Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

A New Experience of the Church?

by Stephanie Block


Stephanie Block writes about the burgeoning interest in Small Christian Communities and whether or not this is good for the Church. She traces their origin back to the Call to Action Conference held in Detroit in 1976.

Larger Work

Catholic World News

Publisher & Date

Catholic World News, July 2004

Most people would expect 15 attractive young adults to be doing something more exciting on a Friday night than studying the classics of Catholicism, so they wryly dubbed themselves the “Friday Night Nerds for Christ.” They had begun meeting as part of a parish ministry that emphasized all the social qualities they were now sacrificing in favor of more substantial spiritual meat.

"It was beautiful," remembers one twenty-something Nerd—a handsome, dark-haired fellow who has since married. He explained:

Someone usually brought a bag of M&Ms, and we did talk about the week, and allotted time to pray with one another, but the heart of the group was its studies. Among other things, we tackled the Dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena, explored the footnoted the Navarre New Testament, and watched Scott Hahn’s video series, Our Father's Plan. Most of us carried a Catechism of the Catholic Church in our backpacks, and a few even had copies of comparative Greek, Latin, and Hebrew Scriptures. We were very serious. Although perhaps more intellectual than most (two were MIT graduates, four are teachers, one a lawyer, two are computer jocks, one sang hot rock before her marriage, and one has entered religious life) the Nerds are little different from other Catholics, as they struggle to find the loves of their lives, raise families, and figure out God’s will for them in a confusing, painful world. They are examples of a common hunger to live the faith fully by creating small, friendly oases of believers in an otherwise hectic life.

Bible studies and prayer groups, some deliberately planted by dioceses and pastors, some spontaneously conceived, fill a need for friendships grounded on fundamental common principles.

The Nerds represent one example of a phenomenon—the Small Christian Community—that is spreading among Catholics throughout the United States. There are many other kinds.

Are They Catholic?

What is to be made of Small Christian Communities? Do they serve or threaten the Church?

Their history presents cause for concern. Small Christian Communities (SCCs) are known, among Latin American Marxists, as “base” or “basic” communities: comunidades des base. They were fostered as vehicles of “conscientization” in liberation theology. In their book, Dangerous Memories, Bernard Lee and Michael Cowan write: “The strongest support for this movement [of SCCs] came from the Medellín conference of Latin American bishops in 1968, which faced the Church in the direction of liberation theology and basic Christian communities.”

SCCs spread into North America through various “progressive” programs. For example, the “National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry,” produced by the US bishops' Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs in 1988 linked the creation of small ecclesial communities to conscientization, community development, and community organizing. It presented SCCs as “a model of Church that nourishes and fosters ministries by women,” and stated that it would “value the role of small ecclesial community in the promotion of women.” The SCC was to be the vehicle through which Hispanic Catholics would “develop a form of conscientization and commitment to justice.”

The Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio is one such liberationist hub in the United States. Its bookstore carries the title: How Can We Use the Gospels as a Basis for Our Action? One item in it is a politicized imitation of the Magnificat, written by leaders of a San Antonio activist group, COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service). It is included as a model of how “to reflect on the Gospels in order to find the proper response to our own situation.”

Such use of Scriptures is a characteristic of liberationist thought. COPS is one of dozens of related interfaith political action organizations around the country, including many Catholic parishes. A disconcerting number have small faith communities built into them, in which participants pray together and study the Bible together, examining Scripture "in the context of community.”

Renew and Call to Action

Programs such as RENEW were also designed to be seedbeds of SCCs.

The original RENEW program was developed a generation ago under the auspices of Archbishop Peter Gerety of Newark, New Jersey, one of the initial Call to Action organizers. Implemented in 1978 (soon after the initial 1976 Call to Action Conference in Detroit) it called for formation of “small communities in worship, prayer, study, evangelization and apostolic service.”

The US bishops' conference examined the RENEW program in 1986 and found several areas in which the program gave cause for concern. The bishops' report said it contained, “a definite bias toward the community model of Church,” resulting in “an imbalance which can be doctrinally misleading.”

Although the program was revamped, many of its echoes of liberation theology remained. Social action and evangelization are deliberately confused with one another. “Truth” is understood as a product of a "conscientized" people. Judgments are derived, according to RENEW’s literature, “from the collective wisdom of the group as consensus emerges from their sharing. This wisdom obviously involves the wisdom of the Spirit, alive in the community members."

Has the movement to restructure parishes into SCCs brought about the ideological shift that proponents sought? For all the years of work to create SCCs as “a new way of being Church,” the reality—according to a recent study that surveyed thousands these little groups—is complicated.

