The Quixote Complex

by Donna Steichen


An excerpt from Donna Steichen's book, Ungodly Rage which discusses the Quixote Center, an activist organization which champions many radical dissident causes.

Larger Work

Ungodly Rage



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, 1991

Father William Callahan moved from COC to found Priests for Equality (PFE) in July 1975, setting off a dizzying proliferation of organizational progeny.164 PFE is composed of sympathetic priests165 and others who "strategize" for the ordination of women. The most prominent name on its board of directors is that of Father James Coriden, academic dean of Washington Theological Union, who took a stand for women's ordination in Sexism and Church Law in 1977.166

On January 1, 1976, Father Callahan and associate Delores "Dolly" Pomerleau branched out to form the hotly activist Quixote Center,167 which soon became their major vehicle and a point of departure for many radical Catholic causes. Sister Maureen Fiedler joined in September 1976, eventually sharing with them a three-way directorship.168 Other staff members have come and gone as needed.

A few projects spun off to separate incorporation: New Ways Ministry in 1977, Christic Institute in 1979,169 PFE in 1984. Except when some cause needed a list of supporting organizations, others remained under the Quixote umbrella during their life spans: "Catholics Act for ERA" (1978);170 "Catholic Advocates for Equality" (1979);171 "Religious Task Force on Latin America" (1980); "Central American Religious Study Group" and "Central American Telephone Tree" (1982); "Medical Aid for Nicaragua" and "Catholics for the Common Good" (1984);172 "Quest for Peace" (1985); "Veterans Fast for Peace" (1986); "Let Live" (1986);173 and "Communities of Peace and Friendship" (1989).

Quixote opened its own center in Nicaragua and organized effective pro-Sandinista public relations and lobbying campaigns in the United States in the 1980s. In 1985, Quest for Peace collected ten million dollars' worth of humanitarian aid—money, clothing and medical supplies—for Sandinista-approved Nicaraguan poor. Quest's total aid) collected with five hundred co-sponsors (mostly religious groups), was valued at an amazing hundred million dollars by 1987.174 That otherwise sympathetic effort was tarnished when Quixote lobbied vigorously against humanitarian aid for the Contras, arguing that its "sole purpose is the overthrow of the elected Nicaraguan government ".175 The 1990 elections there were a bitter pill for Quixote.176

Meanwhile, Quixote's feminist activism never flagged. Sister Fran Ferder came in 1976 to write Called to Break Bread.177 As "full participants" in the 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit, staff members lobbied successfully for "the ERA, women's ordination, an end to discrimination against gay men and lesbians".178 In 1977, to protest the Vatican "Declaration" against women priests, Quixote distributed "Almighty Dollars"—play money bearing an image of St. Therese of Lisieux, of all people, as "patroness of equality for women in ministry".179 In 1978, Dolly Pomerleau coordinated the second WOC conference, which drew two thousand participants to Baltimore. PFE, then claiming seventeen hundred members, held a conference " in tandem with" that "main event ".180

In 1979, as "Listen to the Voices of the People", Quixote organized demonstrations against the Holy Father during his American visit, printing posters, issuing press releases and recruiting women to "stand with blue arm bands" while "Sister Theresa Kane spoke out" to the Pope at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.181 Ruth Fitzpatrick, then on staff, says Quixote urged people not to receive Communion at the Pope's Masses because the rules prohibited lay eucharistic ministers. PFE called on priests to "pull back from giving communion . . . so that lay people would have to do it." Callahan, who "knew how to use the press", put on his Roman collar and chatted with reporters. "The press loved him", Fitzpatrick recalls.182

During the 1980 Synod on the Family, Quixote held a conference in Rome titled "Women and Men in Today's Family, Society and Church".183 As "Catholics Act for ERA", Fiedler, Pomerleau and ten allies chained themselves to the Republican National Committee building in Washington that year. In 1981, Fiedler organized a " Prayer Vigil for the ERA" outside President Reagan's church and toured the country lobbying for ratification; in 1982, she and seven others fasted for thirty-seven press-conscious days for ERA ratification in Illinois. Barbara Cullom, Ph.D. (biblical studies, University of Notre Dame), joined with Fiedler to organize the 1983 "Woman-Church Speaks" conference in Chicago.184 Fiedler's keynote address, "Political Spirituality", was later published in Quixote's newsletter.185

Fiedler, Pomerleau, Cullom and Jeannine Gramick all signed CFFC's first New York Times ad. Cullom signed the second ad, too, along with Father Callahan and New Ways staff member Brother Rick Garcia, B.F.C.C.186 On March 4, 1985, to protest the NCCB's closed hearings on women's concerns, Pomerleau and Fiedler, as the "Committee of Concerned Catholics", held parallel "open hearings" where Mary Buckley, Mary Hunt, Ruth Fitzpatrick, Sister Marjorie Tuite, Sister Carol Coston and others complained about "repression in the Church".187 Pomerleau served on the planning committee for WOC's November 1985 conference, "Ordination Reconsidered"; Quixote and PFE were among its few sponsors.

