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Issue Date:  November 19, 2004

Call to Action talks sex, science and the sacred

Editor’s note: We asked Jeff Severns Guntzel, who would qualify for a “Nextgen session,” to spend a day at the Call to Action conference held Nov. 5-7 in Milwaukee and record some personal impressions. He attended Saturday, Nov. 6.


As the day began, two women sat at a table in a hallway wide enough for a stadium crowd, programs and pens out, marking events that looked good. One sounded out the theme of the Call to Action conference like a schoolkid: “Sex, Sci-ence and the Sa-cred.”

The day’s workshops had already begun. The first round was prayer-centered. Meeting room doors were closed. The smell of incense crept out from under one door; the sound of drumming from behind another. In a cavernous room, Laylor Cadley, a spiritual director, retreat leader and occasional columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, introduced a slideshow of “images of God from women’s experiences” set to music.

Cadley repeated an exchange with her 7-year-old son at the breakfast table. He was eating Cheerios. She told him: “People actually think God is male.” This was a problem, she explained, because it tends to make women feel like “the other or less than …”

“You mean,” the boy asked, “like for centuries we’ve been looking at God with only one eye?”

That boy -- whose second greatest theological query was, “Do angels have onion breath?” -- did as good a job as any scholar or activist present that day at identifying the very thing Call to Action exists to challenge: a narrow interpretation of God and church.

And so, just four days after fundamentalist Christians and conservative Catholics handed a second term to President George W. Bush, 3,000 Catholics, ideologically and theologically on the other end of the spectrum from the much discussed and dissected “Christian right,” gathered in Wisconsin to affirm and to be challenged by a commitment to a more open Catholic and Christian vision.

* * *

The day was dominated by talk of exclusion in the Catholic church: ideas, science, ethnic groups, women, and gays and lesbians.

In the interest of inclusion Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza -- introduced as “the feminist theologian’s feminist theologian” -- laid out, with hundreds listening carefully, a vision for a “radical democratic church.”

The audience, as was the case throughout the day, was easy to read. It affirmed with a from-the-gut laughter that morphed into applause. When it was unsure, hushed mumbling.

“The vision of a radical democratic church,” Schüssler Fiorenza said, “insists that all of God’s people -- without any exception -- must be able to participate as full citizens in church and theology.

“It requires a feminist articulation of Catholic identity. By the ‘F’ word,” she said, “I mean a theoretic perspective and worldwide radical democratic movement that is inspired by the conviction that women are people.”

Laughter and applause.

“That is,” she added, “fully entitled and responsible citizens in society and religion.”

When she instructed the audience to “turn to your neighbor, tell them your definition of feminism and whether you are a feminist or not,” the room vibrated with a discussion she had to raise her voice and thump her microphone to stop more than a minute later.

She gave her definition, from a bumper sticker on her car: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

Laughter and applause.

She added: “Women are the people of God.

“However, this vision of a radical democratic feminist church which is inspired by Vatican II seems at this point in time an illusion. It seems to function as pie in the sky that keeps people in a church that is run more like the Roman Empire than the ecclesia of Christ.”

The clergy in Rome is morally bankrupt, she said. And the American hierarchy -- now more than ever -- is without religious or moral credibility.

“In the recent election campaign,” she said to grumbles from the audience, “bishops have made candidates’ positions against women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage the key issue of Catholic identity.

“Sexuality and not justice and peace appear as the central Christian values defining Catholic identity.

“No wonder I am most often asked: Why do you, as a feminist, stay in this church? Why do you still claim to be a Catholic theologian?

“These questions are serious challenges. But in my view they are wrongheaded because they presuppose the hierarchy is the church rather than that we, the people of God, are the church whom the hierarchy is called to serve.”

This seemed to surprise her audience. The sharp gut-laugh was replaced by a sort of nervous and hushed laughter. Then applause.

“I need to add something about how I use the word women,” Schüssler Fiorenza interjected, “I write wo/men and use it as inclusive of men.

