Action on racism in the Catholic Church


Confront racism, Archbishop Gregory tells priests at federation gathering: Priests look to next half century as a new posture of encounter that includes a priesthood of missionary and pastoral discipleship takes hold

Priests listen to sessions at the National Federation of Priests’ Councils convocation April 23-26 in Chicago. (National Federation of Priests’ Councils)

CHICAGO — As a group of priests gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of their organization, there was some reminiscing, but most of the discussion was about the present and the future, including the need to fight racism, to work more closely with laity and even to re-imagine priesthood altogether.


“Fifty years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we still find ourselves confronting many of the barriers to equality and justice for which he gave such a powerful witness,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta told those gathered for the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (NFPC) convocation April 23-26 in Chicago.

Gregory noted that the NFPC was founded in 1968 to bring together representatives of diocesan presbyteral councils for fraternal sharing and dialogue, and that the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus was formed that same year for a similar purpose. Since that time, “the names and the voices of yesterday’s racists have changed, but not their message,” he said.

“While we can and should look back on our predecessors with profound respect, admiration and perhaps even with a touch of envy, we must also rededicate ourselves to the same responsibilities of pastoring our people with a full portion of the courage, wisdom and determination that energized those pioneer founders of those twin priestly associations,” he said.

To address racism as well as economic injustice, violence, discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation, and the nativism that has “changed its attire but not its vitriol,” today’s priests need to be better formed in the church’s social justice teachings and tradition, Gregory said.

“We must help to prepare the hearts of those who will assume leadership in the next half century,” he said. “Seminary formation today must include training our candidates to see the world and its troubles as an exciting and compelling field for gathering in a harvest of justice.”

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta (Courtesy of National Federation of Priests’ Councils)

More Catholics, fewer priests

Yet, while the societal challenges have remained over the 50-year history of the NFPC, much has changed for priests in the United States.

To start with, it’s a smaller group: about 22,000 fewer religious and diocesan priests since 1967, even as the number of Catholics has increased by 24 million, according to Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth of the St. Paul Seminary School of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth

Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth (Courtesy of National Federation of Priests’ Councils)

Today, more than a third of priests serve multiple parishes, Schuth said.

In many seminaries, younger, less experienced seminarians are separated from the more experienced, older lay students, leading to problems working together in parishes, she said.

Working collaboratively with laity and encouraging lay leadership was a theme at the NFPC convention, yet such collaboration is stymied by clericalism, speakers said.

Gregory called clericalism, a “particular hazard for those who are bishops in today’s church,” he said.

A “healthy presbyterate” should take pride in unity and its successes, he said. “Yet we can never do so at the expense of our friendship with and our respect for all other members of the church. Clergy and laity are meant to work together for the building up of the body of Christ.”

Concerns about clericalism were echoed by Jesuit Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck of Loyola Marymount University, who called for a shift from the “defensive and self-referential posture that characterized ‘Fortress Church’ for centuries” to a new posture of encounter that includes a priesthood of missionary and pastoral discipleship.

“The shift has been going on for more than half a century now, and many would say that it is reaching a moment of truth, a turning point, with the bold and energetic reform in attitudes and developments in teaching championed by our first Latin American and Jesuit pope,” he said.

But too often the church has ignored Vatican II’s call for dialogue and listening and has instead focused on judgement and legalism, Deck said.

“Some of us all too often allowed ourselves to come across as customs and border agents, ecclesiastical functionaries and sacramental dispensers at the cost of losing contact with the flesh and blood of God’s holy people whom we were called to shepherd, to love and serve,” he said.

Jesuit Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck

Jesuit Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck (Courtesy of National Federation of Priests’ Councils)

Priests with a sense of “entitlement” or “narcissism” are a “formula for disaster” for diocesan personnel boards, he said.

He also lamented the “toxic attitude” of priesthood as a “niche to be occupied,” which results in defending turf rather than sharing ministry with all the baptized.

“As long as we priests focus more on limiting our job description, circumscribing our labors, or take on an ‘I-don’t-wash-windows’ mentality, the more we become obstacles to doing what really needs to be done,” he said. “We must roll up our sleeves, do what needs to be done or actively find and enable coworkers, sometimes deacons or religious but usually laity, to do it.”

