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Conversations led to Common Ground

NCR Staff

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels gave what sounded like a rueful chuckle and said, "I'm fascinated by the idea that an effort to reduce the noise and the factionalism (in the church) has itself become the object of the same. In some ways," she said, "it only suggests to me how important this project is."

Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine, was referring to reaction to the Catholic Common Ground Project (NCR Aug.23) -- a program to hold public meetings at which Catholics might find constructive dialogue in "a renewed spirit of civility" as they attempt to reach across various divisions.

"It was never intended to be representative of the whole," said Steinfels, a member of the committee. The group, instead, was intended to represent various strands and tendencies in different sectors of the church."

Nor was it to be "an association of associations," added Msgr. Philip Murnion, head of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York and project cosponsor with Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

The project was announced by Bernardin in Chicago Aug. 12 with the release of a 2,900 word document, "Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril." The document decries "fear and polarization" that "inhibits discussion and cripples leadership."

As soon as the initiative was publicized, church figures such as Cardinals Bernard F. Law of Boston and James A. Hickey of Washington found fault with the effort, declaring that common ground could not be achieved by accommodating dissent and that the church already had common ground in scripture and tradition.

Others complained that the committee membership had been stacked toward conservatives and that liberal groups that have been raising questions about church teachings had not been included on the committee.

The latter view got a boost from Fr. Richard P. McBrien, a theology teacher at Notre Dame University, who wrote in a column (NCR, Sept. 20) that the committee has "too few members who can accurately and forcefully give voice to views of the church's more liberal and moderately progressive constituencies."

The names of those on the committee, said Murnion, came from people "who had been part of the conversation that led to the statement -- people like Father (J. Bryan) Hehir, Milwaukee Archbishop (Rembert) Weakland and (Sister of Mercy) Doris Gottemoeller. Everyone was in there telling different names at different times," he said.

As described by Murnion and Steinfels, for four years or so a sometimes constant, sometimes varying group of Catholics held a sort of Catholic "swap meet," exchanging articles and ideas over coffee or over the telephone.

The conversations went on with no particular goal in mind -- no Catholic Common Ground Project or anything else, said Steinfels. "It was partly morale maintenance and in some ways an information exchange," she said.

Because the Pastoral Life Center focuses mainly on parishes, Steinfels said, the discussion by and large was not "high theology" but tended to the practical and local.

She gave as an example an ongoing discussion on general absolution because pastors were telling Murnion, she said, how useful general absolution was for gathering whole parishes together. Further, they found that personal confessions increased. "It was that kind of thing," she said.

Then, for a long period, Steinfels said, the group discussed the idea of putting out a statement and finally circulated a draft. A question was raised, she said, about what good another statement with 10,000 signatures attached would do, and it was at that point that the idea of a project -- "some way of trying to practice what the statement preached," came into being.

As the topic turned to who might represent different church viewpoints, those participating in the conversations began suggesting names. Steinfels said she suggested several persons including John Noonan, who accepted, and an African-American Catholic who was not able to accept. There was a desire to have Hispanic Catholics represented, she said. Both Las Cruces, N.M., Bishop Ricardo Ramirez and Fr. Vigilio Elizonda, founder of the Mexican American Cultural Center, are on the committee.

Murnion said, "Some people have asked why wasn't there somebody from such and such organized group. ... It was a selection of people."

Inherent in the Project, said Steinfels, was the hope that other people would pick up the idea and form their own wider-based groups.

The idea of a broad-based dialogue had been of "intense interest" to her "for a long time," said Steinfels.

"This (project) was not a movement or parallel church," she said. "In some ways that's why I'm astonished at the reactions of Cardinals Hickey and Law, that it's like somehow a schism is being set in place.

"That was so far from anybody's thinking that I can only say I remain truly astonished at their reaction," she said.

As for the advisory committee, said Murnion, "You can argue that (the committee representation) is too far to the right or too far to the left, but," he repeated, "it was a selection of people."

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 1996