Editor's note: Sister Joan Chittister is a Beliefnet columnist (view columns).

August 24, 2001--In the closing hours of Call To Action's conference here (Aug. 5), three women unfolded for an audience of 600 their assessments of the American Catholic condition.

In combination, it was a riveting challenge and bold confrontation.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, in her first speech to a large audience since her June 30 talk to the Women's Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin, Ireland, issued a warning to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

If bishops truly believe that it is the women, the mothers, who are the main transmitters of the faith, then they are wrong to neglect women's theological and pastoral education, she said.

During an impassioned reprise of the significance of the 12 major documents of Vatican II (1962-65), Chittister declared, "If I were a Roman Catholic bishop in this country, I would not be disturbed if Catholic women were throwing themselves on the steps of the cathedral begging to minister in the church. I would be disturbed that they had to go to Protestant seminaries for their theological and pastoral education.

"If," Chittister warned, "Roman Catholic dioceses continue to refuse to prepare women for participation in the church, I predict that this movement of Catholic women to Protestant schools of theology will significantly alter the shape of the church, the faith in the next 25 years.

"The passing on of the faith, the very preparation of the laity is all that guarantees that the church will always have the wings it needs," she said.

Dominican Sr. Mary Ann Mueninghoff, Call to Action president, suggested that a "frightened" institutional leadership puts its focus in the wrong places: "on what happens in our bedrooms," on gender-specific language, rather than on all the possibilities suggested by God's ongoing revelation.

"We hear frequent calls for a return to tradition," said Mueninghoff, but it is the tradition "only of the past 150 years, rather than of the whole, messy, chaotic, sometimes sinful and wonderful story of Christianity that's still taking its first steps in understanding that Jesus strove always to point to God."

Call to Action, an organization that advocates modernization of many church practices and teaching, is holding three "national conferences" this year. The Los Angeles gathering was the first. Next comes Philadelphia (Sept. 14-16), with more than 1,500 already registered, followed by Chicago (Nov. 2-4), where Call to Action is based and a large crowd is expected.

As many members of the U.S. hierarchy try to drive Call to Action out of town, the Los Angeles meeting was significant for the lack of local official Catholic comment. Some contrasted the silence of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles with attacks by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., and Archbishop John F. Donoghue of Atlanta.

Bruskewitz excommunicated members of Call to Action in his diocese in 1996. Donoghue recently warned his flock that Call to Action's activities "have no effect but to hurt the church, to overturn her traditions, rites and teachings. Any support given to this group is harm done to our church, perfected by the labors of generations of holy men and women."

It is the practice at Call to Action gatherings that when a new member signs up, a bell rings. Throughout the gathering here, there were periodic pings.

The third woman to speak was homilist Rosemary Johnston, program director at San Diego's Interfaith Shelter Network. She opened with the image of the labor of childbirth, of Sophia Pedro, the woman who, during the raging floods in Mozambique more than a year ago, gave birth in a tree. Sophia, said Johnston, "washed the face of disaster with her own birth waters, a stark reminder to all of us that new life cannot be thwarted."

Call to Action's midwives, she said, were the U.S. Catholic bishops themselves. "CTA was the fair-haired child of the national conference [of bishops] who sponsored a three-day bicentennial conference in 1976 in Detroit. It served as "a podium for the prophets of our times."

Before the meeting, bishops gathered information from "more than 800,000 people in 100 dioceses." Modeling "a new vision of policy development," they relied on open debate and collaborative decision-making at the meeting.

It was to be the last time, Johnston said. Resolutions that touched on priesthood, power and sexuality, that called for a married clergy, the ordination of women, local participation in selecting bishops, sacramental participation for divorced and remarried Catholics, and the acceptance of artificial contraception, met with the bishops' "stony silence."

"As a result, there hasn't been such an assembly convened by the bishops since," she said.

Chittister told the conference that at Vatican II "the world's bishops taught a whole new way of being church, and we believed it. . They taught equality -- and I believed it," she said.