Citing Pope Francis and several Vatican II documents, Deck said mission and evangelization must be the starting point for reconfiguring the priesthood. “We must put the demands of mission first rather than make mission the application of a changeless organizational scheme cast in granite,” he said.

That will require an expansive, more robust vision of priesthood, he said, noting that religious order priests have regularly ministered outside parish or diocesan structures in schools, hospitals and missions.

Instead, diocesan priests have become increasingly identified with the parish, “a fundamental instrument of evangelization but a rather static one that simply cannot respond to all of today’s pastoral challenges,” he said. “The times require a more flexible and wider range of ministries, a differentiated outreach that parishes often cannot deliver.”

Alan Szafraniec & Fr. Thomas Rosica

Alan Szafraniec, left, is the 2018 recipient of the Mandatum Award, which” is presented to an individual or organization whose service in the Gospel of Jesus Christ exemplifies the purpose and goals of the Federation.” He has been with the organization for more than 20 years, most recently as managing director. Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, right, is the 2018 recipient of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils’ Touchstone Award. (NCR photo/Heidi Schlumpf)

Such “epochal” change will be painful, but the church needs to bring the tradition forward “with fidelity, creativity and apostolic boldness, rather than retreating into little niches, comfort zones or nostalgia,” he said.

Instead of a “circling the wagons” approach or a resignation to an “elite remnant” of conformity, priests will need to build bridges across diversity through dialogue and mutuality, he said. The model should be shepherds and servant leaders in an organization that is more horizontal than vertical.

Priests need look no further than Francis for inspiration, said Basilan Fr. Thomas Rosica, who was honored with the NFPC’s Touchstone Award. He is the founding CEO of Salt & Light Television in Toronto.

“I firmly believe that we are living a moment of kairos in the contemporary church, the appointed time and hour, when the Gospel story is unfolding before us in Technicolor 4K and Dolby sound in the life of Pope Francis,” he said.

As this pope models, there is no place in the church for “haughty clericalism,” abuse of one’s position or climbing the “ecclesiastical career ladder,” Rosica said.

Instead, he said, “Pope Francis is teaching us that our authority derives not from worldly power and prestige but from simplicity of life, personal integrity and humility in imitation of Christ.”

[Heidi Schlumpf is NCR national correspondent. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @HeidiSchlumpf.]

There are about 22,000 fewer religious and diocesan priests than there were in 1967, while the number of Catholics has increased by 24 million. (Courtesy of National Federation of Priests’ Councils)

At Ohio racism listening session, participants express sorrow and hope

Fr. Hilary Ike of the tribunal of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, speaks about his experiences with racism during a listening session at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus June 19, 2019. Looking on are Bishops Robert Brennan of Columbus and Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, La., chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. (CNS/Kent Snow, The Catholic Times)

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Participants at a diocesan listening session on racism in Columbus spoke about hurtful experiences both inside and outside the church, but also expressed optimism about efforts to recognize the problem and respond to it.

The June 19 session at the Pontifical College Josephinum was sponsored by the Catholic Ethnic Ministries office in the Columbus Diocese. It was the seventh such event conducted nationwide in response to the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.” Other sessions were in St. Louis; St. Petersburg, Florida; Cincinnati; Philadelphia; Schriever, Louisiana; and Baltimore. More sessions are planned.

About 150 people attended the Ohio session, which featured brief reflections from 15 speakers who spoke about how racism has affected their lives and about the Catholic Church’s response.

Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, attended the gathering and was joined by Columbus Bishop Robert Brennan.  Devin Jones of the Catholic Ethnic Ministries office was one of several speakers whose reflections offered a mixture of disappointment and hope. He spoke about attending a nearly all-white Catholic boys prep school in Chicago and said that although he grew up in an all-white Chicago Baptist church, he never heard the most familiar racial slur until his first day at school.

He also said that at a Mass in Florida where he was the first to receive the blood of Christ at Mass, the woman who gave him the cup immediately took it back to the sanctuary after he drank from it and poured the contents out.

A priest once told him to stop evangelizing black people because “they were not intellectually capable” of understanding Catholic teaching.