Funded by a $330,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation, the study was summarized in The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities, a book by Bernard Lee, S.M. and William V. D’Antonio. Lee, grant director and principal author of the study, and D’Antonio, principal researcher and research coordinator, are both members of the Call to Action’s speakers’ bureau. Theologian team members of the study included Father Virgilio Elizondo, founder of the Mexican American Cultural Center (mentioned above), Dr. Patricia O’Connell Killen, Dr. Jeannette Rodriquez, and Evelyn and James Whitehead, all of whom have spoken at Call to Action functions.

The study found that members of SCCs tend to be more connected to their parishes (with 75-85 percent attending Sunday Mass) than the general Catholic population (of which only 32 percent go to Mass weekly). They also tend to accept Church teaching more readily than the overall Catholic population.

One might have expected such findings to be a source of joy and encouragement. Despite cautions from critics who predicted that the SCCs spawned by programs like RENEW would generate autonomous, heterodox Catholics, the opposite seems to have occurred. Against the odds, despite a plethora of materials designed to politicize them, these groups seem to be doing a commendable job of fostering the faith—if the authors of The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities have correctly interpreted their data.

Looking at the data they have compiled, Lee and D'Antonio point toward two primary "pastoral concerns" that can be, in their view, derived from their study. The authors express consternation that the majority of Catholic SCCs have so little “public life.” The SCCs’ inner life of prayer, study, and fellowship tends to be well developed, they point out; but typically they do little to address “systemic issues of justice.” The authors lament:

Both the survey data and the observations and interviews reveal that gathering is the most rewarding part of SCC experience, and that being sent, that is social outreach, is a problematic dimension of the ecclesial reality of SCCs. And when being sent is operative, far more members understand that as the individual members of the community being sent, not the community as an entity. Some, in fact, reject the notion that being sent should be embodied by the group as a whole.

The authors also express frustration over leadership. As a consequence of moving meetings from home to home, with the hosts running the session, SCCs tend toward “rotating leadership and revolving responsibility.” Consequently, rather than selecting their own leaders, independent of existing Church structures, the members of parish-based SCCs tend to turn to their pastors for primary guidance and direction.

The 2002 Conference

To address these concerns, the researchers and writers of The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities convened the third National Convocation of (Catholic) SCCs in the USA, in August of 2002.

(The three organizational sponsors were Buena Vista, the National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities (NAPRC), and the North American Forum for Small Christian Communities (NAFSCC). In addition, other “consulting” organizations supported the gathering. These consulting organizations were RENEW International, Marianist Lay Communities, the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, the National Pastoral Life Center, and Father Virgilio Elizondo’s Mexican American Cultural Center. Each of these organizations has connections with Call to Action, and the Mexican American Cultural Center is perhaps the most important bastion of liberation theology in the US.)

The convocation offered few surprises. Its mission was to propose a national agenda for SCCs, most of which had already been set forth by Lee and D’Antonio in their book. That agenda includes:

  • The establishment of a national coordinating organization to serve the continuing development of SCCs.
  • Development of the “public life” of SCCs, getting them to delve into social issues and to obtain skills in social analysis.
  • Fostering leadership development with an eye to shifting control of the SCC from the pastors to the SCC participants themselves.
  • And, ironically, gaining greater support for SCCs from the Church hierarchy, as a means to ensure the continued spread of the movement.

This agenda was introduced to conference participants through a fascinating process. The weekend conference had been divided into sections using the pastoral cycle (also called the “practical theology process”) of "see-judge-act." To that end conference participants first "listened to the experience” of various speakers, many of them associated with Call to Action. Thus they were to “see” what the speakers saw. Next they reflected on that experience in the light of a Scripture passage from Corinthians, chosen by conference organizers, about the Church’s many members and their differing gifts. Finally participants were asked to act by establishing priorities for the SCC organizations. This “action” was actually no more than a ratification of the agenda previously described.

Is IAF the Answer?

One particular agenda item, regarding the development of social awareness and political activism in SCCs, deserves special consideration.

Michael Cowan’s pre-conference workshop called “Belonging is Not Enough: The Public Life of SCCs” provided the practical suggestion that SCCs should consider joining community organizations like the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). (IAF is a community-organizing group founded by the noted radical activist Saul Alinsky.) Cowan and Bernard Lee are themselves members of a New Orleans SCC that helped to found an IAF local named the Jeremiah Group. Broad-based community organizing of the sort done by IAF, Cowan said, could move SCCs into the world of social activism and provide leadership skills.

