prelature.

Granted, the Call to Action vision may not be as well defined as some would like. Call to Action never got to the well-defined part. In hindsight, it is easy to see how it never could, given the nature of the church and the powerful backlash, encouraged during the papacy of John Paul II, against the reforms and the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Tsk! Tsk! I can hear the murmur of disapproval in some quarters. “Far too simple a line, there,” they might say. “Too Manichaean a view. Things are much more complex.” Indeed, things are often more complex than quick analysis allows, but also often less complex than some would make them. I recall conversations I have had with young priests who have been in curial positions in the past 12 years, and there was little complexity to what they saw. The marching orders from the top were clear and those orders had little regard for the reform instincts of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and, in many cases, were aimed at reversing reform.

It is not surprising that change comes slowly to an institution that’s two millennia old. Looking back, it also is not surprising that change would not come immediately just because one generation of bishops and their theologians fought hard for it. But let’s not call what is happening now “evolution” or manufacture complexity where it doesn’t exist. Maintaining power has a lot to do with stalled renewal.

That’s where Call to Action becomes increasingly important. No Roman decree can interfere with this group of lay and religious gathered around the concerns of the day and a persistent yearning for renewal. This is the group that embodies what theologian Fr. Charles Curran described in his talk in Chicago as the discontinuity and continuity of change -- a people striving for a new understanding of church in the future but rooted in a tradition for which they have a genuine love.

Curran recalled that his mentor, theologian Fr. Bernard Lonergan, would ask, “What happened at Vatican II? What was behind all the changes? We had the same scripture, we had the same history, we had the same traditions we always had. What changed?”

And Lonergan’s answer was: “The way we looked at all those things changed.”

We moved from the view that everything about the church is forever immutable and unchanging to a new understanding, expressed in the Vatican II documents, that sees the church in a far more dynamic relationship to the world and the events of history.

As keynote speaker Sr. Joan Chittister described the organization in an interview, Call to Action members “refuse to allow the questions on the agenda to go away quietly. They insist that the church face the questions that every Catholic on every street corner faces every day. They are faithful to the notion of the work of the Holy Spirit in the total church.”

Call to Action is certainly not the whole church. Lots of people fly their spiritual lives below the trajectory of such issues, seeking calmer space and ignoring the hierarchy altogether or seeking spirituality in place of religion.

Unless the institution disappears, however, the questions will remain and eventually will have to be answered. In the meantime, there are few places where Curran, Chittister and Fr. Richard McBrien, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sr. Mary John Mananzan of the Philippines, Bernard Cooke and Jesuit Frs. Joseph Brown and John Dear appear under one roof. Some of the above are simply not welcome in many dioceses. In other cases, the topics they discuss are the ones the Vatican has forbidden us to talk about. All of them raise a healthy challenge to lazy Catholicism and Christianity lite.

When those discussions become acceptable in the mainstream church, as they certainly will, we will all owe a deep debt of gratitude to the stubborn crowd who refused to let the dream die.

Tom Roberts is NCR’s editor. His e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001