Dialogue in Detroit: Reassessing the Inaugural Call to Action Conference by David J. O’Brien

As American Catholics, at least some of them, hear about Pope Francis’s invitation to synodality, to share their views on the life and work of the church, they may think it is something new. But, in fact, in our recent history we have had some experience with invitations to join in conversation with one another and with our bishops about the issues facing us.

For about 20 years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, we in the United States were asked to form parish councils, sometimes elected, to share in decisions about local community life; here in Worcester, Massachusetts, there was a full-time staff devoted to helping parish councils work effectively. Meanwhile, diocesan priests were forming new organizations, at first called priest’s senates, later presbyteral councils, to share more formally with their bishop in policies and programs of pastoral care and ministry.

Men and women in religious orders formed similar advisory organizations. In some dioceses, representatives of these new bodies came together in diocesan pastoral councils to share responsibility for areas of local church life. In Washington, the American bishops reorganized as a “national episcopal conference” with an advisory body of laypeople, priests, and sisters. They even added laypeople and others to many of their committees.

Vatican II had emphasized the church as the “people of God,” including everybody. The renewed liturgy, now conducted in English, was presented as a community celebration, a spiritual basis for the new community-building parish councils. Sincere efforts were made to turn those words into structures and practices of dialogue and shared responsibility.

The most dramatic example of this new interest in participation came with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution in the mid-1970s. The bishops decided to devote the bicentennial celebration to asking their people, all of them, how their church might share more fully in realizing our American promise of “liberty and justice for all.” I had the privilege of serving on a committee of bishops who planned a two-year program of local consultation and regional public hearings around that question, to climax with the first national convention of the American Catholic community, the Call to Action conference to be held in Detroit in October 1976. I took a leave of absence from the College of the Holy Cross to assist with preparation for the conference.

The period leading up to the conference was very exciting. Public hearings with testimonies from experts and laypeople caught national media attention. Parish discussions took place in many dioceses, some of which held their own conventions to consider the advice received from the parishes. National Catholic organizations submitted recommendations for consideration by the Detroit assembly. In October, some 1,400 delegates arrived in Detroit from every diocese and national organization. Over a weekend, they deliberated and voted on over 100 recommendations intended to help the Catholic community participate in pursuit of liberty and justice, and perhaps consider some internal reforms that might strengthen the community for its mission of service.

As with the recent “synodal path” launched by Pope Francis, open discussion often brought forth ideas and proposals that aroused controversy. At one session of the conference, a nun suggested we might consider the possible ordination of women to the priesthood, an idea just beginning to be heard across the country. A cardinal replied with a smile, “Sister, you can vote for it, but you’re not going to get it.” There were other differences and controversies during and after the conference. But for me, the two-year bicentennial program remains in my memory as the most sacramental experience of my Catholic life. By sacramental I mean that, for a few moments, the promised peaceable kingdom of Christian scriptures seemed at least a little bit present.

Three vignettes might suggest how we who were blessed to be there had a taste of an American Catholic future shaped by faith in what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community” and all Christians call the Kingdom of God, and a taste of how hard it would be to sustain that moment.

1. I had the opportunity to sit on the platform with 12 to 15 bishops and a few staffers during a three-day hearing in the southeast, the first and last days in Atlanta, the second day under a huge tent in Tidy Creek, Georgia. On the first day an articulate, attractive woman married to an Army officer spoke with some passion about the sometimes-neglected needs of families serving in the armed forces. She was followed by a charismatic young man named Brian McNaught who described for the bishops the religious experiences and pastoral needs of gay Catholics, a subject rarely discussed at Catholic meetings. McNaught spoke movingly of the isolation and loneliness he had himself experienced, and of his work with friends in a new group, Dignity, founded to provide opportunities for prayer and counseling with gay Catholics.

The military wife and mother who had preceded him sat in the front row of the hall. We on the panel could see her face; she could only see McNaught’s back. Her expression communicated alarm, shock, perhaps anger at first. I thought for a moment she might spring forward in protest. But her face softened as his testimony become more personal. Later I saw them talking intently over lunch. When I left, they were still talking, McNaught with a warm smile, the woman with evident and intense anxiety. That afternoon I noticed that they sat next to each other at Mass. Months later, in Detroit, a colleague told me that this same woman, a delegate to the Call to Action from the Military Ordinariate, attended the working group on personhood and voted with the majority affirming the need for better pastoral care for gay men and women.

