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Catholic Reform Movements in the US: Creating a more Tolerant and Just Church and Society

Part 2: Special focus on Call To Action and the School of the America’s Watch

Sophie Vodvarka



Slide 1-4: Coming together to create Church

Call To Action is a Catholic reform organization which has worked for forty years to create a church which embraces everyone, and welcomes everyone equally. Call To Action is an organization made up of mostly lay people, advocating for grassroots, lay-led change, though we also have many priests and nuns as our members. The organization was born out of a 1976 conference called by US Bishops in Detroit, which was inspired by the Second Vatican Council, which asked all members of the conference to “scrutinize the signs of the times” and to take the issues of the church into their own hands.

In our 40 years of as a reform organization in the US, Call To Action has re-imagined tolerance in the church and in society, working to create open dialogue between laity and clergy and create a church that is loving and equitable for everyone. Our work has spanned many different fields, but now focuses mainly on lay empowerment, anti-racism initiatives, women’s equality and LGBTQI equality initiatives, and through social activism surrounding anti-war and the promotion of peace, immigrant rights and ecological sustainability. We have more than 50 chapters across the United States and approximately 15,000 members.

As a social movement that became a reform organization, Call To Action’s mission has changed throughout the years, but today can be summarized in our mission statement: Call To Action educates, inspires and activates Catholics to act for justice and build inclusive communities through a lens of anti-racism and anti-oppression principles.

The ways this social movement works to create tolerance have been for the most 3-fold: Local Chapters throughout the us and Intentional Eucharistic communities who worship together and tackle justice issues in their diocese and communities, Large National gatherings of conferences and activist events, and direct encounter initiatives, like our Equally Blessed pilgrims, and our personal conversations with priests, bishops and cardinals.

Slide 5: Advocating for LGBTQI equality through direct encounter

One of the biggest areas Call To Action focuses on is on creating a more tolerant and just Church for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex individuals. Call To Action has partnered with three other Catholic reform movements to create the coalition Equally Blessed, for the past several years. Equally Blessed is a group of LGBTQI people who gather together at major Catholic events, like World Youth Day, and World Meeting of Families. Equally Blessed advocates very publically for inclusion of LGBTQI people in the Church, and holds workshops, meetings, prayer services and other events during these major Catholic events.

Through their direct encounter with Catholics, Equally Blessed has gained influence throughout the Catholic world, and has invited many LGBTQI individuals back into the Church which has contributed to hate and intolerance of LGTBQI people.

Slide 6: Creating inclusive, tolerant, alternate Catholic communities

Intentional Eucharistic Communities have become a popular way for progressive Catholics to celebrate our faith together. There are many different groups which have focuses on particular aspects of the liturgy: there are groups of Roman Catholic Woman Priests and groups which have married priests. Additionally, Dignity USA is a major US Catholic organization which organizes masses throughout the US that openly welcome LGBTQI individuals. Many Catholics feel more comfortable in these Intentional Eucharistic Communities and Call To Action supports these communities in many ways, including being a liason between them.

This summer, we celebrated our 40th Anniversary in Rochester, NY at the Spiritus Christi community, which is an independent Catholic community run by Roman Catholic Woman Priest Mary Rammerman. I should note that these communities are in general non-cannonical, and do sometimes run into problems with the institutional church. Call To Action chapters have been excommunicated, for example, in my home state of Nebraska for practicing their faith in accordance with their consciences.

Slide 7: Creating Tolerance, welcoming migrants

Though there are many ways to organize to create change and tolerance, one of the most important issues that Call To Action and several other Catholic organizations have worked on is bringing to light the migration crisis along the US border with Mexico.

As you have likely seen on the news, one of our main presidential candidates, Donald Trump, talks openly about building a huge wall on the border of Mexico and the US to ‘keep out immigrants’. Migrants from Latin America are subject to incredible cruelty in America, and the Church works in many ways to welcome our friends.

The United States empire and the neoliberal economic order that the US instills upon the world plays a massive role in economic inequalities throughout the world and in the environmental degradation which leads to refugees and migrants.

Xenophobia, racism, nationalism, corporatism and militarism in America have created a system where migrants fleeing countries which have been destroyed economically by American trade-agreements and political strife, are chased by border patrols, charged in mass-trials, and sentenced to serve months in detention centers before being forced to return home. It is the responsibility of every American Catholic who knows about these truths to witness, and to help create tolerance and change.

