National Catholic Register


The Common Ground Project and the Art of Dialogue

BY Jim Cosgrove

April 06, 1997 Issue | Posted 4/6/97 at 1:00 PM


The first Cardinal Bernardin Conference was held March 7-9 at the Center for Development in Ministry in Mundelein, Ill. It marked the first formal proceedings of the Catholic Common Ground Project (CGP) under the leadership of Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., who last fall succeeded the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in that capacity.

To the surprise of some critics of the initiative, earlier this year Archbishop Lipscomb made it clear that Church teaching on women's ordination and abortion, among other divisive topics, would not be up for discussion. In this excerpt from his keynote address, the archbishop revisits some of the principal criticisms leveled at the CGP and in particular at its founding statement, Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril. The Mundelein conference, most of which took place behind closed doors, also featured presentations by economic philosopher Michael Novak (excerpts to follow next week) and Father Brian Hehir, a former general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Archbishop Lipscomb responds to concerns raised by the CGP founding document. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was the first of several cardinals to outspokenly criticize the statement for seeming to suggest that Church teaching and dissenting positions would be given equal weight in the proposed dialogue—in short, that the process, as proposed, would do more harm than good.

n preparing for this gathering I spent time reviewing some of what has been written about this Initiative. If success is to be gauged by the quantity of words written, then we have been quite successful. For the sake of conversation I would suggest that there have been three stages to the discussion of the Initiative.

The first stage consisted of the initial comments and statements, including those of some of my brother bishops. As you know, a number of those comments expressed serious reservations. In rereading some of the statements it seems to me that they can be characterized as expressing concerns about what they perceive Called to be Catholic to be saying. The context for these perceptions was a very real concern for the pastoral well-being of the Church. It was simply that Called to be Catholic and the [Initiative] might do more harm than good.

Cardinal Bernardin responded to those concerns on Aug. 29, 1996 by issuing a press statement and a 10-page document that sought to address the questions that had been raised. He continued to engage the questions in his address at the inaugural Common Ground event on Oct. 24 (see “cardinal Bernardin Argues For 'Limited, Occasional'Dissent,” Nov. 3-9, 1996). He reminded us that the common ground we sought, as Called to be Catholic noted, was to be “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.” Much of his response clarified what had already been said in order that our critics might have a better understanding of the true nature of the Initiative. In effect, he said that there is no reason to fear that the Catholic Common Ground Initiative will do harm to the family of faith. This point was made most passionately when the cardinal challenged us, as perhaps only a dying person could, to “find that unity with the Lord and within the community of faith for which Jesus prayed so fervently on the night before he died.” He went on to say, in his words “quite boldly” that “It is wrong to waste the precious gift of time given to us, as God's chosen servants, on acrimony and division.”

Among the most prominent critics of the Initiative and its founding document, was Jesuit Father Avery Dulles of Fordham University in New York. In 1995, Father Dulles emerged as one of the most forceful and eloquent defenders of the Pope's declaration that the Church is not able to ordain women. Last fall, he delivered an address that now stands as a key critique of the process of dialogue in the setting of American liberal, secularized culture, whose trappings, he suggests, could hamper authentic dialogue within the Church.

Foremost among his concerns is the notion that, by contemporary standards, partners in dialogue are forced to reserve their most deeply-held beliefs in the private sphere for the sake of sitting down with a partner on supposedly neutral ground, just as the public agenda has been shorn of “substantive moral and religious commitments.” In the contemporary Western culture, Dulles argues, many of what he calls “communal Catholics” believe that “no one can be bound in conscience to accept official teaching [and that] dissent is a right.”

The second stage of discussion has been centered, I believe, on what others would suggest the text implies. These critics propose that when the text is read in the current cultural and ecclesial context, it is reasonable that people could come to conclusions that are not part of the formal text. Foremost among those sharing this perspective is the distinguished Jesuit theologian, Father Avery Dulles. In the Ninth Annual Fall Laurence J. McGinley Lecture at Fordham University, Father Dulles noted that his difficulty was not so much with what the statement said as with what it “seemed to imply, and would be understood as implying in the current atmosphere” (see “context of Christian Proclamation Sets Parameters of Dialogue,” Dec. 8-14, 1996). In my reading of Dulles's remarks I certainly resonated with his concerns about a “privatized Church” and the need to have realistic expectations about both the nature of and the results of dialogue. It is important that any proposal for dialogue, as he noted, “be very carefully formulated if it is not to expand the zone of disagreement within the Church.”

Father Robert Imbelli, who is with us today, wrote a quite thoughtful and respectful reply to the McGinley lecture. It was printed in the National Catholic Register (“‘common Ground’ as Communion—A Witness for the Defense,” Dec. 22-28, 1996). He noted that before being a call to dialogue Called to be Catholic is a call to discernment and conversion; to “examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds, and changed hearts. And the goal of such discernment and of any dialogue it may promote is to understand for ourselves and articulate for our world the meaning of discipleship of Jesus Christ.” He went on to point out one of the statement's most powerful affirmations: “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.”

