PROMOTERS OF the lay Catholic-driven “We Are Church” referendum still hope to get 1 million of America's 60 million Catholics to sign a petition for “reform” and present it to the Vatican.

To move them along, organizers took advantage of 5,000 people attending a mid-November Call to Action conference in Detroit. There, signature referendums found new support, but whether that will translate into 1 million signatures by this May is doubtful.

“We need even more if we are going to reach this crescendo of a million voices from across the United States,” said Sister Maureen Fiedler SL, the referendum's national coordinator, in a speech at Detroit's Cobo Hall. “We're not creating a Church in our own image. We're trying to create a Church of the Gospel.” Other speakers included dismissed French Bishop Jacques Gaillot and German theologian Hans Kung.

The initiative was launched last Pentecost and will come to a close on Pentecost next year. It was started by a host of lay Catholic reform organizations that seek a number of changes in Church policies, including the ordination of women, optional celibacy for priests, married clergy, relaxed rules on birth control and other sexual matters, Church recognition of homosexuality, etc.

NCCB president and Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla last May appealed “to the leaders of this referendum to not create new divisions in our ecclesial family by continued challenges to the teachings and authority of the Church that has nurtured the faith of us all.”

Sister Fiedler said the referendum's promoters, like herself and others who have spent years advocating women's ordination, see the referendum document as “the rough draft of an agenda for the Third Vatican Council.”

“However, it's not a council like Vatican II that we have in mind. What we have in mind is not a meeting of just bishops, but rather a council of the whole people of God, the whole people of the Church. Folks like us are going to be involved.”

Regarding the referendum's call for women priests, Sister Fiedler said, “priesthood includes the office of bishop.” Someone from the audience yelled out, “Pope too.” Sister Fiedler replied: “Right, Pope too. I dare say some of us would probably assume the office long enough to abolish it. Or at least transform it significantly into something that really looks like a democratic mode of operation.”

Referendum supporters cited retired San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn's Oxford University lecture, calling for more dialogue, and Cardinal Bernardin's creation of the Common Ground project as evidence that their efforts are part of a general trend. But neither prelate specifically mentioned the We Are Church referendum. In fact, referendum promoters complained publicly that they were not invited to be on the Common Ground advisory committee.

Some bishops interviewed by the Register at the November meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) seemed unenthused about the signature drive. A Pennsylvania bishop said it seemed so uninteresting that it wasn't worth comment.

Bishop William Houck of Jackson, Miss. said the referendum doesn't promote vocation awareness within current guidelines, “in the context of the present teaching of the Church, in the present Church discipline.”

“We're faithful to the Church,” Bishop Houck said, “No, it's not easy. It has never been easy.” He said the referendum's call for married clergy creates a host of problems, like the remuneration of priests who are married and will have families-large ones if they choose. “But celibacy-the willingness to give up a family life, a wife and children in order to serve God completely and fully,” the bishop said, “that's something the Church holds as a value.”

A referendum movement, said Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., is not a “major threat” and doesn't affect parish volunteers concerned with issues like fostering vocations, keeping the sacristy clean and paying rectory light bills. “I think our people are trying to do their best.”

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., who last spring threatened Call to Action members with excommunication, is not impressed. He cited the 88,000 Catholics in his diocese, their 152 priests as well as the 45 seminarians in his See. “And I'm ordaining eight priests next year,” he said.

Sister Fiedler said:"We cannot be silent in the face of the multiple human rights crises facing our Church; the bitter and unyielding discrimination against women. The closing of parishes because the hierarchy refuses to expand its definition and its vision of priesthood. The guilt that's laid on Catholic couples after they have wrestled in conscience and made difficult decisions about sexuality and reproduction.”

Transcripts of a Call to Action press conference shows Sister Fiedler did not want to disclose the number of names picked up so far.

“We're not releasing numbers at this point,” she told reporters. “We're building our network of coordinators right now.”

In Canada, the independent, Toronto-based Catholic New Times reported the Oct. 31 launch of a Canadian version of the We Are Church referendum, dubbed “Catholics of Vision.” The Canadian signature sheet will read that, to ensure objectivity and confidentiality, “only the totals, not the signatures, will be made public.”

When asked the minimum age required for those signing, Sister Fiedler said, “we're saying the age of reason. Our rule of thumb is that if someone can understand the referendum, then they can sign it. So, someone of high school age probably should be able to sign it…. The referendum is one of the best instruments of religious education that I know.”

The first question Sister Fiedler fielded during one session's question-and-answer portion was: How many signatures? Reiterating what she told reporters earlier, Sister Fiedler also said, “I will tell you this; it's not going as rapidly as I thought it would…. We're noticing signs of pick-up right now, but we need to get still more infrastructure of organizing.”

David Finnigan is based in Los Angeles.