The following are key documents explaining the Common Ground initiative. I have made no changes to the first three texts, except to highlight in red those phrases with which I particularly empathize. I have slightly abbreviated the fourth text, to avoid repetition. Although the context is "American Catholicism", I believe that this document has almost universal application. I wish to make it clear that I find it almost impossible to disagree with any aspect of any of the following documents and could hardly wish to change a word. All of my own comments are in mauve.
This statement provides the basis for the Catholic Common Ground Project. The project will sponsor conferences and papers devoted to critical issues in the church and will exemplify and promote the kind of dialogue called for in this statement.
All organizations and groups in the church are invited to consider the Called to be Catholic statement and its applications to their meetings, conferences, and deliberations. Responses to the statement are welcome and may be sent to the National Pastoral Life Centre.
Will the Catholic Church in the United States enter the new millennium as a church of promise, augmented by the faith of rising generations and able to be a leavening force in our culture? Or will it become a church on the defensive, torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures? The outcome, we believe, depends on whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination and whether the church can reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership. American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively - a common ground centred on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation.
It is widely admitted that the Catholic Church in the United States has entered a time of peril. Many of its leaders, both clerical and lay, feel under siege and increasingly polarized. Many of its faithful, particularly its young people, feel disenfranchised, confused about their beliefs, and increasingly adrift. Many of its institutions feel uncertain of their identity and increasingly fearful about their future.
Those are hard words to pronounce to a church that, despite many obstacles, continues to grow in numbers, continues to welcome and assist the poor and the stranger, and continues to foster extraordinary examples of Christian faith and witness to the Gospel. The landscape of American Catholicism is dotted with vital communities of worship and service, with new initiatives, and with older, deeply rooted endeavours that are kept alive by the hard labour and daily sacrifices of millions of Catholics. In the face of powerful centrifugal forces, many Catholic leaders have worked to build consensus and co-operation.
We hesitate to say anything that might discourage them or add to the finger pointing and demoralization that, in too many cases, already burden these exemplary efforts. But this discordant and disheartened atmosphere is itself one of the realities which cannot be ignored. For three decades the church has been divided by different responses to the Second Vatican Council and to the tumultuous years that followed it. By no means were these tensions always unfruitful; in many cases they were virtually unavoidable.
But even as conditions have changed, party lines have hardened. A mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the church's life; at moments it even seems to have infiltrated the ranks of the bishops. One consequence is that many of us are refusing to acknowledge disquieting realities, perhaps fearing that they may reflect poorly on our past efforts or arm our critics within the church. Candid discussion is inhibited. Across the whole spectrum of views within the church, proposals are subject to ideological litmus tests. Ideas, journals, and leaders are pressed to align themselves with pre-existing camps, and are viewed warily when they depart from those expectations.
There is nothing wrong in itself with the prospect that different visions should contend within American Catholicism. That has long been part of the church's experience in this nation, and indeed differences of opinion are essential to the process of attaining the truth. But the way that struggle is currently proceeding, the entire church may lose. It is now three decades after Vatican II. Social and cultural circumstances have changed. The church possesses a wealth of post-conciliar experience to assess and translate into lessons for the future. There is undiminished hunger for authentic faith, spiritual experience, and moral guidance, but many of the traditional supports for distinct religious identities - or for the institutions that convey them have disappeared.
Meanwhile, positions of leadership in the ministries of the church are passing to those with little exposure, for better or worse, to the sharply defined institutional Catholicism of earlier decades. Still younger Catholics, many with absolutely no experience of that pre-conciliar Catholicism, come to the church with new questions and few of the old answers.
The church's capacity to respond to these changed conditions may be stymied if constructive debate is supplanted by bickering, disparagement, and stalemate. Rather than forging a consensus that can harness and direct the church's energies, contending viewpoints are in danger of cancelling one another out. Bishops risk being perceived as members of different camps rather than as pastors of the whole church.
Unless we examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds and changed hearts, within a few decades a vital Catholic legacy may be squandered, to the loss of both the church and the nation.
On every side, there are reports that many Catholics are reaching adulthood with barely a rudimentary knowledge of their faith, with an attenuated sense of sacrament, and with a highly individualistic view of the church. Some of us are tempted to minimize the seriousness of this situation out of an attachment to young people and an appreciation of their generosity - or out of loyalty to those who work, often with insufficient resources and scant rewards, to provide religious education. Others among us rush to reduce complex questions of pedagogy, theology, limited time, turnover in teachers, and the pressures of an aggressive and pervasive youth culture to some single factor and some simple solution.
