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The path to common ground is a rocky road

Special Reports Writer

The Catholic Common Ground Project, announced in August by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, is apparently making swifter progress at the grassroots level than it is among the 25-person advisory committee overseeing the effort.

Twenty-three of the members met for more than nine hours here Oct. 24 but had little to report other than they were getting acquainted and will meet again next March. Msgr. Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center, said the next meeting will include about 40 people in an attempt to broaden representation, but it has yet to be determined who will be the additional invitees. Only five of the original 25 are women.

One committee member, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University told NCR the all-day session produced some disagreement, even argument among committee members, some of whom were meeting one another for the first time. "It was generally agreed," she said, "that we need to know one another better." She said she considered the discussions fruitful.

The present committee is a varied mix of Catholic clergy and laity of varying perspectives, including Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, banker Barry Sullivan and Judge John Noonan, author of the definitive work on the history of contraception.

Since August, said Murnion, the advisory committee has been deluged with requests for advice and information from parishes, diocesan groups and educational institutions all over the country that are eager to promote dialogue between polarized bodies in the church. He mentioned Georgetown University, Holy Cross College, as well as a presbyterate in St. Paul, Minn., as examples of places where progress is occurring. "I'm not sure we can give much advice at this point," said Murnion, "but we want to give a lot of encouragement."

Cardinal Bernardin attended only about 90 minutes of the daylong meeting, which was closed to the public and press. His activities have been limited lately by debilitating fatigue, a common accompaniment of the advanced liver cancer from which he is suffering. It was announced that, at his own request, Bernardin will be succeeded as chair of the committee on the Catholic Common Ground Project by Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala.

Bernardin, however, was very much present at the "inaugural event" of the project, open to the public and attended by about 400 people at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel. In a 35-minute talk, the cardinal made clear his hopes that the project will be one of his major legacies for the church.

He also used the opportunity to rebut charges by critics of the project and to urge Catholics to adopt a "spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity and broad and serious consultation."

Entering "the final phase of my life's journey," Bernardin told the audience, he is more committed than ever to help the church rise above hardened party lines: "A dying person does not have time for the peripheral or the accidental. He or she is drawn to the essential, the important -- yes, the eternal. And what is important is that we find that unity with the Lord and within the community of faith. ... To say it quite boldly, it is wrong to waste the precious gift of the time given to us, as God's chosen servants, on acrimony and division."

He has received, he said, "an outpouring of personal letters," offering "ideas, energy and institutional support" for the project. They were "charged with the sense that something bottled up had been released, that something grown dormant was being reawakened."

There were also some expressions of fear and dismay, said Bernardin: "Some seemed to imagine that the project planned to bring contending sides, like labor-management negotiators, to a bargaining table and somehow hammer out a new consensus on contentious issues with the church. In this misconception, the Common Ground Project's conferences would culminate in quasi-official reports or recommendations that had the potential to challenge or supplant the authority of diocesan bishops."

Rather, he said, the aim is to learn how to make differences fruitful: "Agreements may emerge -- all the better. But our first step is closer to what John Courtney Murray called the hard task of achieving genuine disagreement."

Many of the differences that separate Catholics -- such as lay involvement in decision-making, the effectiveness of religious education, the quality of liturgical celebration, and how to handle the priest shortage -- are not strictly doctrinal matters, but do have doctrinal implications, Bernardin said. "For concrete solutions," he said, "we will not be able to rely solely on magisterial documents but will instead have to use our collective wisdom, knowledge, prudence and sense of priorities."

To those who argue that dissent from official teaching is illegitimate, Bernardin quoted Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles: "Room must be made for responsible dissent in the church. ... Theology always stands under correction. ... The good health of the church demands continual revitalization by new ideas. ... Nearly every creative theologian has at one time or another been suspected of corrupting the faith."

Yet, Bernardin explained, "the problem of dissent today is not so much the voicing of serious criticism but the popularity of dismissive, demagogic, 'cute' commentary, dwelling on alleged motives, exploiting stereotypes, creating stock villains, employing reliable 'laugh lines.' The kind of responsible disagreement of which I speak must not include caricatures that undermine the church as a community of faith by assuming church authorities to be generally ignorant, self-serving and narrow-minded."

Therefore, he said, the Common Ground project will specifically target "pop scholarship, sound-bite theology, unhistorical assertions and flippant dismissals."

He heartily recommended the conditions for true dialogue set forth in his statement, "Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril," released in August.

Among the conditions:

  • That the complexity and richness of tradition not be reduced by fundamentalist appeals to a text or a decree;
  • That discussions assume the need for boundaries and defining limits, even when these may be open for reexamination;
  • That we recognize no single group as possessing a monopoly on solutions to the church's problems or the right to spurn the mass of Catholics and their leaders as unfaithful;
  • That we presume those with whom we differ to be in good faith and put the best possible construction on their positions.
Bernardin said his enthusiasm for the project this late in his life stems from the lessons he learned from his principal mentors, Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta and Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit -- "to trust that through open and honest dialogue, differences could be resolved and the gospel proclaimed in its integrity."

At the inaugural event both Mahony and Lipscomb indicated their gratitude to Bernardin and their unqualified support for the project. Also offering comments was Elizabeth Johnson, who suggested that just as the early Christians urged those preparing for martyrdom to pray for them when they passed into eternity, Catholics today might ask Bernardin to remember them and the church, too, when he enters heaven.

Michael Novak told the audience he was relieved to know the Common Ground Project was to be neither a "theological discussion" nor "a movement." He then praised Pope John Paul II for his wise leadership of the church in tumultuous times.

National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 1996