The peg, ostensibly, is the rich Catholic history of America’s Second City. But, of course, this being the Times, there’s more to it than that.
It’s a long way from the Vatican to Roscoe Village, but a group based in that North Side neighborhood is leading a high-profile protest among American priests that challenges the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on ordination of women.
The group, Call to Action, an organization for reform-minded Catholics, has collected signatures of more than 150 priests — including 8 in Chicago — on a petition defending a liberal priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who is being threatened with dismissal for his public support for ordaining women. In an increasingly conservative church, the rebellion has been hailed as a remarkable moment for liberals in the church.
“We just got on the phones and started telling priests, ‘We’ve got to support Father Roy,’ ” said Nicole Sotelo, 33, a leader of Call to Action, which bills itself as the nation’s largest organization for reform-minded Catholics.
The Rev. Bill Kenneally, who lives in the Beverly neighborhood on the South Side, is among the protesters. Father Kenneally, the 75-year-old retired pastor of St. Gertrude’s Church and volunteer at St. Barnabas Church, said he “and a majority of priests, truthfully” do not agree with the church’s “vapid reasoning” for excluding women.
Father Kenneally said he is unfazed by possible reprisals. “Since I’m retired,” he said, “it’s not like they can take a church away from me.”
The protest orchestrated by Call to Action underscores the role that Catholic culture — orthodoxy and dissidence — has played for generations in shaping the intellectual life and politics of Chicago. Only once have voters elected a non-Catholic mayor — Harold Washington — in the more than 75 years before Rahm Emanuel, who is Jewish, won a landslide victory this year.
Nuns have also held powerful positions in Chicago public life. Sister Sheila Lyne served as commissioner of public health under Mayor Richard M. Daley, while Sister Catherine Ryan headed the juvenile division at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office under Richard Devine. Writers, including the Rev. Andrew Greeley and Eugene Kennedy, a former priest, as well as John Powers, have given rich voice to Chicago cultural and Catholic issues (and in Father Greeley’s case, contributed to some steamy romance novels).
Catholic activists marched in the city’s streets to protest the Vietnam War and racism. Social activism within the church during the 1960s prompted many priests and nuns to walk alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even as insults — and at least one brick — rained down from angry onlookers.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was a leading national voice in opposition to the death penalty.
These days, the Rev. Michael Pfleger invokes the Catholic mission and obligation in pushing for social causes that serve the poor and reach out to blacks, even as his style sometimes draws the wrath of his boss, Cardinal Francis George.
While the city also has many conservative Catholics, perhaps no organization in Chicago with a Catholic identity has been more direct, or far-reaching, than Call to Action in making the case for wholesale reform within the church itself. Besides the ordination of women, the group calls for equal rights for gay men and lesbians, giving priests the option to marry and accepting back into the fold divorced Catholics who have remarried.