The practical realities of our young people's needs are quickly lost amid accusations of infidelity to church teachings, reflexive defences against criticism, or promotion of pet educational approaches. It is an atmosphere unlikely to generate the massive and creative effort required to meet today's crisis of religious illiteracy or link it with young people's search for a sense of participation and belonging. Or consider the church's public prayer. The faith thrives where the Eucharist is celebrated worthily, drawing the Christian community into its mystery and power. Yet in many parishes Mass attendance has plummeted; congregational participation is indifferent; and liturgies are marred by lack of preparation, casual or rushed gestures, unsuitable music, and banal sentiments in hymns and, above all, in homilies. There is widespread awareness that, thirty years after the Council, the goals of liturgical renewal have been met more in letter than in spirit.
But again polarization blocks a candid and constructive response to the situation. An informal or "horizontal" liturgy, demystified and stressing the participation of the congregation, is pitted against a solemn or "vertical" liturgy, unchangeable and focused on the sacerdotal action of the priest. The former is rightly feared as unable to carry the weight of the transcendent, and as opening the liturgy to the trivializing currents of the culture. The latter is rightly feared as becoming a concert, a show, or a spiritless exercise in rubrics, closed to the particular needs and gifts of the community. No effort to assess the state of worship or develop new translations or refresh liturgical skills escapes suspicion of moving to one extreme or the other - or pressure to move in the opposite direction as a safeguard.
The same dynamic of fear and polarization afflicts the church's discussions of other topics, from efforts to accommodate language or practice to the changing consciousness of women to efforts to define theology's relationship to the hierarchy. Unnuanced positions are espoused without encountering moderating criticism from sympathizers. Then these positions loom even more powerfully as fears in the minds of opponents, generating or justifying their own unnuanced positions. The end results are distrust, acrimony, and deadlock.
Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, is central to all that we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured.
Around this central conviction, the church's leadership, both clerical and lay, must reaffirm and promote the full range and demands of authentic unity, acceptable diversity, and respectful dialogue, not just as a way to dampen conflict but as a way to make our conflicts constructive, and ultimately as a way to understand for ourselves and articulate for our world the meaning of discipleship of Jesus Christ.
This invitation to a revitalized Catholic common ground should not be limited to those who agree in every respect on an orientation for the church, but encompass all - whether centrists, moderates, liberals, radicals, conservatives, or neoconservatives - who are willing to reaffirm basic truths and to pursue their disagreements in a renewed spirit of dialogue.
Chief among those truths is that our discussion must be accountable to the Catholic tradition and to the Spirit filled, living church that brings to us the revelation of God in Jesus. To say this does not resolve a host of familiar questions about the way that the church has preserved, interpreted, and communicated that revelation. Accountability to the Catholic tradition does not mean reversion to a chain of command, highly institutional understanding of the church, a model resembling a modern corporation, with headquarters and branch offices, rather than Vatican II's vision of a communion and a people.
Nor does accountability mean conceiving of faith as an ideology, an all encompassing doctrinal system that produces ready explanations and practical prescriptions for every human question. Now, as historically, there has always been wide room for legitimate debate, discussion, and diversity. But accountability does demand serious engagement with the tradition and its authoritative representatives. It rules out the pop scholarship, sound bite theology, unhistorical assertions, and flippant dismissals that have become all too common on both the right and the left of the church. Authentic accountability rules out a fundamentalism that narrows the richness of the tradition to a text or a decree, and it rules out a narrow appeal to individual or contemporary experience that ignores the cloud of witnesses over the centuries or the living magisterium of the church exercised by the bishops and the Chair of Peter.
Authentic accountability embraces the demands that the Gospel poses for our public life and social structures as well as for our private lives and personal relations. This accountability implies that the church, for all its humanness, cannot be treated as merely a human organization. The church is a chosen people, a mysterious communion, a foreshadowing of the Kingdom, a spiritual family. One implication of this is that the hermeneutic of suspicion must be balanced with a hermeneutic of love and retrieval. Another is that an essential element of Catholic leadership must be wide and serious consultation, especially of those most affected by church policies under examination. The church's ancient concept of reception reminds us that all the faithful are called to a role in grasping a truth or incorporating a decision or practice into the church's life.
Finally this accountability recognizes that our discussions about the Catholic Church take place within boundaries. Exactly how the boundaries of Catholic Christianity should be formulated will inevitably be open at times to re-examination and debate. So too will our attitudes toward whatever falls outside those boundaries. But the very idea of boundaries is a necessary premise, without which no identity can exist. Inclusivity, a concept that can operate at many levels, becomes a catchword and even a self contradiction when it impugns any efforts to make distinctions or set defining limits.
