By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006
At the drop of a hat, Bill Callahan can recite lyrics from "The Music Man" -- or a Longfellow poem. His nicknames describe him as both "the Turtle" and "the Hammer." He was both a NASA physicist and a Jesuit priest. In short, Callahan is not a simple guy to characterize.
But perhaps that's apt for someone at the forefront of a movement that is both alive and dead.
Today, Callahan celebrates the 30th anniversary of an organization he co-founded called the Quixote Center, a Brentwood-based group advocating for female Catholic priests, greater leadership for laypeople in the Church and democracy in Nicaragua and Haiti, among other things.
When it began in 1976, the Quixote Center was one of several dozen like-minded, liberal groups hopeful that radical change was upon the Catholic Church after Vatican II, a meeting of Catholic leaders in the 1960s. Today, it is one of the largest of about 10 remaining, as U.S. Catholics -- like the rest of the country -- have grown more conservative, the push for change in the Church has lost its momentum and top leaders concentrate on spiritual efforts like prayer and sacraments rather than politics and policy, Catholic scholars say.
"If you go to these groups, it's all gray hair out there," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, former editor of the prominent Catholic magazine America and a scholar at the Woodstock Theological Center.
At the same time, however, polls of U.S. Catholics consistently show majority support for some of Callahan's core issues: allowing female priests and more frank discussion about issues of sexuality, sexual orientation and reproduction.
So it is as the center celebrates its anniversary with a party tonight and honors Callahan, who has semi-guru status among supporters for rebelling against Jesuit authorities in the 1980s. The Massachusetts native was ordered to stop working with the Quixote Center when it was raising millions of dollars for rural Nicaraguans -- in opposition to U.S. military policies there -- and told not to speak out against the Church without permission. Callahan was asked to leave the Jesuits in 1991.
A soft-spoken man who has a jutting, grey beard, deep-set eyes and solid jaw reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln's, the 75-year-old Callahan is also beloved at the center for his ability to laugh at his flagging physical state from Parkinson's disease, which he has had for a decade. Despite that, he runs the Army 10-mile race in Washington each year and calls himself the "Parkinsonian Turtle" for his slow, increasingly wobbly pace.
It is this sense of humor that produced the center's name. Don Quixote is an epic literary character whose idealistic, senile attitude allows him to convince himself he is a knight.
"He dreams, he has visions, but he's basically a silly old man," Callahan said with a smile in the center's kitchen. "When people work on social justice issues, they don't win much and wind up dropping out. To laugh at one's self from the beginning is essential."
In fact, the Quixote Center has raised tens of millions of dollars for its causes and has an annual budget of $1 million to $2 million, all with a staff of 12, who operate in system where everyone has the same salary, becomes a co-director after one year and has a say in group projects.
Callahan also serves as a minister to several independent worshipping groups of Catholics called "intentional communities." He can't officially celebrate the sacraments, but such groups are often made up of people interested in lay-leadership. Dozens of people are in Callahan's groups, including Communitas, the Greenbelt Catholic Community and NOVA.
But Callahan is open about the lack of progress on issues he has spent his life on. He recently reviewed the group's founding charter and noted that most goals remain unattained.
"There was an optimism of that time that the Church would reform. That was all blunted. The main issues we've struggled with haven't gone very far," he said.
Scholars of U.S. Catholicism say the "Catholic left" mostly waned, in part because the groups were funded and supported by men and women who lived in religious orders. Those communities have been unable to attract members and have shrunk in recent decades. Many Catholics don't care to be involved in democratizing the Church, they say.
"But there is still a progressive voice in the Church. It's an aging, shrinking group," said David O'Brien, a historian of U.S. Catholicism at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "If you gather Catholic pastoral ministers, teachers, people working in hospitals, there is a lot of discontent . . . but the average Catholic has no way of being involved in the public life of the Church."
O'Brien said he remembered when Jesuits called then-Rev. Callahan "the Hammer" for his relentless arguing skills.
Today, Callahan is, by his own description, "mellower." Even so, his words are sharp.
"The church, in my opinion, is in a state of sin," he said, for not allowing gender equality in the leadership, among other things. And he credits the center with helping keep the issue alive.
"I don't want to overbill us," Callahan said, "but this has been an encouraging place for people who want to improve things in the world."