MILWAUKEE — Often criticized in the past as a “liberal extremist” organization that fosters dissent from Catholic orthodoxy, Renew International has won the approval of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is widely known as an orthodox leader among bishops.

Since his appointment to head the troubled Milwaukee Archdiocese last August, Archbishop Dolan has incorporated Renew International's newest program to help bring about healing among his flock in the wake of the sex abuse scandal.

Archbishop Dolan has strongly encouraged the 225 parishes in the archdiocese to use Re new In ter na tional's “Renewing the Bo dy of Christ” program during Lent, and one-third of the parishes are doing so. More plan to take the bishop's advice later this year because they had booked up Lent schedules before Archbishop Dolan proposed the idea.

“The archbishop hopes this will help bring about healing for people who are having a hard time maintaining their faith in the aftermath of the Church sex scandal,” said Jerry Topczewski, spokesman for the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

His endorsement counters the reputation of the organization, which Catholic author Beth Roney Drennan called a “front for Call To Action” just five years ago. Call to Action is a pro-abortion organization based in Chicago that wants the Church to condone homosexual activity and ordain women as priests.

Back in 1998, Renew International was promoting a program called “Renew 2000,” directed by Margo LeBert. She and other principal organizers of the program were found to have strong ties to Call to Action, which that year hosted a conference in Milwaukee featuring a day of dialogue in which “pro-choice” advocates of abortion were given a forum to increase understan d ing of their position. LeBert had been featured in a 1992 video that promoted the idea of “Christ -Sophia,” a female Jesus with a pierced nose.

“Renew 2000 was a temporary program, just like ‘Healing the Body of Christ,’ is temporary,” explained a women religious at Renew International headquarters in Newark, N.J., who goes merely by the name Sister Alice. “We're constantly creating new programs and moving on.”

LeBert died, and others involved with Renew 2000 have moved on. Today, Renew International officials claim to have no ties to Call to Action or other unorthodox, dissenting organizations.

“You can look at any of our written material and anything that we're doing now, and you'll see that we adhere strictly to the catechism and Catholic theology,” said Deirdre Trabert Malacrea, assistant director of Renew. “We seek theological approval from the bishops regarding everything we do.”

That's true, said Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., who oversees the archdiocese that is home to Renew. He wrote the imprimatur for the “Healing the Body of Christ” textbook and reviewed all of the course materials to ensure they're in line with Scripture and Church teachings.

“Many years ago they had a reputation,” Archbishop Myers said. “Today they have a sincere interest in adhering to Church doctrine and in using the catechism well. Their materials are excellent. They really do get people thinking about their faith and praying more.”

“When my brother bishops call to ask about this program,” he added, “I give it my full endorsement and that's something I don't take lightly.”

The next program scheduled to come out of Renew International will be called “Journey Through the Catechism,” which Malacrea said has been reviewed and approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee to oversee use of the catechism.

To date, “Healing the Body of Christ” has been implemented in 77 dioceses throughout the United States, and Malacrea estimates 80,000 Catholics are participating in the program during Lent. In Milwaukee, Archbishop Dolan told pastors they had the option of offering the program during Advent if the Lent schedule was too hectic.

Randy Nohl, director of Adult and Family Ministries for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said thus far the program has resulted only in positive feedback from participants.

The program involves six 90-minute sessions. The first, titled “The Church in Time of Crisis,” takes the issue of Catholic life in the midst of scandal head-on.

“It deals with the question of ‘how do we continue to live our faith lives knowing that we're not part of a perfect Church?’ It deals with the fact that we're not perfect people,” Nohl said.

Each session consists of prayer, small group discussion, Scripture reading, discussion and sharing on the Scripture readings, and an “action step” in which participants are instructed to determine what specific actions they will take in the following week to incorporate the Scripture lesson into their lives.

Nohl said the Renew In -ternational program is part of a balanced approach Archbishop Dolan is taking to help his flock heal. The archbishop is also placing a new emphasis on the sacrament of reconciliation, attending reconciliation services scheduled throughout the archdiocese during Lent.

Archbishop Myers said he's confident “Healing the Body of Christ” will help renew faith among Catholics because of its emphasis on prayer.

“This program takes people back to the roots of their faith, as found in Scripture,” he said. “And because it facilitates general prayer, I think it will serve as an instrument for the Lord to bring healing.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.