Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

"Common Ground": Reasons for Suspicion

by Michael S. Rose


An article about the Common Ground Project initiated by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin in 1997.

Larger Work

St. Catherine Review

Publisher & Date

St. Catherine Review, September-October 1996

Vision Book Cover Prints

Increasingly over past years there has been much talk about "divisions" in the Catholic Church in the U.S. These divisions have come again to the forefront in a document released by the National Pastoral Life Center (NPLC), initiated by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and supported by seven other U.S. bishops.

The document, entitled "Called to be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril" (CtbC) serves to acknowledge these divisions and to inaugurate the Catholic Common Ground Project, a series of conferences designed to address the problem of the widening "polarization" within the Church. In short, the CtbC calls for "American Catholics" to "air openly and honestly" such "urgent questions" as the role of women in the Church, the meaning of human sexuality, the manner of decision-making in church governance, and the place of collegiality in relations between Rome and the American episcopacy.

Problems of Origin

"Called to be Catholic" was prepared by the NPLC’s Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, a founder of the dissident American Catholic group, Call to Action (CTA) (he is also being entrusted with the administration of the Catholic Common Ground Project). It is perhaps no surprise then that the same list of "urgent questions" appears on the CTA-sponsored "We Are Church" referendum. Proposed by the Women’s Ordination Conference and widely publicized by CTA, the "We Are Church" referendum issued the following demands:

that "the People of God participate in the process of selecting their bishops and pastors";

"equal rights for women, where women are… welcomed in all ministries, including the diaconate and the ministerial priesthood";

that priests be able to "choose either a celibate or non-celibate way of life";

that the Church affirm "the goodness of sexuality";

that the Church affirm "the primacy of conscience in deciding issues of sexual morality (for example: birth-control)";

that the Church "embraces and welcomes… theologians and others who exercise freedom of speech."

When this referendum was announced on Pentecost earlier this year, Bishop Anthony Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), warned that the document would only further polarize the Church in the U.S. Despite most bishops’ opposition to the "We Are Church" referendum, the recently-issued CtbC document which addresses the same core group of issues, has been officially endorsed or otherwise supported by a group of bishops, including Bishop Pilla.

Problems of Content

"Called to be Catholic" is a misnomer: regrettably the document, calling for Catholics of the conservative and liberal camps to meet on "common ground", can be construed as an official endorsement of dissent from the Holy Father and the Magisterium, the official teaching arm of the Church. Those whom Cardinal Bernardin is bringing together are the ones who are creating the problems in the Church —in what sometimes seems to be a concerted effort to create an American version of the Roman Catholic Church based on democratic consensus rather than the Truth promulgated by Jesus Christ and upheld throughout the ages by His one, holy, apostolic Church. The emphasis over the past 30 years has been on "Americanism" rather than "Catholicism".

Reviews of the document by Catholic News Service (CNS) make the thesis set forth in CtbC seem harmless and well-meaning enough. However, when one takes into consideration the names and ideas behind the 3000-word manifesto (which I urge everyone to read for himself) the true agenda shines forth. Indeed the very fact that the document attempts to confront all anticipated objections in advance is indicative of its self-conscious ambiguity.

Problems of "Misunderstandings"

The unusual public disagreement between the U.S. cardinals that ensued after the CtbC statement was made public has been warmed over in most diocesan papers by a CNS report blaring the headlines, "Cardinals ‘not at odds’ on dialogue", in an attempt to downplay the criticism which has been voiced by Cardinals Bevilacqua, Hickey, Law, and Maida. The CNS article claims that the cardinals are not at odds over the idea of "dialogue", although in that very article Cardinal Law is quoted as saying that the framework statement, CtbC, exhibited a "fundamental flaw in its appeal for ‘dialogue’ as a path to common ground." Despite the article’s denial, the cardinals have responded thus:

Cardinal Maida (Detroit): The CtbC statement "may create some confusion for people since it seems to suggest that Catholic teachings are open to dialogue and debate."

Cardinal Bevilacqua (Philadelphia): "When divergent opinions on theological matters are examined in a public forum, by a group, most of whom are not theologians, then reported secondhand in the media, confusion among Catholics grows."

Cardinal Hickey (Washington): The CtbC statement "obscures" ground for Church unity. True common ground "is found in Scripture and Tradition as handed on through the teaching office" of the bishops.

Cardinal Law (Boston): "Truth and dissent from truth are not equal partners in ecclesial dialogue"… "Dialogue as a way to mediate between the truth and dissent is mutual deception."

These comments, among others, voiced as criticisms of both the "Called to be Catholic" statement and the Catholic Common Ground Project prompted a ten-page response from Cardinal Bernardin clarifying the motivations and goals of both the statement and the project. Speaking to the criticisms, the cardinal wrote: "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." With that said, it is prudent to question the assumption of the initiative —that it will alleviate the increasing polarization of the Church in the U.S. On the contrary, Cardinal Bernardin seems to be admitting, through both the self-conscious anticipation of opposition and an analysis of the short-term reactions of the initiative’s announcement, that the Catholic Common Ground Project is having negative effects on the faithful. Anticipating suspicion on an initiative does not invalidate the reasons to be suspicious of the initiative. Further, the cardinals, among a host of others, who have taken issue with Cardinal Bernardin’s plan, hardly qualify as "right-wing" or "left-wing" agenda Catholics.

