National Catholic Register


‘Common Ground’ as Communion—A Witness for the Defense

BY Robert Imbelli

Dec. 22-28, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/22/96 at 1:00 PM


AVERY DULLES SJ, who for 40 years has been one of the Catholic Church's most respected and prolific theologians, recently delivered the McGinley lecture at Fordham University under the title, The Travails of Dialogue. Extensive excerpts from the lecture appeared in the Register (“Context of Christian Proclamation Sets Parameters of Dialogue,” Dec. 8-14).

In his presentation, Father Dulles refers prominently to a statement drawn up by the National Pastoral Life Center in New York and released in August by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. That statement, Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril, provides the basis for the Catholic “Common Ground” initiative, launched by the cardinal as a pastoral response to the alarming and debilitating climate of polarization that characterizes some areas of Church life in the United States today. The statement offers an analysis of the present situation, indicates concrete issues of pastoral concern, proposes guidelines for addressing challenges and differences, and invites to discernment and response.

And response has been forthcoming! Called to Be Catholic has clearly touched a nerve of recognition in many, eliciting from them expressions of gratitude for the guidance it offers and for the hope it represents. At the same time it has also drawn some serious criticism, not least from a number of American cardinals who fear that the statement and the initiative it has inaugurated may compromise the demands of Catholic unity and even, unwittingly, contribute to the very polarization it decries by seeming to legitimize dissent from authoritative Church teaching.

Father Dulles now adds his own nuanced assessment to the discussion, if not by way of direct critique, then by posing considered cautions. Significantly, he concedes that his difficulty with the statement lies not so much with what is actually said, but what it seems “to imply,” particularly within “the current atmosphere.” Thus a major part of Father Dulles's remarks offers what might be termed a “contextual analysis” of contemporary American society, referring, above all, to theoretical academic discussions concerning dialogue among world religions and issues of political philosophy.

In both these areas Father Dulles detects an appeal to “dialogue” that, in effect, promotes a “relativistic pluralism” of beliefs and a consequent reduction of the role of religion to private preference with no import or bearing upon the public realm. For, if truth claims are ruled out of court, then there are no grounds for adjudicating among positions and mutual tolerance of private preferences becomes the sole governing value. Within such an intellectual and cultural climate, the statement's appeal for “a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation” can actually appear to countenance compromise and accommodation even to the “dissolution” of defining truths of the faith.

The Incarnation of the Word both enables and requires the ongoing dialogue

Further, such attitudes inevitably spread from the rarefied heights of academia to pews and parish councils, promoting “a privatized Church” in which individual conscience is elevated above authoritative teaching and the awesome reality of God's pilgrim people is reduced to disparate individuals wandering disconnectedly through a cafeteria line.

As one of the supporters of the statement and a member of the committee formed by Cardinal Bernardin to oversee the Catholic “Common Ground” initiative, I cannot but be grateful for the cautions advanced by so eminent a thinker as Father Dulles. They also provide an opportunity for me to offer a personal perspective upon the statement. I find it important, at the outset, to note that its title is Called to Be Catholic. Hence, it is not in the first instance a “call to dialogue,” but rather an appeal to appropriate the gift that is Catholic Christianity. When the statement mentions “dialogue,” it is as a means to a greater end, not as an end unto itself.

Moreover, the statement sounds a call and challenge whose purpose and thrust is primarily pastoral. It is concerned about polarization and centrifugal forces within the Church precisely because these represent a threat to the catholicity of the Church and an impediment to effective evangelization and pastoral ministry. Of the several issues highlighted by the statement by way of concrete example, few directly involve doctrinal issues, while all are explicitly pastoral in nature.

Before being a call to dialogue, then, Called to Be Catholic is a call to discernment and conversion: to “examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds, and changed hearts” (phrases thrice repeated in a relatively brief document). 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.”

It's important to underline this Christocentric focus of the statement. The “common ground” it envisages is not some neutral meeting place, but a place of encounter with Jesus Christ within the community of disciples. The statement confesses early and explicitly that this common ground is “centered on faith in Jesus” and “marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition.” Further, in a sentence that has been much remarked upon, it insists that “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.” Hardly, I would think, a word of consolation to proponents of “relativistic pluralism.”

If the contemporary climate indeed tends to privatize religious belief and to divorce it from any effective role in the public realm, the statement takes issue with such a view, both implicitly and explicitly. Implicitly in that the polarization it decries often prevents Catholics from making the full resources of their tradition available to the social and political life of the nation. Explicitly in that it willingly “embraces the demands that the Gospel poses for our public life and social structures as well as for our private lives and personal relations.” One would hardly expect less from a statement that reflects the leadership of Cardinal Bernardin, the passionate and eloquent advocate of a consistent ethic of life in both the ecclesial and the political orders.

Ultimately, the “common ground” to which Called to Be Catholic aspires is not the sterile lowest common denominator modus vivendi some seem to fear, but the fecund common life of ecclesial communion, the New Testament koinonia, enabled by God and realized in the Church which, our statement unabashedly affirms, is “a chosen people, a mysterious communion, a foreshadowing of the Kingdom, a spiritual family.” Nowhere is this communion more palpable than in liturgical celebration, “the space created by praise and worship … the common worship of God through Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Here, especially, common ground is revealed to be holy ground. And from this common ground of worship the community of disciples is sent forth for mission and service: preaching and teaching, reconciling and healing, denouncing injustice and even risking the travails of dialogue—all in hope of renewing all things in Christ.

Towards the end of his lecture, Father Dulles appeals to the particularity of Christian revelation and its source in “the divine Word which is one and eternal.” And he adds: “In a sense, therefore, Christianity is mono-logic.” But, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, I would venture to expand his insight. For the eternal Word has become truly incarnate, assuming human flesh and entering into human history and culture. This admirabile commercium, this wondrous exchange, unites God and man in intimate and loving dialogue. The Incarnation of the Word both enables and requires the ongoing dialogue that is the Church's tradition as, in words ever ancient and ever new, it meditates upon and mediates to the world the inexhaustible riches of Christ who is Emmanuel: God with us.

Father Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is associate professor of theology at Boston College.