Slide 8: Catholic Activism: The School of the America’s Watch

Fr. Roy Bourgeois began a movement more than 25 years ago, School of the America’s Watch, became an organization that stands in solidarity with migrants and which seeks to close a school funded by the US government which trains Latin American soldiers to use horrifying military tactics including torture on their own people. It has been nicknamed “School of Assassins”, and it’ graduates have been linked to many extremely well-known assassinations, including Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and a group of Jesuits from the University of Central America, and their companions.

The targeting of prominent Catholic theologians in El Salvador brought these issues to the forefront of Catholic social activism in the US.


Slide 9-10: The weekend at Fr. Benning Georgia

For the past several decades, Fr. Roy has organized a weekend of activism at Fr. Benning Georgia, where School of the Americas is located. During the weekend, attendees learn about a myriad of issues surrounding the US’s relationship with Latin America, including the militarization of the US police and border guard, the use of private detention centers for migrants, and about the lives of many people who were killed as a result of School of the America graduates.

Call To Action has been partnering with Progressive Catholic Coalition—a group of several Catholic reform groups, for the past decade in social activism surrounding issues of migration, in both policy, mobilization of communities, and spiritual healing. Progressive Catholic Coalition organizes an inclusive Catholic liturgy for the weekend, and invites attendees to partake in all aspects of the mass and find spiritual healing during a difficult weekend.

Slide 11: SOAW’s movement to the border

This year, for the first time, the School of the America’s Watch (SOAW) will move their days of action from Fr. Benning Georgia, to the border of the United States and Mexico. The reason behind this, is because the School of the America’s has now begun to train border guards which is extremely worrisome because of their atrocious human rights record.

Additionally, the United States Empire and the neoliberal economic order that we instill upon the world plays a massive role in economic inequalities throughout the world and in the environmental degradation which leads to climate refugees and migrants. Having a convergence at the border of Mexico is a way to bring US focus on the reasons behind migration as a whole.

Like with Equally Blessed, moving our bodies to witness—to stand in solidarity with migrants as a Catholic—it is a way to both change hearts and minds, and share knowledge throughout the US.


Slide 12: US War on the Border

The US policy along our southern border has become heavily militarized and to try to force migrants through the Arizona desert, where over 170 deaths occur every year. Memos within the US government have stated that it is their intention to try to persuade people from crossing the border because of the high mortality rate in the desert.

When a migrant is caught crossing the border, they are sent to mass trials in the US, during which people are not informed of their rights, and usually cannot request to claim asylum. Many people are fleeing horrible situations in Latin America, and could qualify as refugees if they were allowed. Rather, most migrants are locked up in privately-owned detention center like Stewart Detention Center, which activists visited during School of the Watch in 2015. The corporate state of the US is the reason why our borders are the way they are—private prisons make $120 per day per prisoner.

Operation Streamline is a particularly heinous US government policy which creates such a fast sentencing for immigrants, that those who would qualify for refugee status, as they often are fleeing imminent death and political repression, are not able to claim asylum until after the trial. Since 2005 Operation Streamline has put over a billion dollars into the hands of for-profit prisons in Texas alone. This policy does not work at all to deter migrants from crossing the border as only a quarter of those who are sent to jail say they won’t try to cross the border again.


Slide 13: What are the positive results for migrants in this struggle of Catholic activists?

School of the America’s Watch has had success lobbying both in the US and in Latin America. The delegations School of the America’s Watch hosts, for example, have made great strides, and have persuaded five Latin American countries to withdraw their soldiers from the School of Americas.

Awareness-raising and fighting propaganda in society in general have been great strengths. In the United States, there is extreme propaganda targeted toward trusting the government, believing what the media says and supporting war and militarization. School of the America’s Watch has exposed many lies told to the America people as to where their tax money goes.

Drawing from our history of spiritual healing, the last event during the School of the America’s Watch days of action is about creating tolerance, justice and healing. The truly wonderful aspect of the days of action are the amount of different groups who come together that reject corporatism, militarism and the neoliberal order of the United States which makes a few very rich and most very poor and which drives both the reason behind and treatment of migrants to the US.

The weekend’s events conclude with a striking silent funeral procession. Thousands of people have died at the hands of SOAW-trained soldiers, and the solemn procession remembers their lives, and helps us to remember how important it is to continue fighting to resist the militarization of America, and to welcome our brothers and sister migrants.