Jones, 33, said such incidents were not enough to deter him from recognizing the truth of the church’s message. He challenged members of his age group to spread that word to others.

“If we truly believe this is the church Jesus Christ founded, we should feel empowered and energetic and be excited to evangelize,” he said. “Until this becomes ingrained in the culture of the church, we will never see an end to racism and the sins that result from it.”

Several African American speakers mentioned times during the sign of peace at Mass when they felt unwelcome because whites seated near them appeared to be making a conscious attempt to avoid recognizing them.

Grace Neely, wife of the late Deacon Bob Neely, who served St. Dominic Church for 25 years, said her husband also was often asked when he joined the Catholic Church and his response was always: “When I was born.”

“People just had no clue a black person could be a deacon,” she said. This was particularly noticeable during one experience early in her husband’s diaconal service when he went to a parish in a rural area of the diocese to deliver a talk. The Neelys arrived early “and the woman at the door started asking, ‘Who are you? What do you want? When does the program start?’ Once he said, ‘I’m Deacon Neely,’ then her whole attitude changed,” Grace said.

Since the deaths of Deacon James Davis in 2015 and Neely in 2017, there have been no African American deacons in the Diocese of Columbus, nor are there any in the current diaconate training class. Mark Huddy, diocesan moderator for social concerns, said this is a great disappointment.

Huddy said he experienced racism while growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, but in a different sense.

“My early experience set the default for what I considered normal,” he said. “Almost no people of color were present in my world, and that didn’t seem odd. Therein lies the problem that is the descendant of privilege — a form of racism that’s so institutionalized that it’s invisible. Eventually, I learned about things like redlining, school segregation, hiring discrimination and barriers that make it harder for intergenerational property transfer among minorities,” he said.

Huddy noted that when “defaults are built into the system, we have to be intentional about overriding them. Efforts such as the bishops’ pastoral on racism and this listening session are important because they continue to call us to relationship, so we can learn what we do not know, to confront racism in our family, friends and church so we can truly be the body of Christ.”

Deacon Augustine Ampofo of the Archdiocese of Kumasi, Ghana, attending the Josephinum for his final two years of study for the priesthood before returning to Ghana, stressed that “color is just an accident. No one chose to be born any race. Color does not define a person.”  He urged participants to “unite in the fight against racism and build a world devoid of fear, hatred and suspicion.”

His own encounter with suspicion occurred when he arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. In the baggage claim area, two Transportation Security Administration guards seized his belongings, asked where he was from, took his passport, brought him to a small room and detained him for about three hours while searching his luggage.

He eventually was told he was free to leave, but by then he had missed his connecting flight to Columbus and had to sleep at the airport. He said he never was told the reason for being detained.

Fabre said in his closing remarks that it will take “perseverance, patience and perspiration” to be successful in overcoming lingering racism in the church. He noted that the U.S. bishops had issued documents against racism in 1958, 1968 and 1979, then took 40 years to address the subject again.

He pledged that it would not take them another 40 years to return to the topic.

“I learned a lot tonight,” Brennan said. “Thank you for your courage and your generosity. These are not easy conversations to have, but we end with a profound respect for one another. We need to continue to listen deeply.”

– – –

Puet is a reporter at The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of Columbus.

Sept 2018. Systemic Racism is a Pro-Life Issue and Catholics Must Step Up

When white supremacists gathered in Washington last month to mark the bloody anniversary of a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a year ago, demonstrators preaching hate found themselves vastly outnumbered by nonviolent Americans showing up to offer a defiant rejection of racism. The United Methodist Church organized the main faith event in response. Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders took the stage to speak with urgency and eloquence. The strong interfaith display of solidarity summoned the spirit of the civil rights era, and reminded us that progressive advances toward racial equity will again require a moral movement where religious leaders play a leading role.


As two Catholics — a black woman and a white man — we found it unacceptable that Catholic bishops were missing in action when white supremacists came to our town. In particular, given their geographical proximity to the rally, the fact that neither Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington or Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, failed to take a few minutes to come stand with other faith leaders left a gaping void from the nation’s largest religious denomination.