While the first stage of reactions was based on perceptions and the second stage focused on implications that could be taken from the text, the third stage is now addressing what its critics believe the text failed to say. To be honest I find this stage to be the most intriguing because in many ways I believe it leads us to some of the most neuralgic issues we face as Church. It also is the most difficult stage to date. This is because what is being discussed is not the absence of necessary foundational principles but how they are to be understood and how they are ordered and integrated into the foundational document, Called to be Catholic. A document that was proposed as an analytic instrument to facilitate an enhancement of the pastoral life of the Church is being subject to a theological scrutiny it was never intended to sustain. That being said, it is important that we acknowledge that we have entered this new stage and respond to it as best we can.

Archbishop Lipscomb digresses, and reflects on a recent statement by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who, in an address to Latin American bishops, argues that in theology relativism has become “the central problem for the faith at the present time.” In this context, the cardinal insists, to engage in dialogue “means to put one's own position, i.e. one's faith, on the same level as the convictions of others without recognizing in principle more truth in it than what is attributed to the opinions of others.”

The archbishop argues that a safeguard to protect against a pernicious form of dialogue is the reaffirmation of what Called to Be Catholic held up, namely that> “Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, [is] central to all that we do.” “Our is not the dialogue of relativism,” the archbishop says, “but of fidelity.”

I do want to take note of a subject that has been present implicitly and explicitly during all three of these stages. A subject that was addressed quite clearly by Cardinal Ratzinger in an address to bishops from mission territories last September. The Origins TITLE of the text was Relativism: The Central Problem of Faith Today.

In his comments the cardinal states quite clearly that: “Relativism has thus become the central problem for the faith at the present time. No doubt it is not presented only with its aspects of resignation before the immensity of the truth. It is also presented as a position defined positively by the concepts of tolerance and knowledge through dialogue and freedom, concepts which would be limited if the existence of one valid truth for all were affirmed” (Origins, [26] 311).

Having identified the problem of relativism the cardinal then discusses its impact on theology in general and Christology in particular. It is in this context that he then speaks of the notion of dialogue. He argues that when relativism becomes a tenet of theology “the notion of dialogue (emphasis in original)—which has maintained a position of significant importance in the Platonic and Christian tradition—changes meaning and becomes both the quintessence of the relativist creed and the antithesis of conversion and mission. In the relativist meaning, to dialogue (emphasis in original) means to put one's own position, i.e., one's faith, on the same level as the convictions of others without recognizing in principle more truth in it than what is attributed to the opinion of others” (312).

I believe it is important that all of us study the cardinal's remarks. His concerns are well-founded and, as I noted above, are shared by many of our critics. It could well explain why our use of the word> “dialogue” has aroused such concern. For our critics the word is a loaded one. In fact one might wonder whether it carries “so much baggage” that its usage is counterproductive. While such wonderment is understandable, I would, suggest that we continue to use the word. Cardinal Ratzinger uses it himself in the same address when he calls for “efforts toward a new dialogue—between faith and philosophy” (316). What is imperative, however, is that we continue to affirm what was said in Called to be Catholic, namely, that in the dialogue of which we speak> “Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and Sacrament, [is] central to all that we do” and that all dialogue is “accountable to Scripture and Catholic tradition, witnessed and conveyed to us by the Spirit-filled, living Church and its magisterium exercised by the bishops and the Chair of Peter.” Ours is not the dialogue of relativism but of fidelity.

Archbishop Lipscomb spends a good part of this reply to critics on the analysis by Professor David Schindler, editor of the North American edition of the journal Communio, who holds up the Christological foundation of dialogue as the key to addressing the Church's crisis. For Schindler, dialogue is what takes place between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, a dialogue into which man is invited by virtue of his Baptism. Divisions in the Church, he says, are wounds in the Body of Christ, which can only be healed by an acknowledgment of sin, repentance and a willingness to be reconciled with God. What Schindler finds lacking in the model proposed by the CGP statement is a proper anthropology of man, i.e. the fact that God's creatures are in a relationship with their creator. In other words, their creatureliness has an ontological dimension, which, for the sake of a civil dialogue on neutral ground—and for Schindler there is no such thing as a neutral, if naked, public square—cannot simply be left behind. For Schindler, what is needed is a call to sanctity, rather than civility.