Problems of Credibility

It is interesting to note that some of the bishops endorsing the Catholic Common Ground Project have been key players in escalating the so-called polarization of the "American Catholic Church" (as it is termed in the CtbC document) —perhaps another reason to be "suspicious" of this new initiative. Consider the roles just four of these bishops have played over the past few years:

Cardinal Bernardin, brilliant in the public relations venue, has stirred controversy over the years by promoting certain unorthodox liturgical practices such as the congregation standing during the canon of the Mass, Holy Communion distributed into the palm, and the use of girls as altar servers, all before Vatican approval. When it was first proposed at a bishops synod that there should be a universal catechism, Cardinal Bernardin rejected the idea. Of late, the cardinal has come under fire for his controversial church closings and demolition plans.

Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles has received much publicity during his pontifical tenure over his faithful devotion to appeasing homosexual and feminist dissenters, including giving his imprimatur to the controversial Benzinger Family Life Series which is imbibed with an anti-Catholic feminist view of God, the Church, and the family.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, outspoken advocate of women’s ordination, spearheaded a document last summer proposing that the American bishops become more independent from the Holy See. Some lines in the CtbC statement have actually been taken word for word from his "NCCB Restructuring Proposal". And again in this document, the archbishop includes the same list of "urgent questions" that need to be discussed. In 1994, in response to Pope John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Archbishop Weakland responded with a pastoral letter expressing his "own inner turmoil" at the pope’s reaffirmation that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood. "In this [the pope] has certainly disagreed with my position that the issue should be left open because of the unresolved theological questions involved," the archbishop lamented.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati is, most notably, president of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) which has caused an uproar of opposition from bishops, priests, religious, and laymen alike concerning the group’s proposed translations of the Sacramentary of the Roman Missal. Critics are quick to point out that ICEL’s translations use both "horizontal" and "vertical" inclusive language (gender-neutral language relative to man and to God, respectively), downplay the transcendence of God, and eliminate words which bear specifically religious connotations. At least two national organizations have been formed in the past year to address the changes that are being proposed by Archbishop Pilarczyk’s ICEL.

Consider some of the other official endorsers of the Catholic Common Ground Project:

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson: advocate of women’s ordination and author of She Who Is, a book in which Sister propounds that we should refer to God as "She";

Margaret Steinfels: editor of Commonweal, advocate of women’s ordination, and outspoken critic of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae which upheld the Church’s teaching that contraception is morally unacceptable;

Fr. Virgilio Elizondo: prominent proponent of liberation theology; and

John Sweeney: president of the AFL-CIO; public advocate of legalized abortion.

Problems of Language

Content aside, the language of the CtbC statement is particularly troubling and indicative of its liberal agenda: the Church (written consistently with a lower-case ‘c’), for instance, is referred to as "it" rather than properly as "she". This same linguistic shibboleth, which is used by those who want to downplay the Church’s role as bride of Christ to serve their own political ends, is used in the "We Are Church" referendum and Archbishop Weakland’s "1995 NCCB Restructuring Statement". Further, the term "American Catholic" and "American church" are used throughout all three aforementioned documents.

What is perhaps more indicative of the liberal bias is what it does not say. Nowhere in the CtbC statement does the author refer to the most fundamental concern of the Church: the struggle in our earthly lives to attain eternal salvation. Nor does the document mention the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the defining document of Roman Catholicism throughout the world —America or no America. Instead, Msgr. Murnion writes: "[a]uthentic accountability rules out a fundamentalism that narrows the richness of the tradition to a text or decree."

Problems of Results

One must wonder what possible good could come from a "dialogue" discussing issues which the Vatican has clearly stated are not legitimate topics to be debated in the Catholic world. The key buzz-word that presents itself as problematic is "dialogue". The act of dialogue does not deepen one’s understanding of the one true Faith as does authentic Catholic catechesis, and there is no reason to believe that the discussions will aim to clarify the Church’s teaching and Tradition. Dialogue denotes a two-way discussion (as Archbishop Weakland points out in his 1995 NCCB statement) on topics which are open to a multiplicity of interpretations with the intent of deepening our understanding of these various interpretations. "Dialogue" in the context of the CtbC statement does not imply a search for an understanding of the Truth; it is a furtherance of confusion.

The truly pressing subject for discussion ought to center around the absence or lack of faith amongst Catholic priests and laity. Time is ripe for the bishops to develop a national strategy to catechize the ill-educated Catholics here in the U.S. rather than play intramural ecumenism. Focusing on peripheral issues takes precious time away from addressing the primary problems such as how to effectively catechize, and how to foster vocations —in short, how to save souls.

CtbC states "there are reports that many Catholics are reaching adulthood with barely a rudimentary knowledge of their faith…" It is here that we Americans should recognize the true crisis of the Church. These so-called "reports" are facts, not some extremist’s ill-informed opinion. Children are growing up without the Faith. Without the Faith, how can there be a single "honest" issue on which to "dialogue"? Americans are growing up without the fundamental understanding that the Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ at His resurrection, rather than just another "faith tradition".

Dialogue on the essential issues of educating Catholics in the Faith and fostering vocations to the priesthood, to the religious life and to the married life should be the priority in Catholic pastoral discussion today. The "We Are Church" referendum, Archbishop Weakland’s 1995 NCCB statement, and the "Called to be Catholic" document choose to focus on peripheral issues that precious few Catholics would consider necessary in the struggle to save souls (a la: "I was naked and you gave me unisex cologne; I was in prison and you affirmed the "primacy of my conscience") Our "dialogue" as Catholic Americans ought to focus on strategies to defend against the mass indifferentism that holds the Church in bondage today. Not only are we Americans suffering from the plague of a frightening moral carnage, we are limping to the tune of ignorance.

Fortunately we are blessed in this day with the Catechism of the Catholic Church which seems the ideal on which to establish a concrete Catholic "common ground". A vague program welcoming open-ended discussion of an undefined list of peripheral issues, with no stated purpose of outcome, will effect nothing more than further confusion. —Michael S. Rose

Copyright 1996 Aquinas Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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