It is imperative that the Catholic Church in the United States confront the issues and forces that are shaping the future. For this, we must draw on all the gifts of wisdom and understanding in the church, all the charisms of leadership and communion. Each of us will be tested by encounters with cultures and viewpoints not our own; all of us will be refined in the fires of genuine engagement; and the whole church will be strengthened for its mission in the new millennium.
This statement was prepared by the NATIONAL PASTORAL LIFE CENTER, Rev. Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, Director
National Pastoral Life Center, 18 Bleecker Street, New York, New York 10012
Thank you for coming today! I am very grateful that Mr. Thomas Donnelly, Sister Doris Gottemoeller, and Monsignor Philip Murnion are with me as I announce this new endeavour.
As many of you know, I have been a Roman Catholic bishop for over thirty years. My episcopal service began shortly after the Second Vatican Council ended. In large measure my pastoral ministry has been concerned with implementing the teaching and pastoral directives of that ecumenical council, which, I believe, was truly the work of God's Holy Spirit.
In carrying out my pastoral responsibilities, I have been sustained by the example of two great churchmen who served as my mentors: John Cardinal Dearden of Detroit and Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta. I learned a great deal from them - for example, to trust that, through open and honest dialogue, differences can be resolved and the integrity of the gospel proclaimed. I have tried to do this throughout my ministry as Archbishop of Cincinnati and, now, of Chicago; as General Secretary and, later, as President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), as chairperson of several NCCB committees, and in recent years as senior active Cardinal in the United States.
More recently, however, I have been troubled that an increasing polarization within the Church and, at times, a meanspiritedness have hindered the kind of dialogue that helps us address our mission and concerns. As a result, the unity of the Church is threatened, the great gift of the Second Vatican Council is in danger of being seriously undermined, the faithful members of the Church are weary, and our witness to government, society, and culture is compromised.
While these are not new realities, in the past year I have come to see them in a new light. As I have said on several occasions, when one comes face to face with the reality of death in a very profound way as a cancer patient, one's perspective on life is altered dramatically. What seemed so important before, now is seen as trivial, and what is truly important invites new commitment and a realignment of priorities.
It is in this context that I am pleased to announce today the inauguration of what is being called the Catholic Common Ground Project. This endeavour is inspired by a statement I am making public today, a statement that emerged from a series of discussions in which I participated. These discussions began more than three years ago. The paper is entitled Called to be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril. It decries the growing polarization in the Church, which hinders our addressing important pastoral concerns, and calls for a new kind of dialogue that will engage people of diverse viewpoints in the Church. I am releasing this statement today with the invitation that other Catholic individuals and groups study it carefully and consider its implications for the way in which they carry out their responsibilities in Church life.
The Catholic Common Ground Project that the committee and I are undertaking is, therefore, one response to this statement. Using the teaching of the Second Vatican Council as its basis for dialogue, this Project will sponsor conferences that bring together persons of divergent perspectives in search of a "Catholic common ground." Working within the boundaries of authentic Church teaching, these conferences will address with fidelity and creativity the myriad challenges that we face as a Church and as a society. With this approach we should find ways to enhance our common worship, our religious education efforts, and our outreach to those in need. Our tentative plans call for a conference in early 1997 on the relationship between the Church and U.S. culture, developed in the context of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes). The conference will address such questions as: In what ways can we bring the gospel to bear on our culture? In what ways are we positively or negatively affected by our culture?
I am very grateful that seven bishops and sixteen other prominent Catholic leaders have agreed to join me in overseeing the Project's initiatives. The diversity among my colleagues demonstrates that there is a desire in all parts of the Church to pursue the goals of this Project.
I am also very grateful to Monsignor Philip Murnion and the National Pastoral Life Centre for agreeing to serve as staff for the Project. I look forward to working with Professor James Kelly who will serve as Secretary of the Project. Father Michael Place will serve as my liaison to the Project.
Let me conclude by speaking directly to my sisters and brothers in the Lord here in Chicago and throughout this great land:
Our faith and our common life as members of the community of faith, which is the Church, are indeed great and precious gifts. Let us together leave behind whatever brings discord. Let us recommit ourselves to our great heritage of faith. Let us walk in communion with, and in loyalty to, our Holy Father in order to restore and strengthen the unity that has been fractured or diminished. And may our service to the Lord God and to our world be enhanced by our efforts to reclaim the "Catholic common ground" that can support renewed and revitalized lives of faith as we enter the third millennium of Christianity.