[W]e now can consider some of the specifics of this third stage of critique. It is outlined quite well in David Schindler's article in Communio enTITLEd “On the Catholic Common Ground Project: The Christological Foundations of Dialogue.” There is something refreshing about Schindler's text in that he does affirm that Called to be Catholic and the cardinal's subsequent statements reflect orthodox commitments. As he wrote: “the NPLC statement does in fact contain all the elements necessary for an adequate Christology and ecclesiology—Cardinal Bernardin and Father Imbelli are right about this.” What the text fails to do for Schindler is to properly “Integrate these doctrinal assumptions into its conceptions of dialogue precisely at those critical junctures where authentically Catholic and unacceptably liberal conceptions of dialogue are most apt to be confused.” This critique, however, is not meant to demean “the Catholicity of the Cardinal's intention” or the good faith of the cardinal “and those associated with the statement.”

In this environment of good will, Schindler raises a variety of concerns which I cannot adequately represent in these brief remarks. Clearly he shares the concerns expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger and others about the limits and even dangers of what is described as our liberal cultural context. He clearly desires that any true dialogue not just be a subjective experience of process but that it be grounded in an objectivity that is substantial in nature. Similarly an authentic common ground must be substantive and not just a matter of form. The a priori'sthat determine both the content and the process of dialogue must be sacramental, hierarchical and ontological in nature and not contractual, sociological and moral. The existential condition of those who participate in dialogue is not to be understood in an overly optimistic manner. The need for forgiveness is not something extrinsic but intrinsic. Sin and redemption, the need for conversion and the call to sanctity are essential components of authentic dialogue. The peril, the polarization that the Church faces is not just something that is horizontal in nature; it is not just a breakdown in communication between discrete individuals. Rather it is a polarization of individuals “who have already been constituted, in and by Jesus Christ, into a sacramental-ontological unity.” The peril, the polarization of necessity have a vertical dimension.

In the conclusion to his argument Schindler notes that “It is the question regarding the basic nature of our current polarization and of authentic dialogue that is itself the most significant source of polarization and of the absence of authentic dialogue. The fundamental question, the question that has provoked the most attention and the deepest disagreement, concerns precisely the Christological and indeed ecclesiological nature of our polarization—of the critical issues facing the Church—and of the methods deemed most effective in addressing these.” He goes on to say that what is at issue is the meaningto be ascribed to the centrality of Christ. He postulates that “[t]he dispute bears not on whether we should, a priori, assume a unity among us in Christ and his communio (who would deny this?) but how we are to understand this prior, anterior unity.”…

As you no doubt have noted I have chosen not to engage in a detailed refutation of these three stages of critique. Rather, it is my intention to take note of them in a formal manner. I do so not that they might be dismissed but that they might be seen as worthy opportunities to carry forward in the spirit of Cardinal Bernardin. If we are to be faithful to his vision, then we must treat our critics with the utmost respect and respond with an openness that seeks only to find the splendor of the truth.

The archbishop recaps the three stages of insisting that CGP participants want to “the cause of authentic Church unity,” that the CGP may never be used to justify abortion, and that the substantial critiques by Dulles and Schindler will be taken up formally at a later stage.

Now I would like to offer a few observations, more pastoral in nature, to the three levels of critique. As for the first stage of perception, I am confident, as Schindler has noted, that both the foundational document and the Initiative are not at variance with authentic Church teaching and do, in fact, represent a deep fidelity to and love for the communion of faith that is the Church. It is important, however, that we attend to the concerns of bishops and others about how this Initiative might be misused or unwittingly become the source of discord within particular churches. While we are not responsible for the actions of others not associated with us, we must do all that we can to serve the cause of authentic Church unity.

Turning to the second stage, what some might conclude the text implies, I believe we must be more sensitive to our cultural and ecclesial context I am sure that all of us have been amazed at what people have read the text to be saying or justifying. Clearly the “eye of the beholder” has at times found what the authors of the text never intended I believe it is important that all of us, with the same gentle but firm manner of the cardinal, point out that some of the implications taken from the text, quite simply are incorrect. In that vein I find it quite problematic that some public officials have been using the words of Cardinal Bernardin written for the Initiative in the context of their support for abortion. This does a great disservice to the memory of the cardinal—a person whose commitment to the cause of life and most especially the life of the unborn is without question.

As for the third stage which discusses integration and prior-itization, I would suggest that it points out the need for this conference on the relationship between Church and culture. Dulles, Schindler and others clearly have a theological perspective on our Western culture and considered opinions on how best to approach it. It is important that we attend to these perspectives and provide the requested theological analysis. As we engage in this analysis we also must become more explicit about our own Christological and ecclesiological a priori's. This might be one of the most fruitful outcomes of this third stage of discussion….

Archbishop Lipscomb concludes his address with an overview of models and uses of dialogue as found in a variety of Church documents. Ultimately, he says, dialogue is “a graced participation in mystery.”

