National Catholic Register


Higher Ground

BY Jim Cosgrove

April 06, 1997 Issue | Posted 4/6/97 at 2:00 PM


IN THIS ISSUE, Register coverage of the first Cardinal Bernardin Conference begins with excerpts from the keynote address by Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb. There are bound to be those who resent yet more coverage of an initiative they have little faith in. Moreover, they would add, the Common Ground Project is likely to lose steam anyway, once Cardinal Bernardin's successor is named in Chicago—possibly right after Easter—and the Bernardin legacy and all that it entails is likely to leave center-stage. Nevertheless, there are some noteworthy aspects to the Mobile, Ala., prelate's talk that, no matter one's position on the issue, deserve highlighting.

For one thing, the archbishop made it very clear that the Church ban on abortion, and, one would assume, by extension euthanasia and assisted suicide as well, is not up for discussion. Moreover, as the format didn't allow, as the archbishop acknowledged, for in-depth response to the critics—he insisted that the Common Ground statement, “called to be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril,” wasn't written to sustain serious theological scrutiny—he promised such would be forthcoming. He singled out two major critics by name, Father Avery Dulles SJ and Professor David Schindler, whose substantial critiques are a real challenge for the Common Ground Project.

Neither theologian, though invited, was able to attend the conference. But chances are they'll be there next time. That opportunity, in any case, to significantly affect the discussion will be hard to turn down. Lipscomb et al. certainly deserve credit for saluting their critics in this fashion. Archbishop Lipscomb closed his talk with a reference to the finding of “truly grace- filled ground” as the object of the Common Ground Project. If that is the goal, he says, “we and our critics will have nothing to fear.” “It is this encounter with Christ's sacrificial love poured out that allows us as sinners to be forgiven in order to be about Gods'work,” the archbishop says.

It is true, of course, that Schindler's critique, in particular, implies that the dialogue process as proposed by the Common Ground Initiative—based, as it appears to be for all intents and purposes, on a neutral meeting ground, where a civil discussion can take place between those holding opposing views—cannot be authentically Christian. AChristian, Schindler reasons, cannot relegate strongly held beliefs to the private sphere to emerge as a public, as it were neutral, persona who calmly engages in debate. It isn't, for Schindler, a matter of strongly held beliefs, in any case, but an anthropological reality: Man's creature-liness implies a certain inalienable, ontological relationship with the Creator.

In a play on Archbishop Lipscomb's words, it can be argued that man is not aboutGod's work: He already and foremost is God's work, and is ultimately utterly dependent on the Creator. Schindler's is a praying, soulful, lived theology. He is concerned about the numbing effect of mere moralizing, leaving man paying lip service to God, but still more or less in charge of his own destiny. What is at stake, he argues is not a call to civility, but a call to sanctity. Father Dulles makes a similar point in more sociological or political terms.

Schindler's critique has huge implications for the Church's relations ad extra as well (about which more will appear in these pages soon). Briefly put, he believes that the so-called neutral public square of contemporary society, sadly devoid of religious values—to cover whose nakedness, argue Father Richard John Neuhaus and others, Christians, Jews and other believers are called to vigorous public proclamation of their cherished beliefs—is the inevitable result of the Founding Father's flawed anthropology, their failure or inability to properly gauge the implications of man's creatureliness.

By contrast, of course, there is also much optimism about the American experiment, which found reflection in the Cardinal Bernardin Conference's theme: “the United States Culture and the Challenge of Discipleship.” A member of the Common Ground Committee, Michael Novak, winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion and the godfather of democratic capitialism, made a compelling case that the Declaration of Independence “expresses a ‘way of life,’a ‘life form,’a whole packageof convictions and practices, and a well-articulated and deeply understood system of interlocked ideas: nature, virtue, liberty, equality and the law of God.” (More excerpts of his talk will appear next week.) The United States, Novak holds, “had the blessings of both forms of Providence, divine and human,” the latter defined as “prudence or political wisdom.”

This celebration of the American experiment is for Novak an appropriate subtask of the Common Ground Project, a corrective for the “continental social democratic vocabulary” of the U.S. bishops and many intellectuals. What's needed instead, he says, is a concerted effort to develop “an American vocabulary, steeped in American intellectual traditions.”

More wary though by no means dismissive of the institutions of Western-style capitalism, Father Brian Hehir addressed the Common Ground Committee on the need for Catholic wisdom to complement “secular intelligence, technology [and] courage.” He reflects on the appropriate “public role of religion” and how Catholics are to “state our case in the wider civil society, and how [to] propose a posture for citizenship within the ecclesial community.” He argues that the Church's posture vis-´-vis the world ought to be one of “confident modesty,” which, he says, “was embodied in the Council's affirmation that the best way to illustrate the Church's respect for ‘the world’…was to engage it in dialogue.”

All in all, some definite food for thought at the Common Ground Project's first formal conference. Key issues are being tackled and some of the more compelling material, as presented by Mr. Novak and Father Hehir, for example, is clearly not the stuff that should worry those who fear an assault on Church doctrine—even though, as Dr. Schindler would testify, what's ultimately in play is the living heart of faith, lived out in the Church and in the world.