Both Wuerl and Burbidge did write brief responses. “In the face of groups whose messages we deplore and even as they exercise their First Amendment right, we must stand firm in our convictions,” Wuerl wrote in rather tepid language that lacked a sense of urgency or specificity. In a statement, Burbidge asked Catholics “and people of good will to pray for peace in our nation,” and to be “advocates for those who are victims of discrimination.” Prayers and calls for reconciliation are needed, but real leadership requires action, organizing and putting resources behind your rhetoric.

The church has set precedents for what social action informed by prayer and faith look like. Catholic bishops are front and center in Washington for the annual March for Life, a gathering that draws thousands of Catholics and other people of faith to protest the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

The U.S. bishops’ conference even sponsored a “Novena for the Legal Protection of Human Life” timed for the Senate confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Bishops and clergy in dioceses across the country have mobilized parishioners to take political action by distributing parish bulletins with specific instructions for contacting lawmakers on religious liberty and right-to-life issues.

In July, the president of the bishops’ conference, along with other bishops, visited children separated from their parents who are now imprisoned in a detention center at the southern border. Bishops have publicly denounced the administration’s immigration policies. Yet, they were nowhere to be seen at the interfaith rally in Washington challenging white supremacists, whose very ideology contradicts the Gospel and the church’s proclamation of the dignity of all people.

Systemic racism is a “pro-life” issue. If Catholic leaders are willing to hit the streets, carry banners and lobby lawmakers for the unborn, they should also be pouring out of churches to resist the assault on black and brown bodies.

We need bishops confronting police brutality, and challenging politicians who make public policies that target communities of color. Protecting the sanctity of life and defending human dignity must include challenging police killings of unarmed black men and women; resisting efforts from Republican lawmakers to impose barriers to voting with the goal of suppressing black turnout; and dismantling the “school-to-prison” pipeline that criminalizes young people of color by disproportionately targeting them as threats to public safety. Not only do these practices violate Catholic social teaching, but they are also directly connected to issues, such as immigration, that the church is already vocal about in the media and in front of lawmakers. The church is complicit in our silence and lack of urgency when we fail to challenge these manifestations of institutional evil, and ineffective in our advocacy when we deny the role that racism plays in our society.

There are plenty of written materials addressing the church’s teachings in response to racism that a Catholic could find if she spends enough time digging around the bishops’ conference website. We are eager to read the U.S. bishops’ forthcoming national pastoral letter on racism to be released later this year. Given the central role of race in our society, it’s staggering that the last time the conference weighed in with a major reflection on racism, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

But as the latest horrifying revelations of clergy sexual abuse again underscore, statements from Catholic bishops — no matter how powerful — are woefully insufficient.

“White, brown and black Catholics who live very different lives outside of church can’t continue to be strangers to each other.” 

Racism is our nation’s original sin, which we have all inherited. History teaches us that the idea of white supremacy was a tool created to advance the wealth and power of the United States. The blood of black slaves greased the engines of American capitalism. Jesuit priests at Georgetown University sold human beings to finance what is now a world class university.

Lay Catholics grapple with this legacy in our daily lives, and are not waiting around for bishops to lead on racial justice. Parishes such as St. Augustine and St. Teresa of Avila in Washington have been organizing, agitating and fighting structural racism for decades.

At times, the church hierarchy has to be led by those of us in the pews. But for many parishes, especially majority white churches, bishops and pastors who prioritize racial justice play a critical role in creating the space for conversations that are often uncomfortable, but that can lead to inspired action. It is easier to avoid interrogating our own beliefs, prejudices and internalized racism. When a church leader sends the message that racism is a structural sin that we must collectively confront, we are invited to struggle together. The spiritual art of Christian discernment can help us navigate this rocky terrain. What experiences in my life have shaped unconscious racism? How do we perpetuate privilege or exclusion? Do I put myself in situations where I am the outsider to understand marginalized experiences?

Pope Francis has emphasized the need for a “culture of encounter.” We don’t experience a conversion of heart simply by reading articles or having theoretical conversations. Encountering someone means listening to their hopes, joys, anxieties and sufferings. It also means making ourselves vulnerable and having the courage to question assumptions that have shaped our worldview. This needs to happen individually, but also together as a church.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. Sadly, not much has changed to debunk that truth.