Of course, we anticipated criticisms from some groups on the right or left who are convinced that anything not explicitly committed to their respective agenda will only strengthen their adversaries or legitimate the status quo. They simply do not see the situation as we do.
More troubling is the criticism that mixes arguable points with what I believe are grave misunderstandings.
My response to the first criticism is that Scripture and tradition are the foundational sources of Church teaching and, therefore, the basis for the "common ground." The primacy of Scripture and tradition is fully recognized in the statement. The statement also clearly calls for accountability to the Catholic tradition and rejects any approach that would ignore the "living Magisterium of the Church exercised by the bishops and the chair of Peter."
In regard to the second criticism, the statement's call to dialogue within the Church no more legitimates dissent than does dialogue with other faith traditions. In fact, the question of dissent in the Church and whether it is ever justified is a complicated and theologically technical one, and our statement did not pursue it.
The premise of our statement is that many serious disagreements among Catholics - for example, about the state of the liturgy or religious education or the role of women in the Church - do not necessarily involve dissent in the sense of a clear departure from authentic teaching. But the statement also shows full awareness that such departures do exist. The statement recognizes the legitimacy, even the value, of disagreements, but it also insists that dialogue about them must be accountable to Catholic tradition and the Church's teaching authority. Likewise, the statement insists that "discussion about the Catholic Church take place within boundaries" and "defining limits." It explicitly challenges two of the most popular reasons for dismissing tradition or boundaries, the appeals to "experience" and to "inclusivity."
In a few paragraphs the statement tries to capture both the demands and the dynamism of orthodoxy. It is willing to consider the new but insists that it be accountable to tradition and the Magisterium. This clearly is not establishing truth by compromise or accommodation.
In regard to the third criticism, the statement begins by asserting that the very first condition for addressing our differences constructively must be "a common ground centred on faith in Jesus." Moreover, in the statement's section proposing a solution it again begins with the profession: "Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, is central to all we do. He must always be the measure and not what is measured."
I am convinced that a careful reading of the text ought to reassure those who expressed these concerns.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that, in the United States today, dialogue is a critical need. The Church is built up, not brought down, by genuine dialogue anchored in our fundamental teachings. While millions of Catholics of good will cannot deny their concerns and dissatisfactions, they do not want to be drawn into some basically hostile posture toward the Church and its teaching. It is essential that we offer these faithful people guidelines and models of dialogue. We do not seek "least common denominator Catholicism." Rather, we seek to help the faithful move beyond the often unnecessary and unhelpful polarization in our community and to refocus on the fundamental principles and pastoral needs of the Church.
It is absolutely essential to understand that no one is equating the Catholic Common Ground Project with the Church itself, nor are we equating the "revitalized common ground" we seek with the faith.
The Project will sponsor conferences and other reflections in which we will seek, as the opening paragraph states, "conditions for addressing our differences constructively," or as the statement later states, "a way" to understand and articulate discipleship in our time and place. We do not see ourselves as having a monopoly on this effort or even necessarily reaching collective positions. But, if the latter happens, we would not claim any special status for them.
In regard to the conferences or consultations sponsored by the Project, the advisory committee will be involved to the extent that their calendars and interest in the particular topics allow. We also hope to bring together many other people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives that will contribute to examination of the particular subject of each conference.
As a realist, I expect that some participants will come to conferences holding positions at variance with ecclesial teaching or discipline regarding ordination, capital punishment, or any number of issues. But the role of authentic Church teaching will always be clear and will be upheld.
What do you hope will be accomplished at the conferences?
Our hope is threefold. We hope that people of faith and leadership, whose divergent viewpoints have prevented them from listening adequately to one another, will have an opportunity to deepen and broaden their understanding of pastoral matters. Second, we hope that whatever emerges from these conferences in the way of publications will contribute to discussion in the larger Church. Third, we hope to offer an example of how to engage in mutually respectful and constructive dialogue from which others might learn. As you can see, our goals are focused and modest.
Is it possible that the media can misuse this project to deepen divisions in the Church or to suggest that the Church should be guided by fluctuations in popular opinion?
Of course, this is true of all such projects. We are neither responsible for this result nor exempt from it, but we are trying to move beyond such manipulation by the way we drafted the statement and by the creation of forums where we can hear more clearly what is really being said.
