How can we pinpoint this Common Ground that Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin seeks to claim for the Catholic Church in these United States? The Chicago prelate, with the help of the National Pastoral Life Center (NPLC), proposes a series of conferences "within the boundaries of authentic Church teaching" by "persons of divergent perspectives" who will seek with faith and creativity to describe anew what we Catholics hold in common.
As critics have declared, we already
know this ground's compass points. What many fail to acknowledge
is that it lies splintered, overgrown and polluted. Common Ground
seeks not so much a new discovery as a reclamation of the spiritual
landscape we once called home.
This is not the first such expedition.
The United States is a frontier Church, still working out the
links and kinks between Church and state. In 1791, the Synod of
Baltimore struggled with Catholic schools, Mass attendance and
the distribution of funds, topics still on the table. In 1975,
to prepare for the nation's bicentennial, Church leaders consulted widely about liberty and justice in both Church and nation.
The Call to Action, rooted in the spirit of 1976, clamors to be
heard during this dialogue as well.
Dissension, polarization, meanspiritedness,
finger-pointing, demoralization, suspicion, distrust, acrimony and deadlock:
This litany describes the "Church in a Time of Peril,"
according to the project's August basis paper. Thirteen issues
are highlighted: topics as intimate as sexuality, as controversial
as the roles of all laity-especially women-and as familiar as
religious education, Mass and money.
Seven bishops and 16 other Catholic
leaders from diverse disciplines are working with Cardinal Bernardin.
The initiative has drawn both praise and fire.
Mobile's Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb,
a member of the project oversight committee, recorded 90 percent
agreement with the initiative's text. Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua
of Philadelphia, Bernard F. Law of Boston and James E. Hickey
of Washington, D.C., emphasized their disagreement, which centered
on less than 10 percent of the same text. NPLC's Msgr. Philip
Murnion reports, however, that the overall tone of response has
been "incredible enthusiasm....This whole proc-ess seems
to have touched some nerve."
Critics fear that Catholic teaching
may be distorted, that Scripture and tradition may not be honored,
that dialogue will be equated with compromise, that Jesus will
not be seen as central and that the magisterium may be viewed
as merely one voice among many. Others simply label the effort
"naive." Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit found the project
"laudable" but thought prayer a better path.
Comments from such significant Church
spokespersons-as well as from Catholic groups who want in on the
project-demonstrate that these dialogues are seriously intended,
seriously taken and seriously needed.
As St. Anthony Messenger goes
to press, the 24-member committee meets to settle on the terms
and time of its first encounter. What, U.S. Catholics wonder,
might we expect?
Picture 40 individuals at prayer. Presenters
put forward not only a statement of informed belief but also positive
proposals for action. A period of discernment-with public participation-follows.
Facilitators highlight areas of agreement as well as areas where
continued dialogue might expand agreement-or foster respect for
diverse, non-heretical practice. The event is so peaceful that
Ted Koppel goes home. The cardinals hold their fire. Sound like
Joshua Seeks Common Ground?
Or does another scenario seem more
likely? Extremists who feel ignored and excluded picket the first
private convocation, call press conferences and distribute position
papers. A shouting match breaks out. Ted Koppel provides live
comment on the possibilities of schism. Members of the hierarchy
appear live on the evening news.
Ways to Further This Initiative
Whatever the outcome, this conference
will be no fiction. It will be essays in truth, however flawed,
however limited. Yet, with goodwill and a sincere desire to achieve
unity, it can be a turning point in the life of the Church. No
Catholic is truly outside the search for common ground and every
Catholic can help to describe such a holy place. How?
Cardinal Maida's intuition that prayer is crucial to this pathfinding
can be acknowledged by each of us as we pray for this bold venture.
The Peace Prayer of St. Francis is an appropriate invocation as
well as a program of action.
Catholics can propose their own list of issues (endorsing, editing
or expanding the existing 13) to NPLC, 18 Bleecker Street, New
York, NY 10012.
NPLC should engage contemporary technology to ensure broad access.
The Center should utilize and publicize a Web site, and use electronic
chat rooms and e-mail capabilities to make this event up close
parallel dialogues can be independently initiated in parishes
and dioceses, as well as integrated into the agenda of Catholic
conferences in 1997. Msgr. Murnion says his office is besieged
with requests from priests' councils, religious orders, universities
and others eager to engage in and sponsor such dialogue. Outcomes
of these dialogues can be reported to NPLC and shared with Cardinal
Bernardin as well. He would surely welcome them as support for
the life of the Church and also be personally strengthened as
he bravely faces pancreatic cancer.
We call ourselves "one nation
under God," yet this nation encompasses more diversity than
most political boundaries can contain. Through our efforts, linked
to the admirable if ambitious initiative to seek Catholic Common
Ground, similar diversity can be reverenced in "one, holy,
catholic and apostolic Church." -C.A.M.