PFE first published Miriam's Song, a tabloid edition of addresses presented at Time Consultants' Women in the Church conference, in 1986. Since then, issues have appeared at irregular intervals. Writers have included Sister Joan Chittister, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, Sister Sandra Schneiders, Sister Fran Ferder, Sister Mary Collins, Rosemary Ruether, Mary Jo Weaver, Sister Anne Patrick, S.N.J.M., Sister Camille D'Arienzo, R.S.M., and Sister Dianne Bergant, C.S.A. As "Catholics Speak Out", "New Ways Ministry", "Priests for Equality" and "Quixote Center", the Quixote complex joined Chicago Call to Action and the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church to produce another four-page advertising supplement to National Catholic Reporter in the fall of 1988 during the annual NCCB meeting. Titled "By Their Fruits You Will Know Them", it demanded (1) that every Church office, including the episcopacy, and all "decision-making positions" be open to women and their advancement speeded by "affirmative action"; (2) that "gender-balanced" language "for humanity and for God" be used in liturgy and Scripture; (3) that "dialogue" be conducted on "issues of sexuality, sexual orientation and reproduction". It bore thirty-seven hundred signatures. 188


164 Its fascinating history is recounted in Quixote Center Chronicles: 1975-1985 (Hyattsville, Md.: Quixote Center, 1985), 1-8. Hereafter, Chronicles 1985.

165 Seven hundred priests reportedly endorsed PFE's "Charter of Equality" in the first year. Ibid., 1.

166 James Coriden, ed., Sexism and Church Law: Equal Rights and Affirmative Action (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), ix, 191. Father Coriden was chairman of the theology department at Catholic University of America in 1973 (see Kelly, Battle, 120f.) and is currently academic dean of Washington Theological Union.

167 Chronicles 1985,1.

168 Ibid., 2.

169 Sara Nelson, a NOW fund-raiser; Father William Davis, S.J., past director of the Jesuit Office of Social Ministry", and ex-seminarian Dan Sheehan, a Harvard-educated attorney who had previously worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Jesuit Social Ministry Office, joined the Quixote staff in 1977 to pursue the Karen Silkwood suit against Kerr-McGee Corporation. See Cliff Kincaid, "The Christic Institute's Legal Terrorism", Human Events, Nov. 28, 1987, 13. Silkwood, an employee at a Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Oklahoma, was killed in an automobile accident, Sheehan claimed she was murdered to prevent her from exposing the company. He accused Kerr-McGee of hiding a black-market conspiracy to smuggle nuclear materials out of the country, but the surrounding publicity and the jury's final $10.5-million judgment against the corporation in 1979 were based on liability for Silkwood's plutonium poisoning on the grounds of inadequate plant safety standards. See Chronicles 1985,2-3. See also Richard Raschke, "Catholic Center Probes Union Organizers' Death" (a Quixote Center reprint of a 1977 National Catholic Reporter article, n.d.). See also Kincaid, "Terrorism", 13.

After their 1979 victory in the Silkwood case, the three spun off from Quixote as Christic Institute and made farther news during the Contra controversy. Christic filed a bizarre 1986 suit charging that Contra supporters had conspired in drug running and political assassination. The case was dismissed.

170 Chronicles 1985,3.

171 When Callahan's priestly faculties were suspended and his Jesuit superiors ordered him to stop promoting the ordination of women, to cease criticizing "clear decisions of the Holy See" and finally to leave the center, Quixote formed the committee to purchase the National Catholic Reporter advertising supplement, "Even the Stones Will Cry Out". The ad, linking Callahan's situation to the "repression" of Kung, Schillebeeckx and homosexual "rights" advocate Father John McNeill, ran with supporting endorsements from twenty-six hundred individuals and one hundred organizations. See National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 22,1980.

172 Formed to campaign for the "Ferraro-Mondale" ticket. See Chronicles 1985,5-6.

173 An anti-capital-punishment group. Musings from Rocinante (newsletter) (Oct. 1986).

174 Colman McCarthy, "Against Ollie North: Quiet Commitment", Washington Post, July 18, 1987. See also "Conservative Forum", Human Events, Jan. 9,1988.

175 Chronicles 1985,6.

176 See Quixote Center Chronicles: 1989 (West Hyattsville, Md.: Quixote Center, 1990), 5.

177 Ferder, Called to Break Bread.

178 Chronicles 1985,2.

179 See New Women/New Church, news publication of Women's Ordination Conference (Nov./Dec. 1987), 20. The explanation, on the face of the "funny money", Is that St. Therese "felt called to be a priest in a Church that would not test her call. She prayed for death at 24, the age of ordination, so she could celebrate in heaven at the age men could celebrate the Eucharist on earth." Only on items designed for public distribution does Quixote capitalize the words "Church" and "Eucharist".

180 Chronicles 1985,3.

181 Ibid.

182 Milhaven, "Fitzpatrick", in Milhaven, Inside Stories, 34f.

183 The co-sponsor was a European group, Femmes et Hommes dans l'Eglise. Some eighty persons reportedly attended. Chronicles 1985, 3.

184 Chronicles 1985,4-5.

185 Maureen Fiedler, "Political Spirituality", Musings from Rocinante, Quixote Center newsletter (Jan. 1984): 1.

186 According to Garcia, B.F.C.C. (Brothers for Christian Community, a non-canonical community associated with Sisters for Christian Community), endorses the Catholic Coalition for Gay Civil Rights and formally approved his work with New Ways Ministry at its 1980 Community Assembly. Garcia had previously been president of a St. Louis Dignity chapter and a volunteer for National Organization for Women,

187 Joan Turner Beifuss and Mary Fay Bourgoin, "Catholic Women Voice Divergent Views, Concerns at DC Hearings", National Catholic Reporter, Mar. 15, 1985, 35. See also New Women/New Church (May/June 1987): 20.

188 "By Their Fruits You Will Know Them: A Call to Eliminate Sexism from the Church by the Year 2000", advertising supplement, National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 18,1988.

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