CHICAGO -- A Chicago-based Roman Catholic group has proposed a boycott of "Peter's Pence," the church's annual worldwide charity collection, to protest the Vatican's mounting deficit and continuing financial secrecy.

The withholding of contributions, called for Monday by the liberal Chicago Call to Action organization, is aimed at prompting reforms and disclosure in the church's central financial operations, which ran up a record $56 million shortfall last year.

The collection, which is to be taken up during masses next weekend, last year reportedly raised about $26 million, with nearly half of that amount contributed by American Catholics.

Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, in a statement issued Monday in response to the boycott proposal, termed the "Peter's Pence" an "important element in the Holy Father's many efforts to serve the universal church -- especially in parts of the world that have special need. I strongly urge all Catholics to contribute generously to the spiritual and humanitarian leadership and support provided by Pope John Paul II. This is a responsibility we all share."

But one reason for the boycott, leaders of that effort noted, is that the traditional charitable aims of the collection have been bypassed in recent years to use the money to service the Vatican's debt.

Mary Ann Savard, president of Call to Action, said the group is suggesting that Catholics redirect their "Peter's Pence" contributions to other charitable causes that are "publicly accountable," such as the newly established "Mary's Pence," a Chicago-based foundation whose aim is to enhance the ministry and role of women in the Catholic Church.