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Catholic Common Ground shuts out press

The Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which held such promise for open dialogue within the church, regrettably has shut out the press from its first official gathering.

Despite the best intentions of the organizers, the March 7-9 conference in Chicago can only be perceived as another select group meeting behind closed doors in a church that already has too many select groups meeting in secret about issues of great importance to the church at large.

When the Catholic Common Ground Initiative was announced seven months ago, it was enthusiastically welcomed on this page as an opportunity to create a new model for "broad and civil" discourse in the church.

We expressed hope at the time that the effort, initiated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, would remain open to public view, be as inclusive as possible and allow for a truly open and honest exchange of views.

How unfortunate that it has decided that its first order of business is to exclude.

Fr. Philip Murnion, head of the Pastoral Life Center in New York and one of the principals behind the Initiative, explained that the organizers of the Chicago conference were concerned that people would be reluctant to speak frankly if the media were present.

NCR raised strong objections to the no-media policy. As a result, the organizers agreed to make available to reporters just before the event the papers prepared by five participants, on the topic "The United States Culture and the Challenge of Discipleship." They also added a news conference at the end of the gathering.

Such gestures are hollow substitutes for real-life exchanges.

While appreciating that the Common Ground Initiative was hurriedly assembled to get underway before the death of Cardinal Bernardin last November, and mindful that it is an unprecedented undertaking, it still is impossible to see what good will come from secret sessions.

When the Common Ground effort was announced, it was done before media representatives summoned for the event and in a way that clearly invited public expectations.

The strategy worked. The idea captured the public imagination. Within weeks, Murnion was swamped with requests from dioceses and parishes for materials and models.

How unsettling now that working reporters are kept from the most interesting and substantial part of the story to date.

Common Ground is, for the moment, merely a very good idea. Its organizers are self-appointed and have, at this point, an unspecified mandate. In the long run, its credibility and influence will depend not only on the quality of a few papers it produces but on the the depth and breadth of discussion it enables on a much wider basis.

The unwieldy no-media rule is further complicated by the fact that not all media representatives are banned from Chicago. Peter Steinfels, religion columnist for The New York Times; his wife, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine; and reportedly at least one other representative of a large metropolitan daily will be in attendance. NCR was assured that they are attending not as working reporters, but as participants. Organizers say the journalists allowed into the meeting do not plan to write about it immediately as news and will not be allowed to quote anyone directly when they do.

Such ploys and promises are unrealistic. In a room full of academics, church leaders and writers, little will remain secret for long. Bits and snippets will leak out and will be reported by the banned journalists.

Have no doubt, some of those attending eventually will write about the proceeding. But they will be writing as participants who have a stake in the outcome of the project.

Common Ground must make a decision. Either it is an elite undertaking of a few academics and church types for the pleasure and enlightenment of themselves and their invited guests, or it is the broad and robust conversation that engages a big church that finds itself increasingly battling over important issues.

The first might be more convenient for those involved, but it will be as irrelevant for the wider church as a group of Catholics gathered in a tavern near you.

Allowing reporters to attend may be the messier option. But if some of the participants are worried that a discussion over divisions could become a bit too scrappy for their tastes, then maybe the organizers need to find some replacements.

It is essential to hear who is saying what and what kind of disagreements surface -- in all their human edginess, if that be the case. What we don't need is another scrubbed-up and sanitized version of the real discussion. We've had enough of that already from other corners of the church.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 1997