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Survey the Terrain
Four Ways to Further This Initiative
Envision Outcomes

Reconnoitering Catholic
Common Ground

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.

Survey the Terrain

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.

Envision Outcomes

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.

Four 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?

First, 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.

Second, Catholics can propose their own list of issues (endorsing, editing or expanding the existing 13) to NPLC, 18 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012.

Third, 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 and personal.

Fourth, 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.

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