CTA 2018 Opening Address

Below is the opening address for Call To Action’s 2018 National Conference, delivered by CTA Executive Director Zach Johnson on November 9, 2018.

Good evening, everyone! It’s great to be here, finally, at Call To Action’s National Conference! I learned how important this conference is early in my tenure with CTA. I was talking with someone at a Catholic Worker gathering just after I’d started, and I asked them if they’d ever heard of CTA. They said, “Oh sure, I’ve been to one of those before. I think it was in Milwaukee.” So on the fringes of our CTA community, Call To Action IS this conference. With that in mind I’m especially honored to have the privilege of welcoming you back to our conference.

I’ve heard the spiritual leader and organizer Rev. Sekou open a few retreats with a reminder that Jesus was the son of unmarried, Palestinian-Jewish, refugee parents who were fleeing from the economic and military empire of their time. And he notes that this is all strictly dogma for most Christian people– as it is for us Catholics of course, as well.

I like starting with this realization, because it helps add a practical materialist perspective to the source of our faith. It helps us see that in this birth story, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ daily lives are defined and determined by their ethnicity, their refugee status, and their unmarried status. And that these identities and statuses are all in turn determined by an economic and military empire. Along with an anti-racism perspective, this materialist lens has become central to my understanding of our work for church reform.

Presenter Katie Sharar’s description of her breakout session on the United States and Mexico border does a great job describing in plain terms how I think of the materialist perspective in practice. She writes that her session will look at, “how we arrived at this moment in time…considering history, geography, and policy”. Once more: the materialist perspective in practice considers (1) history, (2) geography, (3) policy and politics about how we arrived at this moment in time regarding any given subject.

I see this perspective all over and throughout our conference.

For example, our friends at FutureChurch, Deb Rose Milavec and Russ Petrus have a session tomorrow titled, “Is the Parish Dead?” where they look at the painful, and secretive business of church closures from the perspective of the neighborhoods and communities around a church. This allows them to connect church closures to larger social trends like classism and racism with questions like, “Does the Catholic church model “white flight” when it closes parishes in communities of color that are already economically fragile?” and “What happens to the grocery store next to the church in an area that is already a food desert?”  

John Marchese, Jessica DeCou and Tom Ricker from the Quixote Center characteristically cut straight to a social material lens in their session “Breaking the ICE: Local Action Against Incarceration of Migrants”. In their session, they work from an activist’s perspective; the activist who must understand “where people are being held, who is managing those spaces, who is being targeted, and how.” These are obviously material questions.

Overall, our speakers will help us consider the history, geography, policy and politics that define how and what our conference themes actually look in real life, today. These themes are: Resistencia/Resistance, Sacramento/Sacrament, and Santuario/Sanctuary.

A materialist perspective of  “Call To Action” quickly lead me to a basic realization that CTA is a small part of a much greater community–greater in numbers, greater in vision, greater in capacity, greater in power, etc. I’ll speak more to how I see CTA’s future role in this larger community in a few minutes. For now I’ll just say that I believe the future of our larger community, as well as this organization, will be defined in large part by how authentically each of us individually–and as a community–combine this materialist lens with our daily practices of Catholicism. But of course, Catholic practices are changing before our eyes.

It is fairly common to hear people describe a Catholic culture which is separate from the institutional church. And this is not just young people—in our chapter leaders meeting yesterday for example, a majority of leaders said they are no longer connected to a Roman Catholic institutional church. And as the institution continues to debase itself in ways that seem practically intentional, this kind of relationship to Catholicism will grow. Nevertheless at this point, so few people– and certainly not the institutional church— fund projects for “non-institutional cultural Catholicism.” (That was a very subtle fundraising pitch.)

Here is how Catholic culture exists in and for me, beyond the institution of the church.

My grandma Carol died in 2013. For me, her funeral and death felt peaceful and grounded, and it was clear that the heavily Catholic setting had a lot to do with this. But this was confusing because at that same time, I was beginning to understand how deeply complicated and fractured my relationship to Catholicism had become.

Nonetheless, I felt a deep and persistent calm. My journal notes from the months after her funeral are full of reflections where I try to distill some essential lessons of Catholicism. Here are a few summarized:

  • Catholicism helps you appreciate the reality and necessity of mystery.
  • Catholicism helps you assume the prevalence of paradox in the world.
  • Catholicism helps you remember the importance of sacrifice–even though it way too often fetishizes the act.
  • Catholicism helps you understand the sustaining power of ritual.
  • Catholicism helps you know the comfort of an honest and familiar aesthetic.
  • Catholicism helps you practice the healing nature of celebration, especially through the sacraments.
  • And finally, Catholicism helps you trust that devotion can lead to progress.

As I say, exploring Catholicism’s cultural imprint is a more and more common exercise. Alice McDermott is one of the best at it. In a 2004 Commonweal essay, McDermott writes that:

The language of Catholicism, a language I knew, had readily at hand, was a language I could use in order to pursue something I saw as enduring about the human spirit. I had to be very careful about it. I had to pare down the language of Catholicism, as I knew it, to what I saw as its essentials, in order to avoid getting caught up in the nonessentials…and gradually—no lightning bolts here—I began to realize that the language of the church, my church, was not only a means to an end in my fiction but an essential part of my own understanding of the world.”

I need the sort of deep language she’s describing. Especially when dealing with something that cuts through analysis, down to the body, something like grief in death of a loved one, Because despite the weight of its many non-essentials, Catholicism has been crafted and refined by a communion of saints to the point where I feel it, and I speak it with my body through ritual and sacrament. And I’ve learned to form community with anyone else who speaks this language. Forming community is an essential purpose of Catholic culture for me, and I expect for most of us here.  

