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Initiative seeks 'Catholic Common Ground'

NCR Staff

Amid accusations sailing, like so many missiles in wartime, from entrenched positions in the church, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago has stretched out his arms to the nation's Catholics and called for a truce.

Even as he spoke at a news conference in Chicago Aug. 12 to introduce a document and related project aimed at restoring unity, opposing forces stoked up their fax machines and fired away. Peace on whose terms, many wanted to know.

The 2,900-word document, "Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril," decries "fear and polarization" that "inhibits discussion and cripples leadership." The document calls for constructive dialogue characterized by "renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity and broad and serious consultation."

The document and related project, called the Catholic Common Ground Project, is cosponsored by Bernardin and the National Pastoral Life Center in New York. According to Msgr. Philip Murnion, a New York priest who heads the center, the project will consist of a series of public discussions on issues affecting church life by Catholics of diverse viewpoints. Murnion said the first such conference is planned for spring, with participants and topics yet to be selected.

The statement urges "fresh eyes, open minds and changed hearts" in efforts to revitalize Catholicism in the United States. As for specific problems, the document discusses at length problems of ineffective religious education and liturgical malaise, but also cites changing roles of women, dissent over church teachings on sexuality, image and morale of priests, dwindling financial support, relationship of theology to authoritative church teachings and church governance.

"For three decades the church has been divided by different responses to the Second Vatican Council and to the tumultuous years that followed it," the statement says. In recent years, "party lines have hardened. A mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the church's life; at moments it even seems to have infiltrated the ranks of bishops. ... Candid discussion is inhibited ... proposals are subject to ideological litmus tests. Ideas, journals and leaders are pressed to align themselves with preexisting camps and are viewed warily when they depart from those expectations. Bishops risk being perceived as members of different camps rather than as pastors of the whole church."

Catholics critical of the statement and project issued news releases as soon as they learned of it.

Cardinals Bernard F. Law of Boston and James A. Hickey of Washington were the most prominent detractors, each issuing a statement saying the center's statement failed to give sufficient weight to authoritative church teaching.

Law decried a "fundamental flaw" in the center's statement -- "its appeal for dialogue as a path for common ground."

"The church already has 'common ground,' " Law said. "It is found in sacred scripture and tradition and it is mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the magisterium. ... Dissent from revealed truth or the authoritative teaching of the church cannot be 'dialogued' away. ... The crisis the church is facing can only be adequately addressed by a clarion call to conversion."

Hickey said, "We cannot achieve church unity by accommodating those who dissent from church teaching, whether on the left or on the right. ... Unfortunately, the statement from the National Pastoral Life Center does not give the magisterium its due." Hickey said the statement "seems to regard magisterial teaching as only one element of a consensus that is to be forged out of contrasting opinions" and "seems to give too much weight to the opinions of Catholics who do not really agree with the magisterium." Catholics Concerned, a conservative organization in Baltimore, rejected Bernardin's initiative as a "plot against the church and the teachings of Christ" and "a last ditch effort by the 'reformers' to push support for their misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council."

On a different note, Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler, spokeswoman for the "We Are the Church Coalition," criticized the Catholic Common Ground Project for omitting representatives of "church reform organizations" from an advisory group appointed to assist Bernardin's project. Fiedler's coalition is circulating petitions similar to those distributed in several European countries calling for women and married priests, a role for laity in selecting pastors and bishops, primacy of conscience in sexual and reproductive decision-making and gay and lesbian rights.

"Are we welcome as part of the dialogue or not?" the coalition asked in its news release. Fiedler also expressed concern about such terms in the project's document as "authentic unity" and "acceptable diversity," as well as its caveat that discussions would be conducted within boundaries of church teaching. "Who decides what is authentic and acceptable?" she asked. "Who decides what the boundaries will be?"

The coalition was joined by Catholics for a Free Choice, an abortion rights advocacy group, in accusing the Catholic hierarchy of refusing to talk with dissenters. Frances Kissling, president of the group, said in a prepared statement, "In the climate of today's church, it is difficult to see how any genuine effort to reduce polarization could be fruitful. In action after action, the clear and unequivocal message from Rome is that there is no room for dialogue on the issues causing divisions in the church."

Encouragement for the project came from Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and from leaders of Call to Action in Chicago.

Praising Bernardin for his years of service "with dedication and distinction" to the church in the United States, Pilla said, "I pray for this effort and hope the cardinal's stated purpose and goal of better understanding and reconciliation can be achieved."

At the Aug. 12 news conference, Linda Pieczynski, president of Call to Action, said of Bernardin, "We applaud him for his personal witness of hope, courage and respect for others' opinions." Codirector Dan Daley said, "It is a step forward, maybe a new day," but proposed by way of "friendly amendment" that the advisory committee should include more women.

To assist in the project, Bernardin has assembled an advisory committee of eight bishops and 16 Catholic leaders, 11 men and five women. They include intellectuals, business and political leaders who represent a variety of viewpoints but are not identified with particular advocacy groups.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, editor of the journal Commonweal and a member of Bernardin's advisory committee, said she was surprised by complaints that groups are being excluded from the Catholic Common Ground Project. "Part of the intention is that this would spread out to other groups" who might develop similar projects of their own, she said.

"The fact of the matter is, this is a call to start a process," Steinfels said, to help people "come to grips with an internal sense that things aren't working right. The process is yet to occur. It's too bad to have this misunderstood from the very beginning."

Michael Novak, another member of the advisory committee, said he saw the project as timely, given the approach of the third millennium. Novak, a neoconservative affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said he expected the project to become increasingly inclusive as time goes on. "I'm sure others will join in later," he said. "The more the circle widens, the more the purpose of the project will have an effect. The purpose is to bring about unity, so the wider the ripples go, the better the process will be.

"The Holy Spirit works in strange ways, often through the most humble instruments that don't look as if they are going to work," Novak said. "All I know is we need unity approaching the third millennium. It's a good time to make specific efforts for that."

Robert McClory of Chicago contributed to this story.

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996