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Catholic Group Based in Chicago Leads Protest Against Church
Jose More/Chicago News Cooperative
The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is divided on the ordination of women. The group Call to Action, based in Chicago, supports such a policy.
By DIRK JOHNSON
It’s a long way from the Vatican to Roscoe Village, but a group based in that North Side neighborhood is leading a high-profile protest among American priests that challenges the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on ordination of women.
A nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization providing local coverage of Chicago and the surrounding area for The New York Times.
The group, Call to Action, an organization for reform-minded Catholics, has collected signatures of more than 150 priests — including 8 in Chicago — on a petition defending a liberal priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who is being threatened with dismissal for his public support for ordaining women. In an increasingly conservative church, the rebellion has been hailed as a remarkable moment for liberals in the church.
“We just got on the phones and started telling priests, ‘We’ve got to support Father Roy,’ ” said Nicole Sotelo, 33, a leader of Call to Action, which bills itself as the nation’s largest organization for reform-minded Catholics.
The Rev. Bill Kenneally, who lives in the Beverly neighborhood on the South Side, is among the protesters. Father Kenneally, the 75-year-old retired pastor of St. Gertrude’s Church and volunteer at St. Barnabas Church, said he “and a majority of priests, truthfully” do not agree with the church’s “vapid reasoning” for excluding women.
Father Kenneally said he is unfazed by possible reprisals. “Since I’m retired,” he said, “it’s not like they can take a church away from me.”
The protest orchestrated by Call to Action underscores the role that Catholic culture — orthodoxy and dissidence — has played for generations in shaping the intellectual life and politics of Chicago. Only once have voters elected a non-Catholic mayor — Harold Washington — in the more than 75 years before Rahm Emanuel, who is Jewish, won a landslide victory this year.
Nuns have also held powerful positions in Chicago public life. Sister Sheila Lyne served as commissioner of public health under Mayor Richard M. Daley, while Sister Catherine Ryan headed the juvenile division at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office under Richard Devine. Writers, including the Rev. Andrew Greeley and Eugene Kennedy, a former priest, as well as John Powers, have given rich voice to Chicago cultural and Catholic issues (and in Father Greeley’s case, contributed to some steamy romance novels).
Catholic activists marched in the city’s streets to protest the Vietnam War and racism. Social activism within the church during the 1960s prompted many priests and nuns to walk alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even as insults — and at least one brick — rained down from angry onlookers.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was a leading national voice in opposition to the death penalty.
These days, the Rev. Michael Pfleger invokes the Catholic mission and obligation in pushing for social causes that serve the poor and reach out to blacks, even as his style sometimes draws the wrath of his boss, Cardinal Francis George.
While the city also has many conservative Catholics, perhaps no organization in Chicago with a Catholic identity has been more direct, or far-reaching, than Call to Action in making the case for wholesale reform within the church itself. Besides the ordination of women, the group calls for equal rights for gay men and lesbians, giving priests the option to marry and accepting back into the fold divorced Catholics who have remarried.
Call to Action has also focused on protecting church workers, citing cases of Catholic employees’ being dismissed for holding views contrary to Vatican orthodoxy or belonging to organizations like Planned Parenthood deemed unacceptable by the hierarchy.
Although many Chicago priests and nuns belong to the group, Cardinal George has kept his distance. “The archdiocese has no relationship with Call to Action,” said Susan Burritt, the spokeswoman for the Chicago Archdiocese, “and therefore has no comment on Call to Action’s policies or statements.”
That position contrasts sharply to the attitude of Cardinal Bernardin, according to Msgr. Ken Velo, who was his personal assistant.
“It is a very different church than it had been when Cardinal Bernardin died 15 years ago,” said Monsignor Velo, now an administrator at DePaul University. “Cardinal Bernardin’s style was collaborative. He was a true believer in church teachings, but at the same time he understood that people had varying viewpoints. And he was respectful of their views. He wanted to learn from them.”
Call to Action was founded in 1976 by Dan and Sheila Daley, a priest and nun who had met at St. James Church and school (he was associate pastor, she was a teacher) and then fell in love and married. The Daleys retired from the organization in 2008.
The organization has 57 chapters and 25,000 members nationwide. Nuns and priests account for about 30 percent of the members who attend the group’s annual conference.
Call to Action’s headquarters are in a modest office building at the corner of Roscoe and Hamilton Streets. On the wall of a conference room hangs a painting of the Last Supper — with women and children joining Jesus and the apostles at the table. On another wall, a map of dioceses around the country is stuck with pins in a battle plan to address current issues: gay rights, the role of altar girls, changes in the liturgy.
In the case of Father Bourgeois, the priest who is calling for the ordination of women, Call to Action has sponsored his 34-city speaking tour, called “Shattering The Stained Glass Ceiling,” which will conclude in September in downstate Belleville.
The Vatican maintains that even discussion of ordaining women is a violation of Catholic teaching. The authorities of the Maryknoll Order, based in New York, sent a letter to Father Bourgeois in March demanding that he recant his public statements or be dismissed from its ranks.
The petition drive sponsored by Call to Action defends the priest’s “right to speak his conscience.” The list was restricted to “priests in good standing,” said Bob Heineman, one of the group’s leaders, so that church authorities could not dismiss the protesters as “renegades.”
The Chicago group contends that surveys show that more rank-and-file Catholics side with Father Bourgeois on church policies than with the Vatican. “What it all boils down to is who is the church?” Mr. Heineman said. “The hierarchy? Or the people?”
Among Chicago’s conservative Catholics is the ultra-orthodox group Opus Dei, which has long counted the city as one of its stronger bases of operation. Many of these Catholics believe that the church went too far with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
The Rev. Anthony Brankin, the longtime pastor at St. Thomas More Church who now serves at St. Odilo Church in Berwyn, is an outspoken conservative and critic of Call to Action. Father Brankin describes members of the liberal Catholic movement as lost souls, disenfranchised by both their own church and a larger society that views Catholicism as largely irrelevant.
Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of a more faithful church, even if that means it becomes smaller.
Father Brankin said: “Really, when you think about what has happened in modern society, who but aging feminist nuns and their hangers-on clerics even cares whether women should be priests or not?”
But the activists at Call to Action note that while church leaders might not be open to dissent, they seem to be paying attention.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 31, 2011, on page A23A of the National edition with the headline: Catholic Group Based in Chicago Leads Protest Against Church.