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.

Vatican II change frightened some people, cast others completely adrift, plunged many into blind resistance, yet "it energized the rise of another whole church" in the new ideas it mandated, she said. In its aftermath, though the essence remains -- "God is" -- old religious ideas are dying "slow and painful deaths" as they lose the support of the people.

For example, she said, the "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," one of the documents of Vatican II, defined church "as the people of God" and "moved the laity to a vision of church beyond hierarchy, beyond spiritual childhood, beyond being consumers of the faith to being the carriers of the faith." And today, she said, those people are making it clear "that they want their church open to women, open to homosexuals, open to married priests, open to women preachers, open to lay consultation."

Equally, the "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation" defined the place of scripture in Catholic formation and "re-energized all literary exegesis and all historical biblical scholarship," said Chittister. "Fresh encouragement raised new issues. If scripture has nothing at all to say on the ordination of women, on what basis do we use Jesus as our right to obstruct it?"

The "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" returned the liturgy of the church to the people of the church. The "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" moved the church "from an insular perspective" that stressed the division between sacred and secular to an institution committed to the transformation of society.

In its view of the clergy, Vatican II made "a screeching turn from medieval hierarchy to modern pastor" and redefined the bishop's role as "enabler" rather than power broker. For the Vatican, then, "to fly in the face of national conferences of bishops," or to overrule bishops' liturgical translations for their own countries, as it has recently done, "turns bishops into altar boys," Chittister said.

The document on religious life instructed religious to renew themselves autonomously within the social realities and the culture of their times. "Tensions surfaced," she said, "and trust me, they are with us still."

In other dramatic turnarounds, the lay state in the church began to be described as a vocation, and missionaries were put on notice that conversions were not to be forced but free.

Given that, "how long new native churches will tolerate Western formulations, Western interpretations, Western liturgical norms, and Western theological analysis is anybody's guess," Chittister said.

Vatican II documents stressed that Christians were to accept all "that is true and holy" in non-Christian religious and that conscience must be the primary determinant of religious conviction. Yet, she said "we read every day that someone somewhere must come to grips with coercion.

"People do not question because they reject the church. They question the church because they love it. In its documents, the church has created an ideal which it then does not always itself seek," Chittister said.

Martin Luther, Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton "did not question because they did not believe what the church taught," declared Chittister. "They questioned because they did believe it. And," she said, to a roar of approval, "that's what happened to you and me."

Outside the meeting, signs of bitter divisions afflicting the church surfaced. For example, the Los Angeles Times listed Tom Honore, a Call to Action board member, as a contact person and gave his phone number.

He had a dozen or so messages. One was a death threat.

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