The call to build FutureChurch was the rallying cry of 3,500 Catholic dissidents at the 1995 Call to Action conference held in Chicago this past November. For an orthodox Catholic taking a firsthand look at this subculture that threatens to form an “American Catholic Church,” the open, aggressive rebellion unleashed in session after session is sobering.
Call to Action is an outgrowth of the 1976 U.S. Bishops’ Conference held in Detroit under the subtitle “CALL TO ACTION.” At that conference delegates from around the country were invited to address the U.S. bishops concerning local parish life, social issues, and the future direction of the Church in America. Dan and Sheila Daley, former religious, cofounders and current codirectors of Call to Action, took the title of the bishops’ conference and began a grassroots networking organization whose stated purpose is: “To accept our responsibility to reinvent the Church from the ground up—modeled on an American charism; the spirit of open consultation, the new way of being Church in America.”
“If the institutional church won’t meet our needs we’ll do it ourselves. We’re not asking permission anymore,” snapped Anthony Padovano, the eloquent and witty president of Corpus, a national organization for married priests, during the opening address.
Padovano insists that CTA members are called to heal the body of Christ wounded by “structures of domination” and “systems of hierarchies” imposed by the “pathologic” popes Gregory VII, Innocent III, and Boniface VIII. Padovano himself has a pathologic dislike for Pope John Paul II and has suggested initiating an “impeachment process.”
Styling himself as a latter-day Luther, with a brief acknowledgment to Luther’s “other problems,” he comforted the CTA members by saying that they tread the same noble path followed by earlier disaffected pilgrims. This former priests’ exhortation to “rock the barque of Peter” brought clamorous applause.
At an earlier focus session, Bernard Cooke, guru of small community development, set forth CTA’s long-range plan, which features four concurrent tracks:
- Leadership for the Future—identify and train high school leadership for FutureChurch roles. Nurture the brightest in CTA small faith communities; groom them to seek power positions in twenty years. Using the model of “New Germany” training camps for young men, Cooke explained that these young men later formed the leadership of the Adenauer government. Citing Acts 2, “old men dream dreams, but the young are recruited to carry out those visions,” he proposed university “formation centers” staffed with CTA members to provide support, money, and friendship for student leaders.
- Grass Roots Formation—develop methods of fostering small faith communities as part of a worldwide decentralization process. “John Paul knows the Church is dividing into grassroots communities—that’s why he bounces around from country to country,” Cooke said. “The old model church of trickle-down holiness with talent at the top is the church of the past.” Small faith communities will provide books, videos, and mission events to “re-convert” the people to a “spirit of Vatican II,” which is horizontal and communal, not hierarchical. Small faith communities will become the primary source of liturgy.
- Communications—assume the role of shaping public opinion. “Capitalism is not the new gospel; capitalism was the third temptation of Christ, and the American Enterprise Institute is not the sole arbiter of American sociological and economic opinion,” said Cooke. CTA will create its own think tank staffed with America’s brightest to do battle with the best the opposition can offer. CTA will make creative use of all communications technology to create whole information systems. “Whose ideas will control the future? Mother Angelica is not the wave of the future!” Cooke declared.
- Liturgy—though progress has been made with vernacular and priests facing people, “We still don’t know we are the sacrament. The real presence is ourselves. Bread and wine are only instruments of Eucharist,” said Cooke. The whole dimension of liturgy must be inclusive, not just church, but neighborhood and home. CTA will create the liturgies people need. “We will have to proceed carefully. Liturgy is the critical element in the formation of FutureChurch.” Create liturgies that are relevant to each community’s shared experience.
It is no accident that the CTA plan resembles the strategy of old-style communists, complete with cell groups and infiltration techniques. Gray heads predominated in the hallways and at the podiums. The average participant was a sixty-something ex-nun, ex-priest, social worker, diocesan employee, or academic. They had spent their early careers promoting leftist agendas, liberation theology, and protesting the Vietnamese War. The cold war is over, but old habits die hard. Few have a business background, and most are dependent upon parish, diocese, government social programs, or grants for employment. They are vein-popping mad with Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the Christian Coalition, and John Paul II, whom they regard as a pre-Vatican II troglodyte.
They insist that a democratic model be adopted as a replacement “system” for the hierarchical magisterium. Their goal is the surrender of all ecclesial authority to a constitutionally based institution. Properly constituted, their “church” decisions would come from a “horizontal consensus, not an hierarchical domination.” The pope, as bishop of Rome, would serve as a visible symbol of Catholic unity, but divested of power beyond that of any other bishop. His role is seen much as the English monarch’s role—a beloved elder figure with no teeth.
Goddess worship, augmented with Hindu and Buddhist precepts, figure prominently in the “wholeness” CTA adherents seek. Given the acrimonious disaffection Bishops Gumbleton and Luker feel for John Paul II, one is nonetheless stunned they would officiate at a conference featuring Matthew Fox and his “Seven Chakras of Creation Spirituality.”