But without additional lenses, Catholicism is easily diluted, and Catholic communities are easily manipulated. Our long church history is littered with examples ranging in scope from the Catholic justification for colonialism, as Jenn Reyes Lay will describe in her workshop, “ Wrestling with the Legacy of White Supremacist and Colonial Christianity”; to the subtle and indirect acts of discriminations against communities of color perpetuated in the ways we practice our faith, as Jenn will describe in her other session titled, “Are All Really Welcome? Unconscious Bias and MicroAggressions in Faith Communities”.

Even the seemingly best, most justice-minded Catholic communities often eventually slide into active oppression or complicity with subtle systems of oppression. My home, the Catholic Worker movement, is a great and current example. Catholic Worker communities across the country are slowly, painfully, often begrudgingly, waking up to the white supremacist and patriarchal systems upon which we’ve built one of the most potentially liberating and liberatory movements of the modern American Catholic left.  This is why adding a social material lens—among other lenses–to our Catholicism is necessary.

By now some of you may have realized that I’m describing two pieces of Liberation Theology. Two of the basic ingredients of Liberation Theology are faith and a materialist lens. So to restate what I said earlier: I think the future of our larger community, not to mention this organization, will be defined by how authentically each of us individually, and as a community, practice Liberation Theology in our own lives and in our own communities: in our own contexts. I don’t know exactly what liberation theology looks like in every community, but in the United States I know that it must include an anti-racism lens, as well as a materialist lens. As CTA has spent the past 10-15 years learning, the particularly American habit of infusing white supremacy into every aspect of our culture can only intentionally, consciously be accounted for and undone.

To recap briefly before I touch on how CTA’s programs will put these ideas into practice: I’m saying, like so many speakers from conferences throughout our history, that we are already a unique community, and that two of our defining features are that (1) we naturally seem to bring a materialist perspective to our faith, our work, and world, and (2) that we’re trending away from classic relationships with institutional Catholicism—but we are still a deeply Catholic people. And again, these are the basic ingredients to Liberation Theology, except that both our Catholicism and our materialism are loose, undefined, unstructured, unorganized, or even unconscious. Nevertheless, there is already a living, dynamic, and unique culture among us. And CTA’s programs are (humbly!) built to help us become conscious of this already living culture. First and again, and constantly, we remember that we are a smaller part of this much larger and more dynamic whole; and we understand that the larger community will develop this culture with or without CTA. But given our organizational history; with its broad focus, varied priority issues, different tactics, and the general sense that we seem to have tried to be something for everyone at some point, I think CTA can help in three particular ways: Build Leadership, Build Access, Build Rootedness. We’ll do these through the following three projects:

  • The 20/30 Project for Mentoring and Leadership
  • Working Groups and Chapters Building
  • The Vatican II Listening Project

Build Leadership. Our first program is The 20/30 Project for Mentoring and Leadership. “Leadership development” is a common theme in any culture who see themselves existing beyond a single generation. In our context with this program, leadership development simply means finding people with common interests–Catholicism and Justice–and giving them support to build community with each other.  More to the point, our purpose is to create a safe and stable enough community wherein questions about leadership role and style can be worked out along the way, within the group, by the group. All of this rests on the foundational belief that healthy, equitable communities bring out the latent leadership abilities, styles and characteristics of the individuals within them.

Build Access. Our second program emphasizes access to our community. We’re forming Working Groups based on each of CTA’s five focus areas: Women’s Justice, Racial Justice, LGBTQ Justice, Church Worker Justice, and Lay empowerment and Justice, with three additional working groups on Liturgical Direct Action, Progressive Catholic Theology, and General Church Reform Strategy. The simple goal of these working groups is to welcome as many people as possible in good, facilitated, regular conversation. This project is inspired in part by a very simple question which the Momentum Institute, a movement building community mostly organized out of Boston, asks in trainings, “What would you do if 100 people showed up with energy and interest in your mission? How and where would you plug these 100 people into your work?” This is a poignant question for our community. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report from this past August inspired Catholics from across the country to look outside their parish communities and seek communities like ours, many of them for the first time. We also saw Catholics who haven’t been to church in years come show out because they still feel a connection and responsibility to the faith. One young woman at a rally on the Cathedral steps told me simply, “I’m not done here yet.” There are at least a dozen more grand jury reports on the way, and we’d be wise to prepare welcoming, supportive avenues–not into our organizations, that would be crass and opportunistic, but into our larger community.  

Our third new program–I think I’m most excited about this one, is about building rootedness. The Vatican II Listening Project intends to hear and collect the stories and memories of the Second Vatican Council from the people who lived through it and were shaped by it. Vatican II of course, is in many ways our founding moment, and it is certainly the founding event for CTA. Most of you know this history better than I do. This project is inspired by Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, and I think about this as the beginning of “A People’s History of Vatican II”. Regardless the end product, from a standpoint of building people’s consciousness of our community’s culture, it makes sense for us to begin by identifying and celebrating where this culture began, and where it has existed throughout our community’s history.

There are many ways to describe our unique culture and community. When I read past conference lectures, I see many speakers describing it. They’ve called it Reformed Catholicism, Progressive Catholicism, the church within the church, the church beneath the church, etc..All of these fit well, and I don’t argue with any of them. But the description I like best, and the one that feels like it frames our history, describes our present, and points to our future with equal strength and accuracy comes from the 5th CTA conference address by Hans Kung. In that address, he said Call To Action is the “Loyal Left Opposition” of the Catholic church.

I’m excited to grow into this lofty goal with all of you as we continue to build our culture together, so that anyone who is seeking our community, whether they know it or not, may be able to say, “I’ve found my people”.

Amen.