Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

We Have a Groovy Kinda Faith

by Stephanie Block

Descriptive Title

Where is the North American Forum on the Catechumenate Taking the Archdiocese of Santa Fe?


Stephanie Block spotlights the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, an organization founded by the dissident Rev. James Dunning in order to train catechumens, and shows that the faith they are transmitting is not the deposit of Faith that was passed on to us from the Apostles.

Publisher & Date

Original, February 13, 2006

"Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Mt. 28: 19-20)

At the time those words were spoken, they were easily understood. Jesus gave his followers a difficult but straightforward and uncomplicated mission.

Two thousand years later, however, such simple instructions have been deconstructed and reassembled by a host of professionals who have a number of concerns to add to Jesus' elementary message:

  • How do you raise social awareness in the masses – many of whom are deeply religious?
  • How do you then channel that social awareness into desirable directions?
  • How do you replace centuries-held belief systems with more flexible models?

It can be done, and there are a number of ways to do it.

One way is to influence the baby Christians – the ones whose faith is being newly formed. An initiation program that avoids the facts of the Faith while emphasizing the affective aspects of religion gives itself a lot of latitude to interject political or social messages. One pioneer in this process, Fr. James Dunning, wrote: "We have pasted and patched together rites of Reconciliation and Eucharist. But the wine of RCIA is too strong. If it is poured into the wineskins of a Church which ministers only through priests and initiates primarily through doctrine, the ecclesiastical bags will burst." [James B. Dunning, New Wine: New Wineskins, Pastoral Implications of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (New York: William H. Sadlier, Inc.) 1981, pp. 10.]

Dump the doctrine

Reading New Wine: New Wineskins by Rev. James Dunning is a trip back to a time when the vernacular was studded with complaints about hang-ups and baggage and the quasi-psychological concern to get in touch with one's feelings. But Dunning, who founded the most influential apparatus for training catechists, namely the North American Forum on the Catechumenate (NAF), can't be shrugged off as dated.

The daring theological fashion-statements of twenty years ago are today's standard: The "passing on of doctrine from authority….is not the Church of Vatican II, which…came up immanent, ‘bottom-up,' basically (with some exceptions) a community approach to Church." (page 33)

Oh? There isn't any Vatican II document that makes such a statement, so Dunning must be referring to "the spirit" of Vatican II. That "spirit" doesn't require a doctrinal imprimatur. We're done with "passing on doctrine from authority," remember?

So, where does that get you? In Fr. Dunning's case, it changed the way he looked at a lot of things. For example, he told the participants of an NAF seminar in Michigan, "For heaven's sake, the Eucharist is not literally the body and blood of Jesus. If a piece of Eucharist falls on your shoe, Jesus didn't fall on your shoe! Jesus does not exist in a crumb!" At the same seminar, Dunning reportedly made disparaging remarks about the papacy and the male priesthood. (Brian Robertson, "Christian Initiation at Risk," Crisis, February 1998)

The doctrinally informed within the Church have trouble with such remarks, but folks who have been trained to focus more on their personal journey, their feelings, their conversion, their creativity, and their experiences than on God's laws or revelation don't bat an eye.

Well, Fr. Dunning has passed on to his reward, may he rest in peace, but NAF lives on. In fact, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe hosted a NAF "formation institute for RCIA teams" in June at the Catholic Center. Has NAF changed since Dunning's day?


The Forum's catalog of resource materials is revealing. Approximately 200 books are offered through its Book Service and are recommended to help catechists in the "initiation and reconciliation ministries." Among the authors whose works NAF considers worthwhile and helpful are Call to Action speakers Kathy Coffey, Rev. Patrick Brennan, Kathleen Hughes, Richard Rohr, John Shea, Gabe Huck, Bishop Raymond Lucker, Donna Steffen, and Arthur Baranowski.

Others authors are related to Call to Action more indirectly. Rev. Gerard Sloyan is a founding member of the Call to Action related ARCC, (Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church), which promotes ordination to the priesthood of women and homosexuals, and denies the Vatican's right to censure errant theologians. Tad Guzie, a former Jesuit and part of the Call to Action related CORPUS (Calgary group – Alberta, Canada) also promotes married and women priests.

Call to Action is in-your-face dissidence. But the reading list includes others who, while not Call to Action speakers, talk the talk. Kathleen R. Fischer and Thomas N. Hart are contributors to the Global Fund, an organization that exists in part to fund abortion referrals or services around the world that, because of these services, have been denied U.S. aid. Rev. Robert Kennedy, SJ, is a practitioner and teacher of Zen Buddhism. Rev. Mark Allen Powell and Gail Ramshaw are members of the pro-abortion Evangelical Lutherans. There are radical feminists and inclusive language proponents and a host of writers who want to transform the Church into congregationalism – autonomous small faith communities. There are the liberationists of every stripe. There's even Rev. Barry Glendinning, a convicted Canadian pedophile.

Now, the literature list isn't completely dissident. Among those 200 books are a sprinkling of papal encyclicals and USCCB documents and possibly some Catholic writers, as well. But the large number of those with "another perspective" is amazing.

And these folks aren't there, on the reading list, by accident. Their perspectives are offered as part of the "new wineskin" into which they hope will one day be poured a transformed church. It won't look anything like the Church of the past 2000 years, but that's the idea, right?


So, who did New Mexicans meet at the Catholic Center during the June NAF "Institute?" From whom were they learning the skills of RCIA implementation?

The folks who came to train archdiocesan catechists aren't among the big names mentioned above. But they are, however, people who have rubbed shoulders against the intoxicating new wine of Call to Action thought and who then carry it back into their local spheres.

Among the presenters were:

  • Clare Colella, director of Caritas Telecommunications in the Archdiocese of San Bernardino. She's NAF's Board of Directors Chair and was involved with NAF from its inception.
  • Rev. Tim Piasecki, pastor of an Illinois parish, was another presenter. He's also on the NAF Board of Directors.
  • Sr. Rosanne Belpedio, CSJ, who is the coordinator of the RCIA in Los Angeles, and was part of the "formation days" hosted in 2001 by the Los Angeles Archdiocese to implement Cardinal Mahony's controversial pastoral "Gather Faithfully Together."
  • Steve Janco, a parish music director for an Illinois and composer of liturgical music and an ex-priest who was a professor of liturgy at Mundelein Seminary of St. mary of the Lake near Chicago.

How does this "rubbing shoulders" work? It's not at all "guilt by association." Rather, it's learning from one's mentors and in turn, teaching it to others. Sr. Belpedio, to give an interesting example, writes a memo to the catechists of the archdiocese, directing them to Donna Steffen's book in their discernment of a prospective Catholic's readiness to enter the Church.

Who is Donna Steffen? What makes her a credible resource for helping catechists discern anything? She's a Call to Action presenter who teaches the new age labyrinth spirituality. She's also one of the authors in the NAF resource catalog.

Then Belpedio suggests a Ron Oakham book as another good resource. Oakham serves as Secretary of the NAF Board of Directors.

In this way, distorted ideas about the Faith, or about teaching the Faith, filter from their perpetrators down to the good-hearted, well-meaning people who serve in RCIA programs.

Brian Robertson ("Christian Initiation at Risk," Crisis, February 1998) muses that "perhaps it's time to take RCIA out of the hands of the ‘professional catechists' and entrust it to those faithful who have read – and adhere to – the Catechism." Now there's an idea!

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