THE COMMON GROUND Project, spurred by the support of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, will move forward with a conference planned March 7-9 in Chicago.

There's been “an avalanche of interest,” Msgr.Philip Murnion, coordinator of the project, which seeks to bring together Catholics with opposing viewpoints, told a meeting of diocesan planners sponsored by the National Pastoral Life Center.

Murnion, director of the Pastoral Life Center has been a prime mover of the Common Ground project, which is now under the direction of Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala.

While the project received criticism last year from some Church leaders including four American cardinals who said it was too open to those opposed to Church teaching, “the signals from the Holy See are not negative,” Murnion, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, told the group.

Hints from top Vatican officials, he said, indicate a cautious wait-and-see attitude about Common Ground.He said that interest in the project has been galvanized through the publicity surrounding the death of Cardinal Bernardin, who made the Common Ground Project a priority in the last year of his life. “His death and this event got tied together,” said Murnion, who traced the history of the initiative from a small group of Church leaders who were upset with what they saw as increasing rancor among Catholics.

He said he expected criticism from a variety of viewpoints after the project issued a statement last year entitled “Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril.” The statement argued that there is a climate of ideological suspicion in the Church that gets in the way of its mission.It said that “a mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the Church's life.”

It called for American Catholics to “reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively — a common ground centered 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.” An estimated 300,000 copies of the statement have been distributed, including through Catholic newspapers, such as the Register, which ran the text in full.

Some complained that the statement encouraged dissent from Church teaching.Others, including Father Richard McBrien, a dissenting theologian at the University of Notre Dame, argued that the statement did not deal with what he described as heavy-handed Church leadership.Sociologist and author Father Andrew Greeley responded that the acrimony the statement described largely affects elite professional Church leaders, not the everyday parish life that is experienced by most Catholics.

That kind of criticism was expected by project leaders.But Murnion said that he and other leaders of the project did not expect the negative response from four American cardinals, Bernard Law of Boston, James Hickey of Washington, Adam Maida of Detroit and Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia.The strong reaction to the document, Murnion said, “for some confirmed the problem it was describing.”

The meeting in Chicago has proven problematic in some regards, he noted.The project organizers are interested in a public meeting, but also would like to generate as much honest dialogue as possible, which means that privacy might have to be protected.The group is figuring out ways to receive both public and private comments at the conference.

Murnion said that responses indicate that the project is already having a positive effect.He noted that a moral theology professor at a Catholic university said the document challenged him to ask, “How fairly do I present the teachings of those I disagree with?”

Peter Feuerherd