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Activists or Heretics? Call to Action Conference for Progressive Catholics

by Adam J. Lovinus

A thousand or so anti-war protesters assembled downtown outside the Midwest Express Center the Saturday evening before Election Tuesday, for what appeared to be an old-fashioned activist gettogether: Green Party candidates were out campaigning; there was jangly folk music playing; and freak-flags of all kinds were flying high as peace activist Cindy Sheehan took the podium to lambaste President Bush and his war.

At this particular rally, the crowd was made up of faithful, practicing Catholics.

The progressive arm of Catholicism had converged in Milwaukee for the annual Call to Action conference, the largest meeting of progressiveminded Catholics in the country. Sheehan, a former Catholic youth minister, was the headliner. More than 3,000 attended the three-day convention, participating in the various discussions, workshops, networking events, and prayerful meditations. Above all, Call to Action provides a chance for Catholics to openly voice dissent and frustration about Church leadership.

“It is difficult to be Catholic sometimes, trying to find a progressive parish,” says conventioneer Tara White, 31, of Madison, Wisconsin. “It is hard to stand up and ask questions in the Church.”

This is a shared sentiment of people at Call to Action, who clearly love their faith but find difficulty with some Church teachings and doctrine. At Mrs. White’s parish in Madison, the archdiocese made it mandatory for a tape recording that encouraged parishioners to vote “yes” on the gay marriage ban to be played before every mass. White did not agree with the ballot amendment because it did not fit her idea of Catholic social justice – but she could not discuss this with Church leadership.

Open discussion of these types of issues is the main scope of Call to Action. The annual convention is held in celebration of the anniversary of the most progressive moment in US Church history – the Bishops’ Justice Conference of October 1976 – when Church officials collaborated with Catholic laity in recommending reforms of the Catholic ministry in the US. This year, Call to Action turned 30 years old.

The 1976 Justice Conference was the Alpha and Omega of post-Vatican II idealism in the US Church. It was the culminating event of a two-year-long consultation embarked by US Bishops to draw a modernized consensus for Catholic ministry in contemporary American society. From 1974-1976 bishops compiled more than 800,000 Catholics’ recommendations for reforms in the Church. The input was categorized and then put to a vote before 1,351 Church-appointed delegates, and the findings were reported at the Justice Conference in Detroit by Cardinal Dearden, who hailed this collaboration as “a new way of doing the work of the Church in America.”

This new way of doing work would be short-lived. Bishops dissembled the delegacy and very few consensus reforms were adopted. But the delegacy would continue to assemble despite the lack of official support – this was the birth of Call to Action, which today has a membership of over 25,000 Catholic religious, laity and clergy, and 53 local chapters in the U.S.

David O’Brien, a church historian who helped organize the original Call to Action project, recalls that the progressive resolutions that came out of the 1976 conference made many Bishops nervous – particularly issues addressing homosexuality, women in priesthood, celibacy for clergy and contraception. Conservative interpretation of Vatican doctrine became the dominant paradigm. Bishops and clergy are under intense pressure to conform and can be silenced for espousing teachings deemed overly liberal.

“Faithful dissent” is the term used by CTA to describe Catholics disobeying Church doctrine in protest. “Heresy” is the term the Church uses, and known heretics are often expelled from the Church by order of the Vatican – a process called excommunication. CTA walks a dangerous line in the Catholic Church.

The Milwaukee Archdiocese epitomizes this standing conflict between Catholic progressives and Church authority. Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, a dyed-inthe- wool Vatican conservative, regards the CTA as “groundless and invalid – totally outside the bounds of Church teaching.” In his column in the August 27 Catholic Herald Dolan writes: “People ask why I ‘allow’ Call to Action to meet in Milwaukee. This group, of course, hardly asks my permission, and pays little attention to what any bishop, including the Bishop of Rome, has to say.”

CTA invited Dolan to the Saturday evening peace rally, but he did not attend.

The bishop also did not attend the Sunday evening Liturgy conducted by Rev. Kathy Sullivan Vandenberg from Waukesha’s St. Mary’s parish. He recently petitioned the Vatican to excommunicate her from the Church for her dissenting actions.

Vandenberg and twelve other Catholic women participated in a simulated ordination on a riverboat near Pittsburg this past July 31. It was conducted by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a dissent movement that began on the Danube River in Europe four years earlier, and was the first women’s Catholic ordination to take place in the US. The Church considers women ordinations invalid, even though ordinations are said to have been conducted by unnamed male Catholic priests.

For Vandenberg and other Catholic women seeking clerical roles, it came down to a decision to either leave the Church or change it – follow their calling or follow the Pope. The week after her ordination, Bishop Dolan printed a letter condemning Vandenberg’s decision in the St. Mary’s bulletin, notifying the parish about her simulated ordination and her impending excommunication.

Outside at the peace rally, Cindy Sheehan called herself a “recovering Catholic” and laughter erupted among the crowd. Sheehan had been active for years in her parish as a youth minister, but left the Church in frustration.

“The Church has failed us on social justice issues,” Sheehan told conventioneers. “We have to have faith in ourselves – everything good in history came through grassroots movements by the people.”

Unfortunately for Catholic progressives, grassroots movements within the Church are met with a love-it or leaveit mentality by the powers that be. Most leave on their own terms like Sheehan, while others, like Vandenberg, are forced out.

Riverwest Currents online edition – December, 2006