Cowan repeated these remarks during the opening plenary session of the convocation. The SCCs, he said, should not attempt to address social justice questions alone. Faith-based community organizations, however, are equipped to do just that. So an SCC can best exercise its public vocation by joining larger organizations, either through its own membership, through parish membership, or within a network of local community SCCs.

Keynote speaker Robert Bellah echoed Cowan’s remarks. He looked ahead to that moment in the convocation when participants would develop their “conclusions” about a common SCC agenda. “What will help us to deal with this?" he asked rhetorically, continuing:

Is there an organization to help us? Do we need a newsletter? How do we stay in touch? How do we remain engaged? How do we conscientize others about us?

The fundamental question to be addressed, as Bellah saw it, was: "What can be done so that the social capital of SCCs can have an effect on the social system?”

Bellah’s suggested answer to his own question was to link the SCCs to community organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation. These groups have the capacity to connect the parish to local neighborhood issues, he said—or to influence regional, statewide or national legislation. In short, “The IAF is an example of SCC networking.”

The theme of “communities gathered” and “communities sent” was repeated again and again by conference speakers. Speaker Evelyn Whitehead said that to be called together for the “inner life” of worship and fellowship was not enough; SCCs should exercise the “other arm” by going forth into the world—not to evangelize but to “create networks” of social solidarity.

By this point it should have been obvious what organizers of the conference hoped to achieve. But nothing was left to chance. At the last step of the see-judge-act “pastoral cycle,” participants were divided into “caucuses” to tackle the question: “What do we now see as the major work to foster the development of SCCs?” Each group of 6-10 people was asked to come up with at least three responses.

In the Buena Vista caucus, the nun acting as "facilitator" sat with one group, politely asking that she be allowed input, too. As no one else had mentioned it, she stated that SCCs should educate themselves about justice issues, and link to community organizations. The facilitator’s “input” became the group’s input and then made its way through the process from a caucus position to “convocation priority” #4: “Organizing SCCs for Public Life: forge links with faith-based justice groups; emphasize peace and justice issues.”

The final “priorities” were explained at the last plenary session. The IAF was again touted. Hector Rodriguez, who has worked with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a major funding source of faith-based community organizations, pointed to the San Antonio IAF local as a model for SCC activity in which “the Church can work for social change.”

Participants were asked to respond to one final question: “What has your experience over the past three days meant to you in terms of your understanding of this gathering and your SCC as Church?”

Sister María Elena González, RSM, of the Mexican American Cultural Center—which for decades has worked closely with Texas IAF locals – had shaped the answer before anyone else could lift a pencil. Her table, she said, felt that:

…the meaning of the assembly needed careful interpretation…. We have seen the transforming power of SCCs at an important moment in the history of our Church that can change the relationship of the dialogue between the hierarchy of the Church and the people.

This politicized goal was a far cry from the humble purposes of most SCC members.

Two Years Later: SCCS and Catechetics

The April 2004 National Conference for Catechetical Leadership, held in Albuquerque, carried the discussion forward through breakout sessions presented by Father Bernard Lee, SM, grant director and principal author of the Lilly-funded study described above, which culminated in the publication of The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities. Father Lee’s objective at the NCCL meeting was to demonstrate the legitimacy of SCCs, linking them to a new vision of ecclesiology and to social activism. To demonstrate the fundamental legitimacy of SCCs, he distributed a yellow handout listing quotations from Pope John Paul II.

“What’s interesting to me here,” said Lee, “is that after all the continental synods, the Pope wrote an exhortation...making a pitch for small communities, because on every continent, people kept raising the issue.” He cited various passages from Ecclesia in America, Ecclesia in Africa, and Ecclesia in Asia, in which the Holy Father affirmed the need for a Christian community small enough to foster close human relationships. In the Pope's vision, expressed in these exhortations, these small Christian communities are places in which the faithful learn more about the faith so they can, in turn, evangelize others. They are communities of prayer, study, and “reflection on different human problems in the light of the Gospel.”

Father Lee built his own vision on these papal remarks. He pointed to an exchange of articles in America magazine initiated by Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, who was challenged on key positions by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Explaining this exchange, Father Lee said that Cardinal Kasper had objected to Ratzinger’s position “that the universal Church is ontologically and temporally prior to any local Church.” Kasper’s position, he explained, is “that there would be no Church if there weren’t local churches, but by their very nature, the first local Church brings into existence both the universal and the local Church.”