Catholics who share the same faith are often strangers when it comes to experiences with race, class and power. This will not change unless intentional steps are taken by bishops, pastors and lay Catholics.

White, brown and black Catholics who live very different lives outside of church can’t continue to be strangers to each other.

Parishes build a culture of encounter when opportunities are created to pray beside, listen to and act together with people who look and think about the world differently. It’s in these moments, far from our comfort zones, where we realize the fullness of a Catholic’s role in living our values.

Let’s get to work.

[John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and author of The Francis Effect. Jeanne Isler is a board member at Faith in Public Life.]

To combat racism, we must learn about white fragility

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

The term “white fragility” was coined by Robin DiAngelo, who has just published a book by the same name. “White fragility” makes me laugh because it is so apt; it accurately catches my own dismay that I am not immediately recognized as a good white person.

I used to feel some irritation that I had to prove to every black person I met that I was not racist. But, of course, I am racist in that I benefit big time from our racist society. I live in a comfortable safe neighborhood, got excellent emergency room treatment when I needed it, had a terrific education growing up. I can travel anywhere, stay in any hotel, hail any taxi. I know if the police pull me over I have a very good chance of not getting a ticket. Both my siblings and my religious community have accumulated wealth. Etcetera.

And, further, nobody is making me prove by some logical demonstration that I have a good heart. You all, white and black, are just taking account of how I live my life. If blacks take longer to accept me as a person of good will, it’s exactly because I benefit from racism.

Racism is about black people suffering and we white people (or “wypipo” as we are sometimes named on Twitter) at our best mostly stand around wringing our hands. At our ordinary we fret about “black-on-black” crime and foster discomfort in our neighborhoods about thieves (presumed to be black) ransacking our automobiles for change. Meanwhile, we keep our mouths shut about injustices that we see. And we writhe in unease at any use of that word “racism.” Yes, indeed, we are fragile.

I’ve been trying to toughen myself up a little. I’m lucky in that I can at least write about racism. I have a “Black Lives Matter” sign in my front year. I subscribe to “Good Black News” on email and I read about racism. But I haven’t had the courage to stop my car when I see a black driver pulled over, just to check. I don’t have a black doctor or dentist. I live in a pretty white bubble.

This is the sort of moment when I miss NCR comments because I’d like to hear how you, dear white readers, try to toughen yourselves up. We need to talk about this among ourselves. I’m grateful to Robin DiAngelo for bringing up the topic, and I plan to buy her book.

At Call to Action, younger leaders are reimagining church reform

A young adult member of Call to Action offers communion during the closing liturgy of the 2018 national conference. (Deborah Winarski)

Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series on Call to Action, which has fought for reform in the church since the late 1970s and provided an important community for “Vatican II” Catholics during a rise of conservatism in the church hierarchy throughout the ’80s and ’90s. 

Our first story took a look at the challenges facing Call to Action, including an aging and declining membership and financial shortfalls. But a group of new, younger leaders are connecting with CTA through an innovative new program called Re/Generation, as our second story describes. These millennial Catholics may change the organization as they take over, however, and what such generational differences mean for the future of church reform will be explored in our last story in the series. 

It was hard to miss the millennial members of Call to Action’s new Re/Generation program at the organization’s national conference last November in San Antonio. They were energetic. And loud. 

But that didn’t bother Dora Saavedra, a 66-year-old, long-time Call to Action member who has been paired as an elder mentor to two young women through the program. She may bristle a bit at the term “elder,” but Saavedra is optimistic about the influx of younger progressive Catholics — even if they eventually change how the 40-year-old organization does church reform and social justice.

“My hope lies not in the future, but in the present with young people,” she said. “I think they have a much healthier relationship to the church. They have faith, but it’s not ‘pray, pay and obey’ when it comes to the hierarchy.”

Saavedra, whose husband served as a temporary executive director during leadership changes in Call to Action, joined the organization 1997 after their gay son came out to them. They now worship at an intentional Eucharistic community in McAllen, Texas, and are active in the Rio Grande Valley chapter of CTA. 

