Call to Action Conference

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The Call to Action Conference, an assembly of Catholic diocesan representatives meeting under the auspices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), marked the culmination of an 18-month national consultation on social justice. The Conference was held in Detroit, Oct. 2123, 1976. The proceedings of the convocation in which 1,300 delegates, priests, religious, and laity from 152 dioceses participated, resulted in 182 recommendations, which in turn formed the basis of a five-year plan of social action for the Catholic Church in the United States.

The Call to Action Assembly was intended to mark the Catholic observance of the bicentennial anniversary of the United States. The concept for the program had its genesis in 1971 with deliberations of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Advisory Council, a national body which provides guidance and consultation to the American bishops. The council urged the establishment of a Church-sponsored symposium on A Call to Action, the English title of the encyclical Octogesima adveniens of Pope Paul VI on the 80th anniversary of Rerum novarum.

A Committee of the NCCB was formed in 1973 with a mandate to prepare a conference on social justice. Cardinal John F. dearden, Archbishop of Detroit, was appointed chairman of the 62-member planning committee. A program of consultation leading up to the Call to Action Conference was undertaken in 1975. At the diocesan and parish level across the country the program theme of "Liberty and Justice for All" formed the basis of group discussions. At the national level the NCCB conducted seven hearings, each three days in length, and held in the cities of Washington, D.C., San Antonio, Texas, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Sacramento, Newark, and Maryknoll, New York. Sixty-five bishops joined by religious, priests, and laity took testimony from over 400 persons who focused on particular areas of social need and church life. Included among the witnesses were homemakers, farmers, theologians, economists, social workers, union leaders, community organizers, feminists, unemployed persons, members of minority groups, as well as many other individuals. The consultation focused on a wide variety of topics dealing with family and neighbourhood life, economic justice, internal and political affairs, the needs of minorities, the aged, women, education, cultural pluralism, world hunger, war and peace, and a multitude of other contemporary social issues. In early 1976, the concerns and recommendations raised in the program over one million of themwere reviewed and summarized by teams of bishops, priests, religious, and laity. A series of preliminary documents on the discussion findings were prepared for the next stage of the consultation, the Detroit meeting.

The densely written recommendations of the Call to Action Conference touch upon many areas of church life and its social mission. They range from a strong condemnation of the arms race and of nuclear weaponry to just wages for teachers in Catholic parochial schools; from a concern for the viability of the small family farm to a concern for a healthy urban neighbourhood; from the subject of the new economic order as voted by the General Assembly of the United Nations to equal rights for women in the labor market.

In their initial response to the Detroit Assembly, the bishops of the United States in a 1,400-word pronouncement, affirmed in general the findings of the Call to Action meeting and the preceding bicentennial consultation. In the statement the bishops said:

We invited this process of structured public discussion in the Church so that we might listen to the needs of our own people and through their voices come to know more specifically and to share more intimately "the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties" of the people of our age. Admittedly, the process of consultation was imperfect and there are some conclusions which are problematical and in some cases untenable. This has been a source of concern. Yet, this two-year process was marked by trust and respect among nearly all who took part. It gave many people a good opportunity to speak directly to church leaders. It identified issues and a number of constructive suggestions for action. It helped dramatize how the Church and its leadership are perceived by some. We are grateful to all who shared their insights with us. We affirm our commitment to the principle of shared responsibility in the contemporary Church, and we assert our intention to improve consultation with our people.

The hierarchy went on to underscore "the direct and intimate connection between the mission of the Church and the ministry of justice," and pledged themselves to the establishment of a five-year program on social justice. To accomplish this the NCCB established a special committee on implementation and Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis was appointed its chairman. The 31 episcopal committees of the NCCB and U.S. Catholic Conference were assigned various recommendations of the Call to Action Conference for evaluation.

Following Committee deliberations, the bishops, at their May 1978 meeting, gave final approval to a program of action designed, as the bishops themselves declared, "to clarify and specify the implications for the Church in the United States of a social ministry at the service of the justice of God"

After the conference was concluded, many U.S. bishops gradually distanced themselves from its recommendations, disagreeing with its far-reaching reform agenda. In the early years following 1976, a group of laity and religious in Chicago who were dissatisfied with the leadership of Cardinal John Cody decided to establish a reform advocacy group based on the plan of action for church reform and other initiatives that were proposed at the conference. This fledging group adopted the name Call to Action (CTA) and met for the first time in 1978 in Chicago. Notwithstanding its name, Call to Action is an independent group that is outside the umbrella of the united states conference of catholic bishops, although a few bishops are members of the group.

From a local reform group in Chicago, CTA catapulted into national prominence when it invited Hans Küng to its 1981 annual conference as the plenary speaker. The publicity it received resulted in a growth in interest in the group's objectives. The next major landmark was its 1990 Call to Reform manifesto which, among other things, called for a more open and progressive Church that was responsive to social justice issues, issues of equality, and the needs of women and the marginalized. The various signature campaigns and resulting publicity generated by this statement resulted in renewed interest in what had been largely a local reform group. Membership enquiries came in, leading to the establishment of regional chapters and affiliates. By mid-1990s, there were 40 such regional chapters and affiliates. The establishment of a chapter in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1996 resulted in the local ordinary, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz issuing a blanket order excommunicating any Catholic within his diocese who joined the chapter. The latter part of the 1990s saw CTA collaborating with European reform form groups to advocate for reform and renewal within the Church.

Bibliography: nccb-uscc, A Call to Action (Washington, D.C. n.d.), includes Working Papers, Resolutions, Bishops' Response, Reference Documents.

[f. butler/eds.]