Reflecting on the debate, Lee first noted that he that it was “really healthy” for two important Church figures to voice disagreements about ecclesiological issues in a public forum. More significantly, Lee said that he wants Cardinal Kasper’s view to “win.” Historically, he claimed, the Church came into existence as communities, formed from baptized people and the “ecclesial units” they formed. “We have to give the small communities more church-hood than they’ve got,” he said.

What significance is there to viewing the SCC as “ontologically and temporally prior” to the universal Church rather than the other way round? It raises the fundamental Protestant question about authority. Where is it decided how Scripture is to be interpreted? Who has the final say in matters of faith and morals? How are liturgical norms developed? These are very different issues, but the answer one gives to each question will flow from the views one holds about the Church.

In response to a question about whether the Vatican might be causing confusion by constant liturgical changes, Father Lee joked that he should cover the microphone before replying; then he said: “Most of the new liturgical directives have nothing to do with good liturgy. They’re all about power.” His remark was met with laughter and applause.

Whither the SCC?

The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities, Lee and D’Antonio’s report on SCCs, demonstrates clearly that small faith communities can and do serve the purposes of the Church—unless they have been formed by the ecclesiology espoused by the most prominent proponents of the SCC movement. SCCs with a clear attachment to Call to Action and the "autonomous eucharistic communities" that accounted for only about 1 percent of the groups studied demonstrated a relationship to the Church that was radically different from those of most other SCCs. Unlike their counterparts, the SCCs formed from these dissident groups have a low acceptance of Church teaching. However, they have a high participation in parish life. Such SCCs are, therefore, Trojan Horses in parish life, providing support and comfort to people who want to produce radical changes in the Church and in society.

Father Lee told conference participants that his agenda for ecclesial change is closely tied to the process of catechesis. To explain, he quoted the late Father James Dunning, founder of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. (That organization, created to promote the RCIA, pioneered an “initiation” process that avoids a dogmatic approach to the faith while emphasizing the affective aspects of religion. The program also gives itself a great deal of room in which teachers can interject political or social messages, as many bewildered converts—and would-have-been converts—have discovered.) Father Dunning was not known for his orthodoxy. Reportedly, he once told participants at a seminar in Michigan, “For heaven’s sake, the Eucharist is not literally the body and blood of Jesus… Jesus does not exist in a crumb!” But here Lee recalled Dunning’s remarks at the 1994 conference of the North American Forum for Small Christian Communities: “I see little long-term hope for the catechumenate unless there’s a connection between SCCs before, during, and after initiation.” SCCs, Lee explained, “give a cohesiveness, a sense of who we are, a Catholic identity at a level that, if it takes hold there, will catch on at the parish level and the whole Church.”

To what kind of Catholic identity does Father Lee refer? Catholics who identify with the Church before Vatican II, he said, believed that "we would go to Hell if we missed Mass on Sunday, rosaries, Friday abstinence, spiritual bouquets.” These were strong ways of identifying with Catholic culture, he conceded, but “most of these don’t operate much any more.”

After Vatican II, those aspects of Catholic culture became less prominent, and Lee admitted that "we haven't found a lot of their replacements yet." Still he expressed his confidence:

We will, but we haven’t yet. Different forms of community and some issues around social justice are going to be, I think, far more defining of what emerges...

Despite documented evidence that Church-centered SCCs have genuinely enhanced the faith of those who participate, Call to Action activists still strive to turn them into a creature of their own imagination. The goal of these reformers is to generate base communities in each parish, committed not to the authentic faith but to using the "social capital" of the faith to build a "people’s church" and to lend legitimacy to the politics of the left.

What Is Call to Action?

Today’s Call to Action is a loose coalition of several hundred Small Faith Communities and “Church Renewal Organizations.” Together, they support and work for the same goals that were recommended by the original 1976 CTA Conference in Detroit:

  • The ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood.
  • A lifting of the priestly discipline of celibacy.
  • “Democratic” or “popular” selection of bishops and priests.
  • Admission that active, homosexual behavior is not necessarily or intrinsically sinful.
  • Changes of Church teachings regarding the natural law as it applies to artificial birth control and intentional abortions.
  • A new understanding that the Kingdom of God is a temporal achievement accomplished by human beings.
  • “Freedom of speech” for Catholic educators and theologians.

Stephanie Block is director of special research projects for the Wanderer Forum Foundation. She has written A Commentary on the Campaign for Human Development (1997), A Commentary on the Industrial Areas Foundation (1998), and A Commentary on the USCCB and Environmentalism (2000). She also edits The Pepper Newsletter for Los Pequenos de Cristo in New Mexico.

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