The 1976 U.S. Catholic Bishops' Call To Action Conference in Detroit

Commonweal Special Supplement

"I remember only two things about the American Bicentennial celebration in 1976," says John Carr, secretary for social concerns for the archdiocese of Washington. D.C. "One was the tall ships in New York's harbor. The other was A Call to Action, the bishops' bicentennial program."

There have been repeated attempts to recapture the excitement of the tall ships, most recently at last summer's Statue of Liberty festivities. But Call to Action? John Carr may remember it, but how many others? Call to Action was the closest the American Catholic church has ever come to holding a genuine national assembly. It was a massive three-year program in which hundreds of thousands of U.S. Catholics participated. Its culminating conference, held in Detroit in October 1976, created sensational headlines and provoked heated responses, both pro and con. Yet even the best recent Catholic histories mention the Call to Action only in passing, if at all. Sister Alice Gallin, O.S.U., executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, registered this fact at a symposium Commonweal sponsored last October to mark the tenth anniversary of the Detroit meeting. By 1977 the momentum of the Call to Action program appeared to be broken; for many, the whole effort was soon half-forgotten. Yet Call to Action had accomplished two things that would have a crucial impact on the church in the years that followed. It had solidified the central place of social justice in the life of American Catholicism, and it had experimented with a process of consultation on an unprecedented scale. Close observers would see the strong influence of Call to Action in the way the bishops set about writing their major pastoral letters on nuclear war and on the U.S. economy. Noting that the Call to Action symbol was a flame of liberty, Alice Gallin compares the whole experience to one of those industrial chimneys that belch forth a flame, then swallow it again, only to let it blaze forth in a new form some while later.

But if Call to Action deserves to be remembered, it also deserves to be reevaluated. What were the Call to Action's special strengths? What were its weaknesses? What happened at Detroit, and why was the momentum of the program lost? What lessons can be drawn for future efforts in broadening participation and sharing responsibility in the church?

Americans have notoriously little historical sense. Which forces us repeatedly to reinvent the wheel. Which deprives us of the wisdom and patience that come with a long-range perspective. As the church looks forward to the 1987 synod on the laity, the experience of a decade past should b e brought to mind. Commonweal wishes to thank the Catholic Communication Campaign which provides essential funding for the symposium held in october and for this special supplement.


This Special Supplement, dated December 26, 1986 has been reprinted with permission of Commonweal Magazine.

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