Perhaps the best theological description of dialogue is to be found in Pope Paul VI's encyclical letter Ecclesiam Suam. In fact, part III of that document is enTITLEd “the Dialogue” and is a sustained reflection on the need for dialogue if the Church is to carry out its mission of evangelization in the modern world. Paul VI speaks of the “transcendent origin of the dialogue. It is found in the very plan of God. Religion of its very nature, is a relationship between God and man. Prayer expresses such a relationship in dialogue…. The history of salvation narrates exactly this long and changing dialogue which begins with God and brings to man a many-splendored conversation” (70).

Later in that document Paul VI says: “In the dialogue one discovers how different are the ways which lead to the light of faith and how it is possible to make them converge on the same goal. Even if these ways are divergent, they can become complimentary by forcing our reasoning process out of the worn paths and by obliging it to deepen its research to find fresh expressions. The dialectic of this exercise of thought and patience will make us discover elements of truth also in the opinions of others, it will force us to express our teachings with great fairness, and it will reward us for the work of having explained it in accordance with the objections of another or despite his slow assimilation of our teaching. The dialogue will make us wise; it will make us teachers” (83)"

The bishops of the Second Vatican Council expressed the same themes when they wrote with enthusiasm in Gaudium et Spes about the importance of dialogue to the mission of the Church: “By virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance of the Gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all men of whatever nation, race or culture, the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherhood which allows honest dialogue and gives it vigor. Such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity. Thus all those who compose the one People of God, both pastors and the general faithful, can engage in dialogue with ever abounding fruitfulness. For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case” (92).

Another significant discussion of dialogue is found in Communio et Progressio. Allow me to digest some of its more salient points: “[C]ommunication and dialogue among Catholics are indispensable…. Those who exercise authority in the Church will take care to ensure that there is reasonable exchange of freely held and expressed opinion among the people of God…. It must be taken that the truths of Faith express the essence of the Church and therefore do not leave room for arbitrary interpretations. Nonetheless the Church moves with the movement of man. She therefore has to adapt herself to the special circumstances that arise out of time and place. She has to consider how the truths of the Faith may be explained in different times and cultures. She has to reach a multitude of decisions while adjusting her actions to the changes around her. While the individual Catholic follows the Magisterium, he can and should engage in free research so that he may better understand revealed truths or explain them to a society subject to incessant change.”

The document moves from this more generic discussion of dialogue with the world to discuss dialogue within the Church: “the free dialogue within the Church does no injury to her unity and solidarity. It nurtures concord and the meeting of minds by permitting the free play of the variations of public opinion. But in order that this dialogue may go in the right direction it is essential that charity is in command even when there are differing views. Everyone in this dialogue should be animated by the desire to serve and to consolidate unity and cooperation. There should be a desire to build and not to destroy. There should be a deep love for the Church and a compelling desire for its unity. Christ made love the sign by which men can recognize his true Church and therefore his true followers” (114-117).

All of us are profoundly aware of the impact of the Enlightenment on First World culture and, eventually on the life of the Church. With the “turn to the subject” the traditional referent point of first world philosophy shifted. While it would be true to say that in many ways the Church rejected this shift, in time, especially since the Second World War, the Church has engaged in its own dialogue with contemporary philosophy and culture. That dialogue, I would suggest, has been guided or informed by numerous givens or non-negotiables which are essential to our ecclesial heritage I will mention but a few.

First, there has been the conviction that there is an “objectivity” an “out-thereness” which is the proper subject of theological reflection: An objectivity that is “received” and not created. Second, dialogue is pursued in the context of community in which the human subject is able to overcome alienation and despair.

A community that is itself an objective reality and not just a functional entity created by human intentionally. In sustaining these convictions this dialogue has refused to accept an eclipse of ultimate mystery and radical transcendence.

This ecclesial dialogue has been about fides quaerens intel-lectum. In a phrase it has been dialogue that is a graced participation in mystery.

It is such a graced participation in mystery of individuals within the communio, the communion of faith, that I would propose is the only authentic foundation for our Catholic Common Ground Initiative….

As we seek something to say, as we seek a source for authentic dialogue, then I think we must attend to Msgr. Velo's eloquent turn of a phrase in his funeral homily. He told us that Cardinal Bernardin had taught us that common ground is holy ground. It is the mysterium tremendumencountered in the transforming experience of the Church's public worship that provides our dialogue with its source and its goal. It is this encounter with Christ's sacrificial love poured out that allows us as sinners to be forgiven in order to be about God's work. It is this liturgical epiclesis that calls forth the Spirit that binds us together as one family and fills us with the fire of love.

If the common ground that we seek in our Initiative is truly grace-filled ground, then we and our critics will have nothing to fear. Ours will not be an experience of mere theological discourse but truly a labor of love in service to God's truth. A labor that, by his blessing and our efforts, is conducted in space made holy.