“By using women as a generic I invite men in the audience to learn, like we women, to think twice and to ask whether they are meant or not when I speak of women. And I recommend this as a good spiritual exercise for the next hundred years or so.”

Laughter again and, again, applause.

* * *

Upstairs and down the hall from Schüssler Fiorenza, past workshops on “Erotic Relationships” and “Relearning Fidelity,” Daniel Helminiak, an ex-priest and a professor at the University of West Georgia who holds Ph.Ds in both theology and developmental psychology, was talking about orgasms.

“I want to talk about sexual arousal and orgasms,” Helminiak said. There was a bit of a giggle. “One of the things that strikes me when I read literature about spirituality and sexuality: Almost nobody talks about sex!”

And so he talked about sex: Humans have orgasms, he noted. We have intercourse outside the fertility phase. We face each other when we have sex. We “make love.”

“We know from anecdotal evidence and from experience that during sexual arousal and sexual experience there is this release of feelings, memories, images, fears, dreams.

“Somehow the sexual experience opens up the caverns of the psyche and these ghosts come out, and sometimes angels come out, and sometimes dreams come out. The physical reaction effects a psychological reaction that has meaningful importance. Body, psyche, spirit: that’s all part of the experience.”

This experience, Helminiak insisted, does not lend itself to a purely biological view of sex.

“Otherwise,” he said, “you are reducing human sex to animal sex.

“Of course,” he added, “the Catholic position is quite nuanced and it has allowed for the unitive as well as the procreative dimension. But if you read the document on gay marriage you would never know that there was a unitive discussion whatsoever in the Catholic church.”

Helminiak suggests an alternate indicator for judging homosexual and heterosexual sex: “Is it growth producing and wholesome and respecting of the nature of the human to human interaction?”

There needs to be some measure, he said, that takes into account the fact that “people are different and situations are different.”

“I work a lot with sexual minorities and their positions don’t square very easily with the monogamous eternal commitment of marriage.

“There are no simple blanket answers,” he said. “I think simple answers as if they came down from heaven are not helpful.”

It should come as no surprise that the author of What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality and Spiritual Quest: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth is not a regular at Catholic conferences. “I want to thank you for having me here,” he said, introducing himself. “I have, in 15 years, been invited to maybe three Catholic events.

“It is so ingratiating to think that someone might appreciate that some of us who have decided to take different paths do have something to contribute and still are able to share with our own, to be part of Catholicism.”

* * *

If the Catholic hierarchy, as Schüssler Fiorenza suggested, has made sexuality central to Christian and Catholic moral identity, the thousands attending and the handful presenting at Call to Action were eager to join in the discussion. Helminiak’s workshop was booked in a room too small. It was full. People sat in the aisle and on both sides. Latecomers were pushed up against the door in the back.

And later, in a ballroom set up for thousands, the day’s plenary, a talk on “Contemporary Christian Sexual Ethics” by Margaret Farley, a Sister of Mercy and a professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School, enjoyed what must have been near full attendance.

I stood at the entrance to the Midwest Airlines Center ballroom as a parade of thousands -- attendees, presenters, exhibitors and CTA organizers -- wormed their way to the day’s plenary address.

They were, above all, at least as old as the Second Vatican Council. They were mostly gray.

They were energetic and passionately engaged.

They were more women than men. They were overwhelmingly white.

Two wore priest’s collars: one was a man and one was a woman.

Two women wore Kerry/Edwards buttons. One man walked with a slight limp and carried a sign: “BISHOPS: CONDEMN THIS WAR.” Most were not decorated with buttons or slogans.

There were young people. They huddled tight in small groups or they were alone with somebody much older.

Farley’s address picked up on what may have been the most hammered-at subject that day: homosexuality. But she did not begin there. Her deconstruction of traditional Christian sexual ethics-- “a bit heady,” as one woman whispered to her friend at the end -- became more accessible when she broke from her script well into her lecture. “Moreover,” she said, still reading from her prepared remarks, “rigid views of male-female complementarity have been softened.”

