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Issue Date:  May 5, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Shared faith beyond polarities

When I signed up to go to the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress last month, one of the talks I ticked off as a preference before I arrived was Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe’s presentation on healing divisions in the church. The topic had been on my mind for many months. I can’t say, to be precise, that my imagination had gone so far as healing divisions. I experienced those divisions (and, truth be told, engaged in them) as too raw a matter to leap ahead to healing. But I had thought for some time that with all the intellectual history, all the wit and wisdom in the Catholic tradition, that there ought to be a way for the bulk of us, anyhow, to find some way to converse. The issue intrigues me because I know from simple human experience that rancor and anger, while perhaps inevitable and at times even useful, are, unabated, corrosive. It intrigues me, too, because from my conversations with conservative friends and colleagues, from reading their literature and blogs and such, I think I’ve begun to understand at least part of the dynamic.

~ ~ ~

Forty years ago, those who accepted the Second Vatican Council as an overdue sign of reform and renewal, as a new opening to the world, thought that with three years of council meetings and all the bishops in the world signing off on the documents, the work was done. All that was left was to put it all in place.

What was ignored, or underestimated, or perhaps just shoved aside, was the substantial objection to the changes -- from such empirical changes as turned-around altars and use of the vernacular to deeper changes in areas such as ecumenism and interfaith relations.

In hindsight, I think it can be said that those who embraced the impulses flowing from the council ironically used a preconciliar ecclesiology and understanding of authority to impose a postconciliar openness and collegiality. It didn’t work very well.

Many who disagreed felt they were being steamrolled, that their church and all that was familiar to them had been crushed and swept away. Without getting into the pros and cons of conciliar reform, it is enough to say that little good can emerge when members of a community feel forced to comply with change they don’t agree with or understand.

I think I understand that because the tide has turned and many now sense an arbitrariness in the decrees of bishops and pastors who feel their mandate is to undo the reform. And those now “exiled” have no recourse. The results are the angry, increasingly contentious camps gathered along the Catholic landscape.

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So it was that I went to Radcliffe’s talk, taken largely from two chapters of his book, What is the Point of Being a Christian? Radcliffe is a modern Catholic of great stature and one who has a broad understanding of the state of the church around the globe. ( See the profile by John Allen)

Radcliffe is that rare member of the community who can not only eloquently dissect the problem, but can also give the community new words, a new analogy, new images with which to deal with the problem.

About 10 minutes into his talk -- and this was post-lunch of a long day -- I was ready to stand and cheer. I didn’t. But I think he is on to something, a way of looking at our differences and describing them, perhaps a way of inviting conversation.

~ ~ ~

I don’t mean to suggest here that Radcliffe has some magic way to smooth everything over or to make all our troubles go away. There are compelling reasons to continue to report on episodes in church life that some may wish remained buried. There is reason to continue to plead for accountability where there is none on the part of the community’s leaders.

It is essential to continue to document other elements of the life of the church, happy and sad, uplifting and demoralizing, as much as we can of what happens along the entire walk of faith. And sometimes those stories are going to be entwined with the differences.

The goal, as I see it, is not to seek a disappearance of differences. It is inevitable that tensions exist in any community. What is now necessary, as Radcliffe so nicely stated in an e-mail exchange, is “the balance between intellectual generosity, imaginative sympathy and the demand for accountability.”

What we can do, as he suggests, is begin to overcome our fear of those who think differently and our sense of exile, to go deeper into our shared faith to a point beyond the polarities.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2006

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