National Catholic Register


Dialogue and Common Ground, or Truth and Unity?


BY Jim Cosgrove

September 1, 1996 Issue | Posted 9/1/96 at 2:00 PM


AMONG CHRIST'S PARTING WORDS to His disciples and “those who will believe in me through their word” is His solemn wish that “they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17, 20-21).

If we want to follow Christ faithfully, fully embracing the gift of our Catholic faith, if we want to be authentic and effective witnesses of Jesus Christ, we must be as united to one another as Christ is to His Father. In this light, the present divisions within the Church pain the heart like few other things, and every effort to mend them is to be welcomed, cheered, and carefully considered.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's “Common Ground” project aims to be one such effort on a grand scale. Rejected by some (perhaps too hastily), welcomed by others (also perhaps too hastily), it has yet to receive careful consideration. That fact alone attests to the accuracy of the project's portrayal of the Catholic Church in America as crippled by a “polarization” that “blocks a candid and constructive response” to problematic situations.

The charter for Common Ground is a document entitled Called to be Catholic (a very good TITLE: being Catholic is a calling, a vocation, a gift from God). It begins with a description of the present state of the Catholic Church in the United States. It is a Church “in peril” and “increasingly polarized,” whose faithful, especially the young, “feel disenfranchised,” “confused,” and “increasingly adrift.” The Church's institutions “feel uncertain of their identity.” The few exemplary efforts “dotting the Church's landscape” are “burdened” by “fingerpointing and demoralization.”

All of this bodes ill for the future of Catholicism in the United States. Will our Church become, the charter asks, “a Church on the defensive, torn by dissension”? The answer, for the architects of Common Ground, “depends on whether American Catholicism can … reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership.” “American Catholics,” the charter concludes, “must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively—a common ground centered on Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation.”

That the Church in the United States is “in peril” and “increasingly polarized” few would contest. That our youth “feel disenfranchised,” “confused” and “increasingly adrift” is plain for all to see. The description is written, as the charter itself says, with “hard words.” Hard to pronounce, hard to hear, but undeniable. The charter does us all a great service by describing with sobriety and clarity this situation. It is to be hoped that keeping this sober and clear assessment before our eyes will be an ongoing contribution of the Common Ground project.

The seriousness of the situation calls for clear-headed analysis. It's not enough to know how bad things are. Knowing how we reached such a state is a requisite condition to emerging from it.

The charter, unfortunately, offers very little on this score. It merely states that “for three decades the Church has been divided by different responses to the Second Vatican Council and to the tumultuous years that followed it.” Yet the tensions created, the charter is quick to add, “were by no means always unfruitful.” They were, in fact, “virtually unavoidable.” “Differences of opinion,” it states a little further on, “are essential to the process of attaining truth.”

With that we hit the weakest point of the charter. AHegelian dialectic seems to set in. Such a dialectic requires opposing elements (thesis and anti-thesis) to attain synthesis. If one of the elements refuses to enter into the dialectic the process is paralyzed. This, according to the charter, is precisely the situation: “party lines have hardened,” and “candid discussion is inhibited.” So we are where we are, it seems, because of a steadily increasing unwillingness to enter into dialogue. This increasing unwillingness has hardened and now reached an impasse. The only thing left for us is to search for a “common ground” so that dialogue can begin again.

Whether or not increased dialogue is the solution to the problem depends, first of all, on whether or not decreased dialogue is in fact the cause of the problem.

We should begin by asking, What is the purpose of this dialogue? To “attain the truth.” What kind of truth are we talking about? Political truth? Moral truth? Theological truth? Revealed truth? With a title such as “Called to be Catholic” we cannot be accused of over-simplification if we conclude that we are talking about Revealed truth, the truth God has revealed to us in Sacred Scripture. Is such truth “attained” through “dialogue.” If so, the Catholic Church has got it all wrong and I will go back to being the Protestant I once was. If, however, Revealed truth is received in faith, then I was right to switch.

It may be, however, that Revealed truth is not the truth being talked about (“common ground” is, after all, more of a political than a theological concept). Then what kind? What other kind has any real bearing on the issue when we are talking about an institution founded by a man who called himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life”? And when that same man, God Incarnate, chose to found a Church, naming Peter its first visible head, giving him absolute authority: “what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”? Invested with such authority, Peter chose to pass that same authority on to his successors down through the ages, thus making the Pope the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of unity of both the bishops and the whole company of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium, 22).

Why settle for “common ground” when unity is so close at hand? Besides, having to search for “common ground” (within the Church) is not part of being “called be to Catholic.” Does “one in me as I am in you” sound like “common ground”?

Moreover, returning to Revealed truth, discussion and dialogue may very well inhibit its grasp. Revealed truth is accepted and embraced because it is from God, who is the source and summit of all knowledge and truth.

Dare we entertain the notion that dialogue is part of the cause of the problem, not its solution? What if it's discovered that dialogue has served only to mask and therefore aggravate deeper problems, such as a general loss of genuine, religious faith? Is the Common Ground committee prepared to re-focus its energies and get to the root of the problem, uprooting the whole ugly tree rather than snipping away at its branches?

Dialogue, it is true, has its place. It can be invaluable for penetrating a truth more deeply and for learning to transmit it more effectively. But dialogue follows on humble acceptance, does not replace it. If it does come to replace it, problems of the most serious nature are bound to surface and multiply, problems, perhaps, such as Church institutions “uncertain of their identity,” youth who are “confused” and “increasingly adrift,” and increased “polarization” between those who accept the gift of Catholic faith just as it is and those who would prefer to dialogue about it.

That is not meant to be a cheap shot. It is merely an honest, reasoned assessment, one the Common Ground people should be prepared to consider. They have called for candid critique. Candid and constructive, which means we can't stop here.

Dialogue, we have attempted to point out, is not enough, and may even be part of the problem when it takes the place of a growing faith that humbly accepts the truth God has revealed to us—that the Church is His and that He has placed the Pope as its visible head on earth, as the visible foundation of its unity.

We have also stated our case for unity rather than “common ground.” Unity is far more ambitious, yet it is the only proper goal for us if we are to be “one in Christ as Christ is in the Father.”

Present divisions, however, are a reality. How are we to mend them?

In the first place, unity, like happiness, cannot be pursued directly. It is a byproduct. Unity flowers on its own, of necessity, when a shared goal breeds shared priorities and shared experiences, as it did for the early Christian community.

What was the driving force of that community? Alife-transforming experience of Christ and an unstoppable zeal (even when it meant death) to spread that experience.

The key to rediscovering our unity is right before our eyes: a generation “disenfranchised,” “confused,” and “increasingly adrift.” Ageneration that does not know Christ. Out of genuine love for our youth we should hand on to them, by our actions and our words, the full truth of the Gospel just as it came from the lips of Christ: a narrow road, yes, but the only one that leads to fullness of life here and in eternity. The youth of America are the great mission before the Catholic Church in the United States, the mission capable of uniting us and reinvigorating our faith. “Only by becoming missionary will the Christian community be able to overcome its internal divisions and tensions, and rediscover its unity and its strength of faith” (Redemptoris missio, 49).