“You know,” she said, interrupting herself, “I could read from my text here … but I want to say, the one thing that has called male-female complementarity in its rigid form into question: Finally we discovered that if you put a male and a female together they don’t automatically go off into the future because they’re so complementary!” With the last words she was running out of breath. From the audience: a knowing laugh.

“In fact,” she added, “ because they have been socialized differently, their major task is to overcome their non-complementarities!”

Laughter again.

She returned to her text.

“So long as the Christian tradition continued to justify sex primarily as a means for the procreation of children,” Farley said, “or sex in marriage primarily as a corrective to disordered sexual desire, there was little room for any positive evaluation of same-sex relationships and sexual activity. It would seem to follow, therefore, that when these perspectives were modified … a new and more positive Christian position on gay and lesbian relationships would emerge. This has happened among many of the faithful and clergy and in the writings of many moral theologians, but not necessarily in official church teachings.

“So despite important shifts … there is either little change in these official teachings … or there is terrible conflict.

“The procreative norm,” she explained, “has been relativized for heterosexual relations, but it returns when homosexual relations are the issue.

“The view of sexuality as fundamentally disordered is gone for heterosexual sex, but it reappears as strong as ever in judgments about gay and lesbian sex.

“And today,” she added, “we have this strange perception that gay marriage is a threat to the very concept of marriage.”


Next, she is onto a proposal for a framework of Christian sexual ethics. The task, she said, is first “to discern what justice means in human relationships.”

“If we get some clarity on that, then we may turn back to ask what justice may mean in the sphere of our sexuality. ... We know very well there are wise loves and foolish loves, good loves and bad loves, true loves and mistaken loves. The question ultimately is: what is a right love, a good love?

“The articulation of norms of justice will begin to answer this question for these will be the norms of a just love.”

“The principle of truth-telling, of promise-keeping, respect for privacy are fundamental to an adequate sexual ethics.

“Mutuality of desire, mutuality of action, and mutuality of response” are essential.

“Some form of commitment … including sexual commitment.

“In a Christian Catholic sexual ethic, we will no doubt want to add norms such as faithfulness, forgiveness, patience, hope -- which are essential for relationships between persons, especially within the faith community of the church.”

Returning to the question of gay and lesbian relations, Farley concluded with this: “I would want to argue that the norms that I have tried to delineate for a just love in sexual relationships are the same for heterosexual and for homosexual relations.

“So I’m shifting the question about same-sex relations from the one everybody tries to argue about -- whether they can be good to when they can be good: under what conditions, with what criteria. Neither heterosexual or homosexual relations can be automatically justified or condemned. Both have criteria for moral justification.”

And there is a responsibility for the church and society: “Just as gays and lesbians can and must claim social justice from their society … and security against violent attack or prejudice,” Farley concluded, “so gays and lesbians can claim justice from their churches, in support of themselves and their efforts at living out their lives together.”

This was theory. Out the door, up an escalator, past a perfectly Milwaukee photo exhibit of polka culture (there was a sign and a button: “Push here to play polka!” Somebody had, and “The Rainbow Valley Polka” was playing from speakers hidden somewhere in the wall), there was a workshop called “Whom God Has Called Together: Same-Sex Marriage,” led by Brendan Fay, who introduced himself to a full room as a “recently-married, openly-gay, Irish-American immigrant.” He is a Catholic. Fay had with him a documentary made for Irish television. It was his wedding to his partner Tom Moulton in a New York City Protestant church. Two women, perhaps in their 60s, talked before the workshop began. “Do you have any gay friends?” one woman asked the other. A pause. “Well, no.”

Fay got right to the film. Two people in love. Preparing for a wedding. Each scene was familiar and even mundane. But these were two men. There was no perceivable hesitation in the audience. People gasped and then laughed at Brendan’s ring panic. He hadn’t lost it.

