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Creating a new model for church discourse

A quick riffle through NCR editorial pages of the recent past reveals an almost nagging appeal for wider and more frequent discussion within the church..

Whatever the issue -- the role of women, the possibility of married priests, the relationship of national conferences to the magisterium in Rome, the relationship between bishops and theologians, the role of theologians and other scholars in raising disturbing questions, the church's strategy in fighting abortion -- we have repeatedly pleaded for discussion and dialogue instead of heavy-handed discipline. So, naturally, we applaud Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's initiative, the Catholic Common Ground Project, and its call for a "renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity and broad and serious consultation.".

Often in the past, Bernardin has been the one to whom the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has looked to find the common ground or the compromise that allowed the conference to move beyond a locked debate. So he comes well qualified to lead the broader church through some of the dramatic debates now consuming so much attention. We recognize, too, that this is no light undertaking for Bernardin, who has battled pancreatic cancer and faces surgery for back problems. We are grateful that he has decided to focus his energies on this project..

Back at the start of the pope's visit to the United States last October, we wrote in this same space of a wish for a similar broad and serious consultation. It began, "Holy Father, we need to talk." The editorial listed the growing number of initiatives from groups and individuals within the church -- including bishops, priests, nuns and laypeople -- expressing the same wish in the weeks and months leading up to the papal visit. Behind the high-profile calls for dialogue, we said, "are millions of Catholics, serious about their faith and faithful in their religious practice.".

"The issues will not disappear, and the tragedy is that the Vatican, instead of providing the space and means for conversation, keeps insisting that everyone simply shut up and stop thinking. Instead of conversation and even debate within the church, we end up with exhausting battles and belittling disciplines..

"This church is a sprawling, diverse, lovely family, if a bit fractious," we wrote. "And we Americans must seem especially bumptious at times. But this part of the family is as devoted and active and committed as any on earth. Some of its most devoted and loyal members see serious problems ahead, and they think the family really needs to sit down and talk.".

That assessment remains true these many months later, and the need for dialogue is even more compelling, for the differences are more polarizing than ever and the talk on either side of the divides more shrill and counterproductive..

In December, again in this space, we called attention to three meetings that had occurred in quick succession and that appeared to represent three points on the Catholic spectrum from left to right: Call to Action, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Campaign for America. The groups mentioned, we wrote, "represent the most committed Catholics, those most convinced that their faith should mean something in the wider culture. Too bad there is so little opportunity or will to find common ground.".

"The real question is: Will the church be better for the tug and pull of ideas and convictions, or will it just become more splintered?".

Earlier this month, again on this page, there appeared another plea for dialogue. This one was based on both the widely publicized Oxford statement of Archbishop John Quinn calling for sweeping reform of the papacy and an NCR essay by theologian Bernard Cooke, which could have served as a prelude to the statement released this week in Chicago..

"One of the things we most need (in the church) for productive conversation is a structure of open public discussion of fundamental issues. There is plenty of discussion on both sides, but there are few opportunities for nonpolemical exchange," Cooke wrote..

"Here and there and on a small scale, such mature conversation is taking place, but it must be extended so that it is not drowned out by the noise of partisan shouting.".

Cooke called for each side "to avoid stereotyping those who disagree with us; ... to take for granted the fundamental good faith of others; ... to learn together rather than win a debate.".

All of this might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, particularly when one's own brand of truth might appear in jeopardy. .

It is no surprise that initial reaction to the Bernardin initiative was skepticism, particularly from some women, or outright denial of the need for any discussion from Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston..

In the first case, it is difficult to cheer for a conversation if you've not been invited to join it. But if, as Margaret O'Brien Steinfels put it, this is merely the beginning of a process, we can only hope people give it a chance to develop. It might seem dangerous to trust in those who have initiated the process but it would be far more dangerous for everyone concerned to allow the opportunity to whither away untried..

Law, rejecting any such effort as unnecessary, says all that is needed is a "call to conversion," and adherence to the existing "common ground" of scripture and tradition as "mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the magisterium.".

But that view seems on course for a head-on crash with history and with current reality. Was there ever a time in the church's history when some element of scripture or tradition was not being contended by someone of stature and authority? And often, the most contentious were those later held in the church's highest esteem..

Today the terms of the debate are not being defined by fringe groups or Catholics out to undermine church structure and practice, but by the very hierarchy charged with teaching and leading the church. In recent years and months, around the world and certainly in the United States, it has become clear that members of the hierarchy -- and some very high-ranking at that -- have expressed fundamentally different views of how the church should be run and how discussion of doctrine and tradition should be approached and carried out..

Men who have given their lives to service of the church, men like Cardinal John O'Connor of New York and Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, basically disagree about how the church is operating and whether change is needed. Other bishops, who, presumably, respect one another and work together on other matters, have voiced profoundly different views on the issue of women in the church and whether there is reason to continue discussing the theology underpinning the ban on women's ordination..

So the bishops themselves have dismantled, in Fr. Thomas Reese's words, "the silly myth" that bishops are of a single mind on all things..

Puncturing that myth has been a healthy first step toward the kind of exchange that so many see as vital to the life of the church in this era. Quinn and O'Connor, and for that matter, Bernardin and Law, can trust that we have not been scandalized, our faith has not been shaken, by their rather elevated disagreements. We have, if anything, been a bit enlightened..

Those involved in the Catholic Common Ground Project bear a hefty responsibility, for we believe many, many Catholics will want to see this kind of discussion take place. It is a marvelous opportunity to provide the modern church with a model of broad and civil discourse. We only hope the process remains wide open to public view, is as broadly inclusive as possible and allows for a truly open and honest exchange of ideas.

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996