This ritual stars a priestess-prostitute who guides mankind into a form of self-impregnation in order to spiritually re-create oneself as a goddess-woman, or a god-man, raised to a higher consciousness, at one with the universe. When a former priest was asked how he could affiliate with such practices, he shrugged, “Other faith traditions lend valuable perspective if not abused.”
A dozen barefoot women in diaphanous white gowns “moved liturgically” to rhythmic drums down the isles of the hotel ballroom. They carried bowls of water in which they dipped bunches of chrysanthemums to sprinkle the swaying crowd. On the dais, magnified by three giant TV screens, various ablutions took place as more women arrived bearing potted plants and trees. The processional complete, the speaker praised the sacrifices made by Hunthausen, Kung, Rahner, and Boff, and praised Pope John XXIII for “opening the windows of the Church in which you will now fling open the doors in compassion for all!”
“Our model for reform is Jesus—a reforming radical!” Wild cheers.
“Paul was a reformer. Francis of Assisi was snubbed by the pope. Who does the world remember? Innocent III or Francis?” Even wilder cheers.
“You have been summoned! You won’t be forgotten!” Pandemonium.
Saturday’s round of focus sessions began with Mary Hunt’s “Where Reform Meets Revolution.” Hunt, a specialist in “feminist theology of friendship,” delivered the predictable sermon about patriarchy. Drinking coffee between sessions a woman explained, “The Church fears women because of celibacy. Men without women fear women.”
Coming on the heels of that enlightenment, Richard Schoenherr’s session “Goodbye Father: Celibacy and Patriarchy in the Catholic Church” was anti-climactic. “What is the root cause of malaise in the Church?” Celibacy. Schoenherr, a sociologist, analyzes the current shortage of priests and its short-term future effect on Catholic practice: the Church must choose—either it will guarantee our baptismal right to the sacraments or insist on a male, celibate priesthood. The choice will have to be made as the shortage of priests will force the issue. The obvious solution to the aging and overburdened priesthood is to ordain married men and return former priests, now married, to ministry.
There is a buzz of excitement. People are leaving this session to run to ballroom “C.”
“Come see Edwina,” a cherubic Midwesterner invites, “she is simply outstanding.” In the adjoining hall Edwina Gateley, on a stage built for the purpose, is dramatically angry. Well-rehearsed lines reveal that Mary Magdalene was “not demon possessed, don’t you know. Not a prostitute either me dears, but depressed by the oppressive Jewish patriarchal religious authority! Jesus gave her permission to be herself you see, and she was healed.”
Out in the lobby displays of eco-feminist idols on T-shirts vie with sales of the book The Alabaster Jar, a story of the marriage of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, whose son carries the Davidic line into France where the Knights Templar protect the line of succession. In the coffee shop two fiftyish nuns in street clothes kindly share their small table.
“We saved all year to come here. Our work is in an inner-city neighborhood in New Jersey. The children are afraid as they walk to school. The Republicans will make things worse. That’s why we support Clinton.” Sister Georgette’s eyes sought the approval of Sister Jane. “Parishes are too big now. I’m interested in small faith liturgies and healing the brokeness I see every day,” offered Sister Jane, S.S.J.
On the book tables between concourses no Catechisms were for sale. No Veritatis splendor for sale here. In snatches of conversations the buzz words “small collectives,” “John XXIII community,” “oppression,” “personalist theology,” “empowerment,” “freedom of will,” and “sensitivity” fall from the mouths of men and women who look like Grandma and Grandpa America. A young former priest, now a pastoral counselor, smiles in recognition.
“You were disturbed by Cooke’s comment that ‘We are the Real Presence—the Eucharist is the medium.'” Walking toward the escalator he attempts to be reassuring, “We play games with the theology of the Eucharist. When I was in seminary we hypothesized: if a drunken priest wanders into a bakery and says the words of consecration over all that bread, is it the Body and Blood ?”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I think. No. First you tell me what you think. Is it your faith that transforms the bread, or a formula spoken not in faith, but part of a rote benediction?”
At the top of the escalator he headed for “Rent a Priest: Solutions for a Priestless Parish.” Next door, Robert Ludwig and his “Reconstructing Catholicism for the Next Generation” was full except a few chairs at the back. Generation X is alienated from the Church, which has no better credibility than a corporation. Christianity has become Churchianity, and “the kids won’t buy that bull any longer.” Sexism, elitism, and repression of free will. Since the sixties the old regime of fear and guilt is over—you are free to choose: sexuality, abortion, even ordination, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Young people, supposedly, want experiences, not rubrics. Buddhists have methods to bring on religious experiences. The West is too attached to the means—books, candles, texts. We are missing the experiential dimension.
From the open microphone a rare under-thirty attendee laments: “I facilitate youth ministry at a local campus. We lose members to a fundamentalist organization. What experiences are they having ?”
During the plenary session participants are grouped by state. A twinkly-eyed man in his sixties introduces himself.
“Hi. I see you looking at my button.” A large button advertising “Rent a Priest” is pinned to his chest.
