A new leader at the table

by Heidi Schlumpf

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Jim FitzGerald

It’s easy to see why the board of Call to Action chose Jim FitzGerald as its new executive director. He is a young, bright Catholic with a decade of experience in not-for-profit management and an advanced degree in theology. And he has been involved in leadership of Call to Action for several years, so already knows and supports church reform.

But it’s also not so easy to understand why they chose a candidate with Planned Parenthood on his resumé, given how hard Call to Action has worked to remain neutral on the hot-button issue of abortion.

Even FitzGerald admits that the possibility of a negative reaction from conservative Catholics was on his mind when he was offered the position. “But to me that’s bumper-sticker thinking,” he said. “What’s missing in our church is the freedom to talk without fear about issues like abortion or gay marriage or stem cell research.

“That’s what I love about Call to Action: Everyone’s at the table,” he says, quoting the theme for Call to Action’s November conference. “It’s easy to be in conversation with people who think like you. But if we only do that, we miss out on something that could be very positive for Catholicism.”

There has been little or no outcry from Call to Action’s 25,000 members -- or even from the Catholic hierarchy or pro-life groups -- about FitzGerald’s appointment, although the press release did not mention his previous employer. An NCR blog post did, however, and elicited a negative comment accusing FitzGerald of not being Catholic.

“I’m sure there are some members for whom this might be a problem,” said former Call to Action board member Bob McClory, “but I don’t think it will be an obstacle for most people in Call to Action.”

If anything, Call to Action staff and board members say they hope FitzGerald’s history and views will help spark respectful conversation within the organization -- as is starting to happen around the country -- on the issue of abortion.

“If people of goodwill are willing to listen, it will help us all understand that there is no simple answer to this issue,” said Call to Action board member Tom Honoré, who served on the search committee for the position. “Of course there will be those who will try to accuse him of going in a way that is offensive to a lot of conservative Catholics.”

Honoré said FitzGerald “respects life as much as any of us,” though the new director’s views are solidly pro-choice.

FitzGerald eschews labels, but thinks abortion should be legal and doesn’t believe life begins at conception. “This issue is extremely complex,” he said. “I honor the person who follows their conscience on it.”

He doesn’t see any problem with being Catholic and working for Planned Parenthood. Admittedly, abortion is a tiny part of Planned Parenthood’s services, and FitzGerald was not involved in it. He served as a community educator -- teaching about abstinence, birth control and sexual assault prevention to public school health classes and other community organizations -- for three years, then as vice president of education for seven years at Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson in upstate New York.

“No organization -- Catholic or otherwise -- has done more to prevent abortion than Planned Parenthood,” he said, citing its comprehensive sex education services as well as access to affordable birth control.

It was Call to Action’s tolerance for different viewpoints on abortion and its willingness to create space for conversation about the issue that attracted FitzGerald to the organization in the first place. At his first Call to Action conference in 1997 in Detroit, he attended a pre-conference daylong workshop sponsored by the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice.

“Without compromising our views on abortion, we entered into dialogue to see where we did agree,” he recalled.

He returned home excited to connect with other like-minded folks, so contacted other Call to Action members in the Albany area. “I wanted to get five people in my living room so we could continue sharing some of what we had experienced at the conference,” FitzGerald said.

When 45 people RSVP’d, he sought space at the diocesan pastoral center. “My living room was nowhere that big!” he said.

After leading that local Call to Action chapter for several years, FitzGerald was asked to serve on the organization’s national board of directors. Later, when he moved to Boston, he started a “NextGen” group for young adult Catholics there.

He plans to continue living in Boston, communicating with the Call to Action staff in Chicago via webcam and frequent travels. He will meet the wider membership at the national conference in Milwaukee Nov. 6-8. His priorities include Call to Action’s anti-racism program, the NextGen outreach to younger Catholics and the JustChurch program that supports those being treated unjustly by the church.

He is optimistic about Call to Action’s future in general and about younger Catholics in particular. “For young adults, as well as the ‘wisdom generation,’ when we see any unjust or discriminatory law, we have no problem voicing our concerns about it and trying to change it,” said FitzGerald, who is 38. “And if those in authority don’t do it, we use our consciences to do something about it.”

He’s even optimistic about wider church reform. FitzGerald said he used to have this fantasy in which a progressive pope would be elected and would announce sweeping changes from the balcony at St. Peter’s in Rome.

“As long as we continue to have our gaze on that balcony, it’s easy to get discouraged,” he said. “But if we turn around and see all the positive things that are happening among everyday Catholics, it’s encouraging. I am convinced we are at a tipping point in the church reform movement.”

Heidi Schlumpf teaches communications at Aurora University in the Chicago suburbs.

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Call to Action’s executive director on next generation of Catholics

NCR: Do you think most young people find the Catholic church relevant?
Jim FitzGerald: Young Catholics want what most Catholics want: a welcoming and inclusive faith community with meaningful homilies, inspiring music and opportunities to create a better world by putting their faith into action. I think the more such elements are present, the more relevant young people find the Catholic church.

What about the assertion that young Catholics today are more conservative than previous generations?
I don’t think that’s accurate. My own experience affirms the polls that show that young adult Catholics are more progressive than previous generations. This is especially true regarding divorce, birth control and same-sex relationships.

What could the Catholic church do to better serve or reach out to young adults?
I think it is important to remember that all of us are the Catholic church and that Catholics of every age need to create a church that is welcoming and relevant to young people.

Every young adult Catholic I know has gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered friends or family members. All the young adult Catholics I know view women as being equally gifted in leadership as men and want their church to be outspoken advocates for social justice. The Catholic hierarchy focuses on church teachings that differ from what young adult Catholics think is important.

Do church reform movements like Call to Action help young adult Catholics stay connected to the church?
Absolutely. If it weren’t for Call to Action, I don’t think I would have remained Catholic.

Thanks to Call To Action, FutureChurch and Women’s Ordination Conference, there are young adult small faith communities sprouting up all over the country. These small faith communities not only nurture our spirits but allow young adult Catholics to get involved in social justice activities.

What advice or encouragement do you give young Catholics who may be discouraged with the church?
My advice would be: “Don’t leave!” Never before have young adult Catholics been so prepared to create the radically inclusive and loving Catholic community Jesus intended. We are the Catholic church, and we have the unique opportunity to join God in co-creating a new Catholic church that speaks and acts from a place of love and inclusion.

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