In conclusion, I assure you that I remain fully committed to this project. As I said at my press conference on August 12th, "Our faith and our common life as members of the community of faith, which is the Church, are indeed great and precious gifts. Let us together leave behind whatever brings discord. Let us recommit ourselves to this great heritage of faith."
I firmly believe that the ultimate test of this new initiative will be the one that Scripture proposes: if it is of God, it will bear fruit.
Two and a half months ago, I announced an initiative called the Catholic Common Ground Project. My aim was to help Catholics address, creatively and faithfully, questions that are vital if the Church in the United States is to flourish as we enter the next millennium. At every level, we needed, I felt, to move beyond the distrust, the polarization, and the entrenched positions that have hampered our responses.
At the same time, I released a statement, "Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril." Its very first paragraph summed up what this initiative was about: "Will the Catholic Church in the United States enter the new millennium as a Church of promise," it asked, or as "a Church on the defensive"? The outcome, it proposed, depended on "whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination." "American Catholics," it stated, "must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively." This can happen if we find a common ground. But not just any common ground. It has to be, as the statement said, "a common ground centred on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation."
At that time, I also announced that I had assembled a committee of outstanding Catholics to join me in this Project -- seven other bishops, including a fellow Cardinal, five priests, three women religious, and eight lay men and women. They come from across the country, from diverse backgrounds in public service, intellectual life, business, and labour -- and from a range of viewpoints regarding the needs of the Church.
Although I felt that the statement "Called to Be Catholic" was an excellent description of our situation today, I did not ask these advisors to endorse its every word. I regret that some press reports mistakenly reported that committee members had signed the statement. My conviction, in fact, was that the words were not enough. The idea behind the Catholic Common Ground Project was to demonstrate how this call for a civil and generous dialogue, Christ centred and accountable to the Church's living tradition and teaching of the authentic magisterium, could be put into action.
To do that will take time, and at the end of August, as you well know, I discovered how little time remains for me personally. Earlier today, I met with the committee so that my role in this venture can be passed to others, and, this evening I am sharing these reflections with you in the hope that that you too, in your own ways, will take up this task.
My thoughts this evening will cover several areas: the response to the Project, the reality of differences in the Church, the relationship of the Project to doctrine and dissent, what is meant by the word "dialogue," and, finally, my hopes for the future of the Project.
Rather, I am thinking of the outpouring of personal letters that have been sent to me and to the National Pastoral Life Centre in New York -- letters filled with words like "grateful," "heartening," "timely," "common sense," and even "joy." Priests and parishioners, women and men, recounted their frustrations and their fears that hope for the Church was fading into deadlock or acrimony. Their letters also offered ideas, energy, institutional support. They reported discussions already being organized around "Called to be Catholic." The letters were charged with the sense that something bottled up had been released, that something grown dormant was being reawakened.
Most of the letters avoided any note of triumphalism. They called, instead, for humility and prayerful reflection. Among the letter writers were some identifying themselves as conservatives and others calling themselves liberals, but both confessing that they had felt the acids of polarization, anger, and overreaction at work in their own souls.
There were, however, exceptions. A few people welcomed the Project, it seemed, as offering a new front or a promising arena in what they clearly viewed as little more than an ongoing battle within the Church. But most, I am happy to say, seemed truly to feel the need to apply to themselves as well as to others the statement's call that we examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds, and changed hearts.
If there was any frequent misunderstanding of the Catholic Common Ground Project, both among its supporters and its critics, it only reflected the Church's current state of nervous anxiety. Some people hoped, and others feared, that this initiative would aim ambitiously at resolving all the Church's major conflicts in our nation. Some seemed to imagine that the project planned to bring contending sides, like labour management negotiators, to a bargaining table and somehow hammer out a new consensus on contentious issues within 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..
I apologize if any of my statements contributed to this impression. Precisely because this effort is so important to the hopes of so many, we need to be clear about the limits of this effort. Our aim is not to resolve all our differences or to establish a new ecclesial structure. Rather, it is, first of all, to learn how to make our 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.
Common ground, in this sense, is not a new set of conclusions. It is a way of exploring our differences. It is a common spirit and ethic of dialogue. It is a space of trust set within boundaries. It is a place of respect where we can explore our differences, assured in the understanding that neither is everything "cut and dried" nor is everything "up for grabs."
In the Church's history, differences have often been the seedbeds of our most profound understanding of God and salvation. Differences and dissatisfaction have spurred extraordinary institutional creativity. And differences too often have provoked unnecessary, wasteful, and sometimes terrible, division.
