Saturday, May 31, 2008

Catholic activists mark end of an era

By Margaret Ramirez
Chicago Tribune
May 31, 2008

In the late 1970s, with memories of Vietnam still raw and the Cold War raging, hundreds of activists rallied in peace and justice movements, pressing the government for change.

Here in Chicago, a former priest and a former nun saw a chance for similar activism within the Roman Catholic Church. In 1976, Dan and Sheila Daley launched Call To Action, a group of Catholics seeking to act out God's vision in society and hold leaders accountable.

Bold and controversial from the start, Call To Action made history as the first lay group to publicly question the church's prohibitions on birth control, women's ordination, homosexuality and celibacy for priests. Its actions paved the way for other reform groups, including Voice of the Faithful and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Along the way, many church leaders branded the group's members as dissidents and rebels, with one conservative bishop punishing Nebraska members with excommunication.

Now the group's founders have announced they will retire this fall as co-executive directors of Call To Action after 32 years. Though a horrific 2006 collision that permanently injured Sheila Daley was a factor in the decision, the married couple, both 65, say the time is right to pass the movement to younger Catholics.

"It's younger people who are going to have to put the flesh on a new way of being 'church' in today's world," Sheila Daley said in the group's Roscoe Village offices. "And I don't think it just means changing the institution. I think it's how you live your life today."

The question is whether the next generation will take up the call. Many of the Catholic priests and laypeople who pushed for more far-reaching change after the Second Vatican Council are now 60 or older. In addition, church activists see the papacies of Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, as bringing church reform to a near-standstill. Because of that, some observers think the couple's exit may signal the end of an era.

"What we're seeing today with Catholics under 40 is, frankly, the reason they're not joining groups like Call To Action is not because they agree with the bishops. It's because they don't care," said Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.

"Younger people are simply leaving the church, rather than stay and try to reform it."

Call To Action's efforts did not bring about changes in church teaching but did help change attitudes, said Terrence Tilley, theology professor at Fordham University in New York.

Several polls have shown that many American Catholics agree with the group's liberal positions.

"We live in a post-progressive church where many of the progressive goals have been met not by the church, but by the attitudes of American Catholics," Tilley said. "If they are young, many of them are perfectly happy to have married priests and to have women ordained. . . . The bishops' positions are very clear, but they are generally ignored, especially those having to do with contraception."

In the next era, church activism will probably take a different shape and adopt a different agenda, he said.

With a national search under way for a new leader of Call To Action, the group's younger members—known as Next Generation or "NextGen"—already have begun to shape the future of reform.

Nicole Sotelo, 30, Call to Action's program coordinator, said NextGen members recently created a group on Facebook, the popular Internet meeting place. In May, they also launched a blog for young Catholics at

"I think many young Catholics have not found the church to be a welcoming place, and they have left. So we're trying to reach them," she said.

Sotelo said future battles for Call To Action will focus on monitoring sexual abuse reforms, fighting racism in the church and protecting the environment, which is the theme for this year's convention, to be held Nov. 7-9 in Milwaukee.

The idea for Call To Action originated in a 1976 bishops conference in Detroit that sought to determine the mind of the church on various issues. The bishops discussed several propositions, yet ultimately reiterated their authority.

When Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit closed the conference and told participants to implement the ideas at home, the Chicago contingent took him seriously and formed Call To Action.

"It wasn't just us," Sheila Daley said. "It was a lot of people like us who were trying to figure out: How do you live out your Christian commitment in this contemporary world? We had tried traditional religious life as options and found those didn't function for us. So this was really a way of trying to search out a new model."

Call To Action members started their work locally, forming a performing arts ministry and organizing an annual conference that would become the largest progressive Catholic gathering in the country. The group shifted gears and expanded nationally after the Vatican, under Pope John Paul II, began disciplining theologians who strayed from church teaching.

By 2002, Call To Action had become well-known in Catholic circles for its activism, which some admired and others abhorred. Their movement gained credibility when the sexual abuse scandal exploded on the scene and exposed cover-ups by church leaders, and church observers said Call To Action provided fertile soil for other reform groups to grow.

Today, the group includes 25,000 members in the U.S. and Canada.

But if you ask what the founders believe has been their greatest accomplishment, Sheila Daley said it is creating a place for progressive Catholics to find community.

"I think we have been a very significant support to people who are trying to live out this kind of vision of their Christianity and Catholicism and have felt isolated and alone," she said. "Through us, they have found other people that they can gather with who have that similar vision. That's almost the most important thing."

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