When the two lovers exchanged vows on the screen, two young women in the audience, sitting near the back, held each other and kissed. An older woman behind them looked at the man next to her to see if he had noticed. He had.

“There is a danger,” a man on the screen said, “that we get so caught up in individual acts that we miss the love.”

After the vows, Fay and Moulton faced their friends and family. In New York and Milwaukee they applauded.

There is a palpable relief, almost giddiness, throughout the day that such difficult and normally controversial conversations are happening unfettered. The next morning, at my hotel, I overheard a man who must have been older than 60 discussing the previous day with fellow conference attendees, both women. He had a thick East Coast accent: “Think about it, a bunch of 70-year-olds sitting around and talking about sexuality. Ha!”

There was, of course, more to it all than that. And there were young -- or younger -- people. They came together at the end of the day when most of the conference attendees shipped off for dinner. There was a meeting of people between the ages of 18 and 42. The group called itself “Nextgen.” They were, literally, Call to Action’s next generation. Seats in the meeting room were arranged in “fishbowl” style: three circles, each inside another, the smallest consisting of just four chairs.

The unusual arrangement, organizers said, accommodated introverts and extroverts alike. The extreme extroverts, of which there are always some but never many, took the innermost chairs first. The facilitator took one too. In the innermost seat you had a license to speak when you felt moved to do so. When you were done, you moved to an outer ring and somebody else moved in. If a person sitting outside the inner circle wanted to speak, they simply tapped an inner-circle person on the shoulder and an exchange was made. It was a sort democratic retooling of musical chairs.

Before anybody had shown up for the “Nextgen” meeting the room felt different from any other in the conference center. Call to Action regulars -- old and energetic -- stood outside the room looking in: “This should be exciting,” one of them said.

As the room began to fill up with Catholics older than 18 and younger than 42, some of those who did not qualify trickled in also. Two women who looked to be in their early to mid-50s sat in the outer ring. After a few minutes, they were approached by a “Nextgen” organizer, who leaned close and spoke softly. “Thank you for your support of Nextgen,” she said. Then she asked them to leave. The women were surprised. Clearly offended. Maybe even hurt. It reflected the desire of the group, the organizer said. Soon after, two more women were spotted and approached. Whispers. They grabbed their purses and walked out, confused.

Over the course of the next hour, as a conversation unique for its deliberate intimacy unfolded in the room, several older attendees tried to come in. They were turned away with the same compassionate stubbornness with which the four had been ejected early on.

The conversation began with a simple question: What relationships and events helped shape or form your spirituality?

Mostly, it was those closer to 18 than 42 who spoke. The conversation began, predictably, with talk of the walls between parent and child. But the conversation broadened in brief spurts, carried carefully by the invited facilitator and Sunday’s plenary speaker, Clarissa Pinkola Estés (who received a pass on the room’s age restriction). Soon “Nextgen” participants were talking about birth control, abortion and civil disobedience.

One woman, an artist, felt a frustrated call to join the priesthood. A man wondered how to handle his family who had voted -- all of them -- for Bush.

“My parents are big into social justice,” one woman said, “but homosexuality is not something they ever spoke about. How is that not a justice issue?”

They quoted the Old Testament and Vatican II. They talked about art, resistance and excommunication.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a psychoanalyst who served Columbine High School and its community for four years following the 1999 murders there, asked questions and offered -- sparingly -- her own thoughts:

“How you know you are an activist is if you can take heat.

“The world is not getting worse, our consciousness is better.

“You are not alone.”

It was striking to see this room filled with the young people it had been so difficult to spot throughout the day wrestling passionately with the same issues as those they had shut out of their gathering. The tactic had clear value: After a day of listening to people speak and respond to one another in the language of distant generations, they were hearing each other and each other only.

I found something in my notes that Daniel Helminiak had said earlier: “We would embrace the universe, if ever we could free it.”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 2004

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