Last week's meeting of the American Catholic bishops in Chicago may prove to be a watershed in the history of the Church in America.
In vote after vote, the bishops committed themselves to a new openness, a new willingness to consider change, [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
The most dramatic action they took, of course, was the lifting of imposition of automatic excommunication in the cases of divorced, remarried Catholics. While this has little practical effect - Catholics remarried without regularization by the Church are still barred from the sacraments - it is a symbolic move with great impact.
As Bishop Cletus O'Donnell of Madison, Wis. declared, it is "above all, a gesture of love and reconciliation."
It is also a sign, and a dramatic one, of the bishops to respond to the expressed needs of the people and to change.
The most significant action of the bishops came in their response to the Call to Action program, the two-year grass-roots process of asking the people what they thought.
Last October's three-day Call to Action Conference in Detroit, attended by 1,304 delegates from all levels of the Church, produced 182 recommendations for action, including several that flew in the face of Catholic teaching.
The ground rules of Call to Action called for the bishops to use the Detroit recommendations as the basis for the Church's social agenda for the next five years.
The six months between the Call to Action Conference and the May bishops' meeting were marked with behind-the-scene scrambling by bishops.
The conservatives wanted the whole thing buried; the idea of asking the man in the pew for advice on how the Church should be run was anathema to them.
The progressives fought to keep faith with the people - well over a million, all told - who had invested varying degrees of time and effort and hope in Call to Action.
Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin, of Cincinnati, president of the Bishops' Conference, named an eight-man task force to draft the bishops' reponse to Detroit, a committee that was, top-heavy with conservatives. Four of its members had not even gone to Detroit.
Their proposed "Reponse" statement to the Call to Action underwent at last eight drafts.
Progressive bishops, determined to take their fight to the door of this month's meeting, were dismayed the week before the meeting opened when their biggest gun, John Cardinal Dearden of Detroit, suffered a heart attack.
The "Response" statement, introduced at the opening session of the bishops' three-day meeting, drew 79 written proposed amendments, most of them substantive. They consumed nearly three hours of debate on the last day.
Nobody really expected the bishops to defy the Vatican by embracing Call to Action recommendation on women or married priests or birth control. But lifting the automatic exammunication of remarried Catholics was a reccomendation from Detroit; the bishops' action on this came as a surprise to almost everyone.
The crux of the bishops' action came in an amendment, offered by Newark Archbishop Peter Gerety, who picked up the progressives' standard from the fallen Dearden, and was supported by 19 other pretlates.
The amendment called for watch-dog committee of bishops to oversee the processing of the Detroit recommendations, all of which wre referred to appropriate standing committees of the hierarchy, with accountability to the full body of bishops.
The amendment was fourth from the last of the 79 which were debated, many of them with passion. It passed, with little debate and by a decisive voice vote.
The action committed the hierarchy not only to taking seriously the Call to Action proposals, but to a style of churchmanship in which "the people of God," as the Second Vatican Council refers to them, will have a meaningful share in affairs of the Church.