HUGE conferences in Italy and the United States were held recently to encourage discussion of what the Church is, is not and should be, doing in society.
The Italian conference, which finished in Rome last weekend, followed closely at the "Call to Action" conference held in Detroit.
In Rome, some 1,600 people, including 133 of the 312 Italian Bishops, met in a conclave called by the bishops but which heard, and in great part agreed with, views which the hierarchy of the Italian Church would have deemed heresy a few years ago.
In general there was agreement that the new issues, especially that of Communism in Italy, must be faced openly and in a spirit of renewal.
No documents or resolutions were issued, but the proceedings of the five-day conference, which ended last week, will be synthetised by the Italian episcopate within the next three months.
Most significantly on the Italian political field, a tacit consensus emerged which suggested that the Church should no longer be implicitly identified with the Christian Democrat Party.
Realisation that 30 per cent of all Italians, most of whom are baptised Catholics, had voted Communist in the last elections, sparked many interventions in the meetings of the work groups, which were not open to the public.
There were stern admonitions against Leftist Catholics establishing a "parallel" Church. Even priests ran for election on Leftist or Rightist tickets — two were suspended A Divittis for winning seats — but there was agreement that the Church's attitude in the political field should be re-evaluated.
There was agreement that the Italian Church must change from "a slow, disorganised renewal" towards the postVatican Council concept of what the Church really means, and that the "poor" must always be a dominant objective.
Fr Bartolomeo Sorge, SJ, vice-president of the conference and editor of the influential Jesuit fortnightly Civilta Cattalica, spoke out strongly for a continuing lay presence at a national and regional level within the Church.
He stated bluntly that the conference had asserted the right of Catholics to participate in non-Christian and even Marxist organisations provided that they maintained a "unity" and "coherence" with Christian values as exemplified by the Church.
In his concluding address he called on Italy's "Catholics of dissent" not to form any "parallel" Church which would ignore the bishops, conduct in dividual liturgies and pursue its own theology.
In an interview with National Catholic News last week, Bishop James Rausch, general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops described the Detroit "Call to Action" conference "a big plus" for the Church.
He said that such a Conference could not have been held even four years ago and, though he admitted serious difficulty with some of the resolutions, he expressed happiness with most of the Conference's conclusions.
The Conference, which was attended by 1,340 delegates and appointees from every diocese was set up by the Bishops' Conference to suggest a programme of social justice action for the next five years.