What about today? By most historical standards the Catholic Church is not racked by overt divisions. Quite the contrary. No other global movement or body -- political, religious, ideological -- begins to approach the unity demonstrated time and again in the travels of the Holy Father whose remarkable pastoral leadership as shepherd and teacher has prepared us well for the new millennium and can be a helpful basis for the dialogue about which I will speak later. Our oneness in Spirit, our gathering from east to west at the eucharistic banquet, has never been rendered so visible to the human eye.
Yet, we have learned that in modern societies the greatest dangers may not manifest themselves so much in schism and rebellion as in haemorrhage and lassitude, complacency, the insidious draining of vitality, the haughty retreat into isolation, the dispiriting pressure of retrenchment. Secularization has triumphed where the Church defaulted.
Are the differences among U.S. Catholics generating reflection, exchange, debate, ideas, initiative, decisiveness? Or are they producing distrust, polemics, weariness, withdrawal, inertia, deadlock?
No one can answer these questions definitively. But I and many others representing a range of theological outlooks feel that, in far too many cases, the brave new sparks and steady flame of vitality in the Church are being smothered by the camps and distractions of our quarrels. The statement "Called to Be Catholic" described the situation realistically. "For three decades," it noted, "the Church has been divided by different responses to the Second Vatican Council and to the tumultuous years that followed."
Despite the emergence of new generations with new questions, experiences, and needs, the statement continued, "party lines have hardened. A mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the Church's life -- One consequence is that many of us are refusing to acknowledge disquieting realities, perhaps fearing that they may reflect poorly on our past efforts or arm our critics -- Candid discussion is inhibited. . . Ideas, journals, and leaders are pressed to align themselves with pre-existing camps."
One could expand on that analysis. Rather than listen to an idea, we look for its "worst case" extension; we suspect a hidden agenda. Anticipating attack, we avoid self-criticism and fear frank evaluation. We silence our doubts. We list the events of ecclesial life in parallel columns as wins or losses in a kind of zero sum game.
I am almost embarrassed to give examples -- first, because some of them are so painfully obvious and, second, because it is difficult to do so without inviting this process of testing for partisanship and hidden agendas. But let me mention only the very first item among the statement's examples of urgent questions that the Church needs to address openly and honestly: "the changing roles of women." That would seem to be a rather obvious topic for examination, since the Holy Father has himself drawn our attention to it. Yet in the public responses to the statement, the fact that this question was listed first was enough to render our undertaking suspect by some, while the fact that it did not stipulate anything about ordination was a cause for rejection by others.
I believe that we long for a climate where a question as basic as this could be brought to the table in a mood of good will and with a readiness to learn from one another. We long to exchange ideas, informed by Church teaching and witness, with a confidence that our heartfelt concerns for living the gospel faithfully will be heard and not slighted or betrayed.
The answer to this question is twofold. First, many of the controversial differences among U.S. Catholics are not strictly doctrinal but, indeed, pastoral. The collaboration between clergy and laity in parish life, the effectiveness of religious education, the quality of liturgical celebration, the means of coping with declining number of priests and sisters -- all the crucial areas pose numerous questions for which neither the Catechism of the Catholic Church nor the documents of Vatican II nor other magisterial sources provide precise and authoritative answers.
For example, in what sequence, and with what mixture of the affective and the conceptual, should the truths of the faith be introduced to children? How should religious education be structured around family life, sacramental preparation, classroom activities, the liturgy and its cycles? How should resources be distributed among Catholic schools, other forms of religious education, the family teaching moments of baptism, First Communion, marriage, and death? How should religious educators be formed, and programs realistically suited to volunteer teachers with high turnover rates? How can qualified lay professionals be identified, selected, sustained, and assured of respect and recompense in team ministries? What can be done to make the quality of homilies and congregational singing genuine assets in building a parish community?
To no small extent, the future vitality of the Church hangs on such issues, and for concrete solutions 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.
But that is not the complete answer. There are doctrinal aspects to even the most pastoral of these questions, and these doctrinal aspects generate anxiety. It is both justified and imperative to ask what are the implications for doctrine of pastoral proposals or the implications for pastoral proposals of doctrine.
To ask such questions is more than an obligation. It is also an opportunity. Catholic doctrine provides enduring truths about divine and human reality. It should enlighten our minds, guide our daily actions, inform our spiritual striving. As we know, doctrine is often refined and nuanced, and is expressed as a carefully articulated structure rather than as an undifferentiated block. There also exists, as the Second Vatican Council stated, and the Catechism repeats, a "hierarchy" of truths varying in their relation to the foundation of Christian faith. And Catholic belief is not static. Assisted by the Holy Spirit, the Church is able to grow in its understanding of the heritage of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a gift to the Church because it is a compendium of this rich doctrinal heritage as it has developed over the centuries.