“Are you an ex-priest?”
“I am a priest. But I am married.” This man was immediately likable.
“It’s not about sex. It is about loneliness.”
“It’s a long saga.”
A woman pursues a young priest. His pastor has elected not to reassign his daily Mass schedule. Appeals to the bishop brought cynical advice: “Have your fling, son, and get it out of your system.”
Dissenters see sex as an authority issue—a violation of their free will. Straining every nerve to deny biology, they insist that gender is a matter of choice, like abortion, and that sexual roles are an artificial construct of a repressive Judeo-Christian culture.
Scurrying along the sky bridge between presentations, a silver-haired woman catalogs her career years as a NASA mathematician and teacher. Well groomed, she wears a large crystal cross.
“My sensitive young friend gave this to me. We’ve been friends a long time. Purely platonic. He’s gay.”
“Wouldn’t you prefer a crucifix?”
“Not especially. No, actually. There is prism power in the crystal.”
“I sense that makes you uncomfortable. Or is it the gay friend that makes you uncomfortable?”
“Both. How do you defend homosexual practice in light of the clear scriptural prohibition?”
She dismissed Sodom and Gomorrah as part of the Old Testament and when pressed on Romans declared, “Scripture scholars are looking into those problematic texts.” Identifying her own lesbian preferences as a “gift from God,” who does not expect the gift to go unopened, she was nonplused to have the same analogy applied to pedophiles.
Acceptance is the preeminent value among participants at the meeting. There is no talk of worshipping God in the manner he has revealed as his will. Instead, mutating liturgies reflecting a particular “felt need” of the community are substituted. In the halls, restaurants, and shuttles there is no talk of grace, sin, repentance, judgment, heaven or hell—an actualized, empowered self has little need of these. The tacit agreement is “you accept my warp, and I’ll defend your bent, no matter whether I believe it to be right.”
Sin is always corporate, never personal. The only personal sin is “participating in my own oppression.” Societal sins against social justice and the environment are abhorred while one’s personal choice of lifestyle, abortion, or abandonment of vows is warmly affirmed. Call to Action members refuse all calls to repentance, demanding instead the Church grant an imprimatur to clearly sinful behaviors.
The final plenary session speaker was Sister Sandra Schneiders. Best described as a post-Christian with a Catholic veneer, Sister Sandra espouses a “pluriform” Christianity. Schneiders, a professor of New Testament Studies at Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, authored New Wineskins: Re-Imagining Religious Life Today. Her address, entitled “How Feminist Interpretation of Scripture Is Helping to Renew the Church” is an alarming display of intelligence gone awry.
If she, or her confederates, were made a popess of The American Catholic Church, whole chapters of “problematical texts” would be jettisoned. If what you feel conflicts with what you know, your thinking is adjusted to fit your feelings—just invent a new body of “knowledge.”
All of Scripture is recast to fit feminist theology, complete with sacred sodomy, in a bare hour’s time. Some samples: “God is more than two men and a bird”; “Not only Christ the King, but Jesus the Mother hen”; “Scripture is violently sexist—the problem is in the texts”; “we reject a woman made from man, subject to man, responsible for his sin”; “terror texts (Judges 19) paralyze women”; “the Bible becomes its own critic disallowing all texts that contradict the message of liberation”; “Jesus is a Sophia Incarnation.”
The concluding “mass” is too painful for these pages. It is enough to report that only at the words of consecration did a man appear on the “altar.” Bishop Gumbleton strode to the table in his street clothes and spoke the words to The Ultimate One. Only women were vested. Peasant bread was blessed and made available at the isle terminus for communicants to break off and pass back to the next in line.
A frail septuagenarian hand held mine as we exited the hall.
“I feel so filled,” she exclaimed. “I believed quite differently when I was your age. But after years of injustice by the Church I came to see the wisdom of FutureChurch.”
“Yes. For years I was a professor at a Catholic university. I was repeatedly denied tenure while young men were granted tenure routinely. When my sister died I was the only support of my mother and my children. I believed that my situation was the same as a man with a family, yet I was still denied. That’s when I understood that patriarchy is a sinful structure.”
The feminist rhetoric was at odds with her cameo-adorned throat. Had tenure been granted would she prefer a Latin Mass today?
“That was a sinful administrator, not sinful church doctrine.”
She smiled, “But that is all I had redress to—the administrator, not the doctrine.”
Is there a real threat in CTA’s work for a FutureChurch? They believe the people in the pews will not resist once a few key bishops are dispatched. They know that the vast majority of Catholics are uncatechized and vulnerable to manipulation by appeals to the imputed “spirit” of Vatican II. The CTA regulars are manic, bright, and entrenched in dioceses around the country. They demand a reconfigured, demasculinized God so they can be feel free to release their inner divinity. They will serve no god but the god made in their image.
The barque of Peter has weathered many a storm and, may endure yet greater rages. Endurance we have been assured. It is how many souls we may lose at sea that is unknown.