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Austria’s ‘sacred experiment’ renews momentum for change


A kind of sacred experiment” was John Paul II’s blessing upon the Oct. 23-26 Dialogue for Austria, an official gathering of the Austrian Catholic Church.

The outstanding success of this experiment (NCR, Nov. 6) reminds us of the U.S. bishops’ 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit, and the spirit of hope it engendered.

The Dialogue for Austria was the culmination of a yearlong process of consultation that originally excluded internal church issues; Call to Action was the culmination of a two year process of hearings originally focused on justice in society. Both meetings, with strong lay participation, ended up applying principles of justice to the church’s own structures.

Each passed resolutions related to married priests, the ordination of women, an expanded role for laity, the primacy of conscience in sexual matters (particularly birth control), a more pastoral approach to homosexuals, and local participation in the selection of bishops.

Both meetings were convened by the bishops, with delegates mostly selected by them: sixty-four percent of Call to Action delegates in fact worked for the church and only 5 percent came from independent national church organizations. In Austria, Bishop Johann Weber of Graz-Seckau called the delegates a good mirror of that nation’s Catholics.

Both meetings had formal participation from freestanding renewal groups. In fact, our “We Are Church” cousins in Austria were OK’d by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal official.

In both cases, controversy swirled around internal church justice, not societal justice. While waiting to see the Austrian outcome, we can ask what happened to the mandate that emerged from Detroit.

Detroit’s Cardinal John Dearden, head of the 1976 Call to Action program, said he thought the U.S. bishops’ pastorals in the 1980s on peace and on economic justice were responses to resolutions passed in Detroit. The issuance of both pastorals followed wide consultations similar to the Call to Action process.

Even so, momentum for change inside the church was lost by 1978. Some officials in the Vatican and the U.S. bishops conference virtually killed the reform agenda, while allowing some peace and justice issues to go forward.

Looking back from 1986, noted church historian David O’Brien observed that “the bishops are far from being ready to accept the degree of collaboration involved in the Call to Action, while the need for building structures of shared responsibility remains clear to all who look.”

By 1978 almost all local diocesan Call to Action follow-up groups were shut down. Only the Chicago group remained, because it began without Cardinal John Cody’s blessing (Cody had no time for the whole Call to Action endeavor).

Can Detroit 1976 or Austria 1998 be recreated in the United States soon?

We can’t predict what the U.S. bishops or the next pope will do, but we can attest to the irreversible momentum for change. All the surveys of U.S. Catholics show support for the internal church changes recommended by Detroit in 1976 and Austria in 1998 by margins of two-thirds or more.

On the grassroots level of parishes and schools, we are moving toward a lay-led, lay-taught church at warp speed as the crisis triggered by priest shortages escalates. Laity are taking their baptism seriously and are aggressively pursuing the education needed for these ministerial roles. For 30 years there has been a blossoming of faith-based organizations working on peace, poverty, homelessness, the environment and global justice issues with lay people extensively involved in the work and in financial support. Many Catholics have taken seriously church social justice teachings.

Many U.S. church renewal groups, such as the Women’s Ordination Conference, CORPUS, Catholics Speak Out, the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church and Call To Action have helped produce a remarkably cooperative spirit within the U.S. renewal groups and with other “We Are Church” groups in 27 countries on 6 continents.

Four hundred and fifty U.S. groups are now listed in the collaborative national church renewal directory of groups supporting Call To Action’s 1990 Call For Reform -- these include church reform organizations, peace and justice groups, small faith communities, women’s groups, retreat centers and parish groups.

The strong lay parishioner base of the renewal movement is shown in a breakdown of the 3,500 attendees at last month’s Call to Action annual conference -- two-thirds lay and one-third religious, priests and bishops; 90 percent regular churchgoers; 70 percent active volunteers in their parishes; one-third are church employees.

If we take seriously the definition of the church as the people of God, then we need to look also to the people for the signs of the Spirit’s renewing presence, not only to the institutional leadership. Historically, change in our church has always come from the grassroots. It most likely will be a long process.

Detroit in ’76 and Austria in ’98 are significant. They give greater visibility to the transformation taking place in our midst.

Sheila and Dan Daley are codirectors of Call to Action.

  • Call to Action: http://call-to-action.org/
  • We Are Church: http://www.we-are-church.org/

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998