What is the practical import of this interlacing of the pastoral and the doctrinal? On the one hand, as "Called to Be Catholic" urges, "We should not rush to interpret disagreements as conflicts of starkly opposing principles rather than as differences in degree or in prudential pastoral judgements about the relevant facts." On the other hand, we must also "detect the valid insights and worries" embedded in our differing arguments. That being said, ultimately, our reflections and deliberations must be accountable to Scripture and tradition authentically interpreted -- or in the words of the statement, to "the cloud of witnesses over the centuries or the living magisterium of the Church exercised by the bishops and the Chair of Peter." On this point let there be no uncertainty!
One can find, however, some major points of consensus about dissent.
On the one hand, consider the view that all public disagreement or criticism of Church teaching is illegitimate. Such an unqualified understanding is unfounded and would be a disservice to the Church. "Room must be made for responsible dissent in the Church," writes Father Avery Dulles, whom no one can accuse of being radical or reckless in his views. "Theology always stands under correction."
"Dissent should neither be glorified nor be vilified," Father Dulles adds. It inevitably risks weakening the Church as a sign of unity, but it can nonetheless be justified, and to suppress it would be harmful. "The good health of the Church demands continual revitalization by new ideas," Father Dulles says, adding that "nearly every creative theologian has at one time or another been suspected of corrupting the faith." In fact, according to Dulles, theologians ought to alert Church authorities to the shortcomings of its teachings.
Similarly, in Veritatis Splendor Pope John Paul II distinguished between "limited and occasional dissent" and "an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine." I would argue that dissent ceases to be legitimate when it takes the form of aggressive public campaigns against Church teachings that undermine the authority of the magisterium itself.
No one can deny that such campaigns exist. But I would go further. 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." It takes no more than a cursory reading of the more militant segments of the Catholic press, on both ends of the theological and ideological spectrum, to reveal how widespread, and how corrosive, such caricatures have become.
This is why the Catholic Common Ground Project, while affirming "legitimate debate, discussion, and diversity," specifically targets "pop scholarship, sound bite theology, unhistorical assertions, and flippant dismissals." Moreover, it aims at giving Catholics another model for exploring our differences. Before speaking of that model I want to make it clear that, in speaking of a "common ground," this Project does not aim at the lowest common denominator. Nor when it speaks of dialogue does it imply compromise. Rather, in both instances its goal is the fullest possible understanding of and internalization of the truth.
The statement "Called to Be Catholic" proposes conditions for a renewed and successful dialogue among U.S. Catholics. Let us remind ourselves of a few of them:
Shortly after the Project was announced, a friend asked me, "Joe, why at this time in your life did you take on this Project?" My friend was referring to the stress of the last three years, in particular the stress of a false accusation and then of being a cancer patient. It was a good question. It prompted me to reflect more deeply about my many life experiences and my own spiritual journey.
I thought immediately of the lessons I had learned from my mentors, Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta and John Cardinal Dearden of Detroit: to trust that, through open and honest dialogue, differences could be resolved and the gospel proclaimed in its integrity. Over the years I learned from you and so many other of our sisters and brothers the correctness of what these two great churchmen taught me. I have been impressed and humbled by the willingness of so many to rise above differences in search for the truth that can bind us together. I have been nurtured by the peace and joy of communities that have worked hard for reconciliation and peace.
This same insight prompted me to move beyond the family of faith and speak to our society about a consistent ethic of life. In asking opponents of abortion and opponents of capital punishment and nuclear war to perceive a whole spectrum of life issues not in identical terms but, rather, in relationship to one another, I have been moved by the conviction that the Church's understanding of the gospel defies conventional political and ideological lines. By juxtaposing positions that are conventionally set apart and by searching for the common thread, we enrich our own understanding and open others to persuasion.
Similarly, the Catholic Common Ground Project offers the promise of our rising above hardened party lines and finding renewal in the splendour of the truth revealed in the person of Jesus who is our Lord and our saviour.
This evening, I assure you that, having entered the final phase of my life's journey, I am even more committed than before to this central conviction. 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, my friends, is that we find that unity with the Lord and within the community of faith for which Jesus prayed so fervently on the night before he died. 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.