But for some other long-time members of CTA, the changes in the organization are concerning. Tom Lupia, chair of the local chapter in Columbus, Ohio, believes the national organization is moving “in the wrong direction.” 

The emphasis on attracting younger members and on racial justice is taking away from what he believes should be CTA’s primary focus: church reform issues, such as the exclusions of women and non-celibate men from ordination, the divorced/remarried from communion and ordinary Catholics from more decision-making power in parishes.

Attracting young people is fine, though Lupia thinks CTA has “always focused too much on the color of their members’ hair,” which he sees as a “red herring.” 

“Programs intended to increase membership, even targeted membership like younger people, don’t work unless you have a primary program they can buy into,” he said. And that program should be church reform, he said, not broader justice issues, which are covered by so many other groups in and out of the church: “How can Catholics have credibility on the issue of social justice when we don’t deal with social justice in our own church?” he asked.

The social-justice-versus-church-reform debate has been part of CTA’s history since early on, but current tensions, though small, may reveal broader generational differences, even among progressive Catholics who agree on social justice and church reform issues.

Generational differences

Millennials — like all generations — want to articulate their own agenda and priorities and not be perceived as a “side show to older groups,” said William Dinges, professor of religion and culture at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.

Dinges, a baby boomer who has studied young adult Catholics, said his generation tends to “mistakenly assume that our agenda in the church is the same as their agenda.”

Often it’s just a matter of a different emphasis. Younger progressives are more focused on justice issues that affect them in their day-to-day lives and less interested in the internal issues that Pope Francis has warned can be too “self-referential,” said Robert G. Christian III, the founding editor of Millennial, a website for young Catholics.

While internal church reform issues “aren’t irrelevant,” according to Christian, among his generation, “there is a much greater desire to try to advance social justice and bring about the kingdom of God that way.” 

Betty Hill, left, who serves as president of CTA’s Western Washington chapter, and her husband, Tom. Both are long-time CTA members. (Deborah Winarski)

On issues like poverty and the environment, “the Millennial generation is maybe the most progressive generation in American history,” Christian said, noting that even conservative Catholics use “progressive language,” such as emphasizing the human rights of the unborn.

But they may be turned off by the confrontational or antagonistic tone in some older church reform organizations, he said, or by the frustration that church teachings, on internal issues such as women’s ordination are slow to change, if at all. “It makes a lot more sense to spend their energy in other areas, building the common good in society,” he said.

Christian’s description of millennial Catholics as progressive is supported by data from the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study in 2014, which showed that more Catholic millennials (28 percent) described themselves as liberal than baby boomer Catholics (20 percent), and fewer Millennial Catholics (28 percent) described themselves as conservative than Boomers (41 percent). The largest portion of millennial Catholics, however, (40 percent) described themselves as “moderate.”

Liberal, conservative or moderate — millennial Catholics have to make the decision to be Catholic in American culture where religion is a matter of choice. And they are being outpaced by the growth of the “nones,” or those choosing to disaffiliate from institutional religion altogether, leading to what Mark Silk calls “the hollowing out of American religion.”

“It’s an across-the-board phenomenon, not just among Catholics,” said Silk, a professor and director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. “That cohort of young adults doesn’t feel like religious institutions are the place where they do their moral politics.

Christine Haider-Winnett, CTA’s Communications Manager, shares dinner with members. (Deborah Winarski)

Not only has the proportion of disaffiliated risen from less than 10 percent in 1990 to nearly one-quarter today, but actual membership in religious institutions has declined nearly twice as fast as the proportion of “nones” has risen, Silk said, citing a recent Gallup poll.

Silk believes that young progressive Catholics are “an important remnant,” but that their numbers will likely not be influential, somewhat akin to the smaller numbers of mainline Protestants. “There aren’t that many of them, so it’s a tough slog,” he said about young liberal Catholics.

Yet, this disaffiliation is happening at a time when major political conflicts are centering on issues in which Catholic moral teachings have much to say, said Patricia O’Connell Killen, who with Silk is co-editor of a new book on “The Future of Catholicism in America” (Columbia University Press).

“This isn’t an argument about whether young people care about meaning or not. My sense is they want to be people of integrity and they seek wisdom,” said Killen. “What they do not share with boomers or even Gen-Xers is an assumption that historic faith traditions are useful for finding wisdom.”