2. When I joined the bishops’ staff, I worked with Sister Alice Gallin, OSU, to help pull together the results of the two years of hearings and consultations for consideration by the upcoming Call to Action conference. The hierarchy appointed eight small committees, each chaired by a bishop and composed of a cross-section of ministers and laypeople, charged with summarizing the consultation and drafting advisory recommendations to be considered at Detroit. The “personhood” committee was chaired by Bernard Law, the up-and-coming young bishop of Springfield-Cape-Girardeau in the Missouri Ozarks.

At the first meeting, after Friday evening Mass and a good dinner, a distinguished theologian, a nun, summarized the subjects the committee would have to consider the next day and at two subsequent meetings: homosexuality, clerical celibacy, birth control, and the role of women in church and society. Bishop Law, ever gracious, seemed uneasy; I felt panic. It turned out to be the only committee of the eight that could not reach consensus, though everyone surely tried.

I often think back to those days, in light of later experience, and wonder at how innocent we all were—Bishop Law, the theologians, the pastors and laypeople on the committee, Sister Alice, and me. We stood on the precipice and, with great good will, hoped everyone would rather speak of national issues like racial discrimination, poverty, and war. But other issues, personal and pastoral, had also emerged from “the long 1960s,” and divisions on those matters to some degree undercut the bicentennial program’s intention to highlight shared public responsibilities among Catholics.

Bishop Law’s committee members listened carefully to each other, prayed and worshipped and relaxed together, but could not come close to agreement on some important matters. In the years that followed, those questions, and other internal problems, would deeply divide the church, at considerable cost to our communities and country.

3. Finally, Detroit, where there would be open discussion and votes—not just on the issues that divided Bishop Law’s committee, but on public questions of social and racial justice, education, family life, work, and war and weapons. John Cardinal Dearden, who had led the bicentennial project, opened the nation’s first-ever national Catholic convention with its one speech. Dearden commanded tremendous respect: he embodied the “renewing church” the delegates and many of us truly believed could help redeem our America after the disgraceful events of the 1960s.

Standing to open the conference, he said it all: Vatican II had summoned the church to become ever more fully “a community of faith and friendship.” All of us—bishops, priests, religious, and laity—wanted to respond to that call, but we were not sure how to do so. “All of us are committed to the Gospel of Jesus,” he said. “The tough part is translating all that into action.” Both “the pastoral task building the church” and “the public task of serving the world” would require “concrete, specific choices about how to spend our money, allocate our resources, direct our personal and collective time, energy and talent.” To make those choices, we needed to “meet, debate and make decisions.” The Call to Action conference would be a step toward such shared responsibility, so that our church could become more fully what it was meant to be, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the whole human family Catholics hoped to serve. Looking back, his words seem similar to those of Pope Francis in launching the synodal process: “We are trying to begin a new way of doing the work of the church in America.”

I thought I saw in Detroit, and in the hearings that preceded the conference, strategies that worked. When the bishops simply listened, out in the open, to conflicting voices, people heard each other and understood that the bishops’ ministry of unity and integrity was not easy, but it was important. In American fashion, no one wanted to kick anybody out. If we differed, and if we wanted everyone to stay with us, two things followed: people lowered their voices and asked (literally) how they could help the bishops keep the church united, with integrity about its faith and mission; and the bishops who really worked with the process, who listened and then spoke, felt their authority strengthened, not dissipated. So that “new way of doing the work of the church” might be possible. Alas, it was not to be, art least for now.

A final story. A few months later, at a meeting open only to bishops and their staffs, the hierarchy debated a response to the Call to Action conference. One bishop, sitting near me, suggested amending the text of a proposed response letter by a carefully selected committee. Where the draft said that the bishops were required to make clear to the people the teaching of the Holy See, he thought they might add words that the bishops also needed to make clear to the Holy See the pastoral needs and experiences of their American church. Cardinal Dearden by that time was disabled by illness, and no one rose to back the amendment. It lost by voice vote.

Over the next few years, the bishops, led by a talented Dearden protégé, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Joseph Bernardin, would reach for the kind of dialogue we had known in the ’70s. But new leaders, among them Bishop (later Cardinal) Law, who seemed less enchanted by their people and more loyal to Rome, and who were above all “churchmen,” would take charge of the American church. An era of open discussion aimed at shared responsibility was over, at least for a while. Let us pray that the story is not over, and that the synodal path opens new opportunities to make God’s promise of dignity and solidarity at least a little more present. ♦

David J. O’Brien is professor emeritus, Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author, among other books, of Public Catholicism and Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic.

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