And so, in that spirit I hand on to you the gift that was given to me - a vision of the Churrch that trusts in the power of the Spirit so much that it can risk authentic dialogue. I hand that gift on to you without fear or trepidation. I say this because I know that it is a gift you already prize and cherish. I ask you, without waiting and on your own, to strengthen the common ground, to examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds, and changed hearts, and to confront our challenges with honesty and imagination. Guided by the Holy Spirit, together, we can more effectively respond to the challenges of our times as we carry forward the mission that the Lord Jesus gave to us, his disciples. It is to promote that mission that the constructive dialogue we seek is so important.
In addition, I ask you to read carefully "Called to Be Catholic." Like some of the Committee, you may not agree with every sentence or paragraph. But ask yourself carefully where and why you agree or disagree. Discuss it in your families, your parishes, your schools. Make it the occasion for a serious examination of conscience and not for further contention.
Then, I ask you to go a step further. Whether you are guided by this statement or similar principles, please decide how it might modify the conduct or the tone of whatever group efforts engage you in the Church -- your parish council, your prayer group, yyour Catholic grade school or high school faculty, your academic department or professional organization if these deal with religious issues. Are these the principles -- the centrality of Jesus, the serious accountability to Church tradition and authentic teaching, the spirit of dialogue and consultation -- that govern the Catholic periodicals you read, the television programs you watch, the organizations to which you belong, or the conferences you attend? If not, make your preferences known.
As you do this, return to the teachings
of the Second Vatican Council, which I believe with all my being was the
work of God's Holy Spirit. While there is so much in conciliar teaching
that can guide these efforts, you might find inspiration in a passage at
the close of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in
the Modern World. This passage calls on the Church to become a sign of
sincere dialogue as part of its mission to enlighten the world with the
gospel's message and unite all people in the one Spirit. I close with the
inspiring words of that passage: "Such a mission,"
the Council fathers instructed, "requires us first
of all to create in the Church itself mutual esteem, reverence and harmony,
and acknowledge all legitimate diversity; in this way all who constitute
the one people of God will be able to engage in ever more fruitful dialogue,
whether they are pastors or other members of the faithful. For the ties
which unite the faithful together are stronger than those which separate
them: let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is doubtful,
and charity in everything."
Bernardin, throughout his life, modeled his belief that "through open and honest dialogue, differences can be resolved and the integrity of the gospel proclaimed." As a result he was frequently caught in the middle between warring factions on the right and the left.
The attacks on the common ground project have been directed more at the statement than at Cardinal Bernardin. "It is unfortunate that the Cardinal's initiative has tied itself to this statement," says Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. "Throughout [the statement] there are gratuitous assumptions, and at significant points it breathes an ideological bias which it elsewhere decries in others." For Cardinal Law, "the fundamental flaw in this document is its appeal for 'dialogue' as a path to 'common ground.' The church already has 'common ground.' It is found in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, and it is mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the Magisterium." Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C., makes a similar argument. "True 'common ground' is found in Scripture and Tradition as handed on through the teaching office of the Holy Father and the bishops." He goes further in saying that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a reliable and complete expression of our common ground.
Note here the false contrast between the official teaching of the Church which is equated with truth, and dissent which is implicitly equated with error. This is unfair, and unwise. In the past official teaching has on occasion been found to be wrong and dissent proved to be right! The purpose of dialogue should not be to confuse issues or generate ambiguity (as is too often done by contemporary church authorities, including Pope John-Paul II, when engauging in Ecumenical dialogue) but to explore different points of view and attitudes in the hope that a common and deeper understanding may come about. I have personal experience of just this kind of phenomena in talking both with protestants and apparently liberal Catholics. If we do not hope that this is possible, then we have to face the prospect of more and more dissagreement and dissension within Christendom as time goes on. The fact that a number of historical disagreements have been overcome tells us clearly that misunderstandings and prejudice have had a part to play in intra-Church relations in the past and that with the exercise of good will, patience and humility they can be cleared up.
Clearly, the most pressing "issues of dissent" are doctrinal. Even the apparently pastoral matter of liturgy covers a huge swathe of doctrinal matters. Dissent and the magesterium cannot be equal partners. However, this is again a false contrast. Prophets and Teachers have a solemn duty to challenge and caution the authority of the Priesthood. Equally, the Priesthood has an grave obligation to heed the concerns of the Prophets and Teachers before finalizing its magesterium.
In responding to his critics, Bernardin appeared to take the most controversial issues off the table. Even with these limits, the project could be still be important and useful, but it would be much less ambitious than many people originally thought. This strategy increases the likelihood of episcopal support for the common ground project, but it also leaves the really divisive issues without a legitimate forum within the church.