If they find community in churches, they will engage, but their suspicion of institutions leads them to select only those that meet their needs, said Killen, professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Just ask an employer with millennial employees, she said.

Zach Johnson, CTA’s 30-year-old executive director, said the church as an institution is “a bit of an afterthought” for younger Catholics, who don’t ask permission from bishops or pastors or even reform organizations.

Which is not to say that institutions, including the church, don’t have power, Johnson said. “It’s obvious that the institution still hurts a lot of people and has tremendous power to do good and bad,” he said. 

CTA members of all generations gathered together in protest along the San Antonio River Walk during the 2018 national conference. (Deborah Winarski)

“But for the way people practice church on the day to day, the institution means less than it used to,” he added. “We’re building our own things. … It doesn’t matter that the institution doesn’t sanction it, because we don’t care about that anyway.”

Two-directional mentoring

If he were giving advice, Dinges would suggest accentuating Catholicism’s positives — Catholic Social Teaching, our sacramental sensibility, Pope Francis and his emphasis on inclusiveness rather than finger-shaking — to attract more young Catholic progressives. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to be playing the us-versus-them card, which sociologists say does build internal cohesion in a group.

Killen would encourage older Catholics — in CTA and elsewhere — to listen to the faith and justice questions of younger people. This can be a challenge for baby boomers, who as an outsized generation have driven the narrative for most of their lives. 

The question, said Killen, is “How will the elders in Call to Action, or any other Catholic reform organization, learn how to be gracious and generative and supportive toward a future that is not going to be defined by them or in the terms that are most comfortable to them?”

A spirituality of later adulthood can take inspiration from the image of the “nurse log,” Killen said, in which a fallen, decaying tree facilitates new life. She cites women’s religious communities at having done this well.

“The faith challenge to the elders is really a challenge to allow their imaginations to be expanded,” said Killen.

That’s how the partners within CTA’s Re/Generation program describe the two-directional mentorship that is part of the program. “It’s not just that the older generation has all the answers, and we need to learn,” said Claire Hitchins, who oversees Re/Gen for CTA. “We honor that wisdom, but also have a platform from which [young people] can bring their own wisdom as well.”

Ruby Fuentes, a member of the second group of Re/Generators, believes her generation and that of the “civil rights era,” have a lot in common. “We both have that energy and the coraje (“courage”),” she said. “The generation gap is kind of non-existent. We see eye-to-eye and encourage and empower each other.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an organization for LGBTQ+ Catholics, was able to listen, brainstorm and offer resources to her mentee, but she also was inspired by the “expansive vision of church” of the younger Catholics in the program.

Ruby Fuentes (Courtesy of Call to Action)

“For them, the boundaries and the borders between denominations and roles are really blurring,” said Duddy-Burke, who sees the younger generation “inviting us to come along” to their new vision of church, she said.

Her organization, which is preparing to mark its 50th anniversary this year, is also “being stretched” by younger Catholics, who have grown up with a more fluid experience of gender and sexuality and, for the most part, a culture that is accepting and affirming, she said.

Dignity’s young adult caucus “is really calling us to something radically different,” said Duddy-Burke.

But will this generation’s reformers even see church reform in the same way? Likely not, as their experiences of injustice are different, said delfin baustista, another 2019 Re/Generator.

“Not better or worse, just different,” they said, adding that the focus might shift from emphasizing “oppression” to focusing on “resilience and liberation.” Social media — such as hashtag movements — will also alter how new generations “do” reform.

bautista is hopeful that reform-minded Catholics of all ages will have “an openness and willingness to engage and recognize we all have a role to play.”

Saavedra, too, predicts the influx of younger folks will literally “regenerate” the organization and movement. “Maybe we won’t be the same organization we started out to be,” she said. “But I believe in miracles. I believe we will be finding new ways.”

[Heidi Schlumpf is NCR national correspondent. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @HeidiSchlumpf. She was a keynote speaker at the 2018 national Call to Action conference.]


A version of this story appeared in the June 14-27, 2019 print issue under the headline: At Call to Action, younger leaders are reimagining church reform .

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