Of Many Things

Even for a mature married couple, candid, heartfelt communication over divisive issues is hard to pull off. If authentic dialogue were easy, couples would engage in it often, and their marriages would thrive. Instead, many couples downplay their differences to avoid conflict. As a result they fail to explore the common ground that could support their relationship in times of fear, doubt, loss and deep disagreement—times that threaten to divide them. However hard to stake out, common ground is holy ground, fertile soil in which trust can grow, solid ground on which much can be built.

Now ask yourself what it would take to foster frank, heartfelt communication on issues that divide the contemporary Catholic Church, which is composed of conservatives and liberals; pro-life and pro-choice proponents; independents, Republicans and Democrats; young, middle-aged and old.

For several years, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and a committee of laypeople and clerics pondered that question. The fruit of their dialogue was the creation in 1996 of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, based originally at the National Pastoral Life Center in New York and since 2009 at the Bernardin Center of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The Initiative invites Catholic leaders in the church, academy and society “to engage in prayerful dialogue for the sake of building up the communion of the church.” The mission is to promote communication that can heal a church “torn by dissension.” Over the years discussions have covered such topics as religion and politics, immigration policy and, most recently, crossing the church’s own generational divides.

Dissension is typical of human communities. It was apparent in the Upper Room and among the quarreling disciples before and after the resurrection. Still, Christians are commanded to love one another, despite disagreements.

The Initiative gathers people on various sides of a vexing issue dividing the church; shares principles for respectful dialogue; builds in ice breakers, social time, meals and worship; employs a skilled facilitator to guide discussion; then asks the group to delineate areas of common ground and to design action steps that build on it. The point is not to agree on some bottom line. Rather, it is to discern the shared assumptions, principles, points, methods, experiences and goals.

Key to the Initiative’s success is the creation of a “safe spot,” however temporary, where participants can express any comment or question and expect a hearing, as well as respectful challenges. A safe spot fosters candor and trust.

No one expects to solve intransigent problems in a weekend. But for handpicked participants (usually 40 or so), a Common Ground weekend achieves many modest goals. It affords an opportunity to get to know one’s critics, for example, and to experience them as brothers and sisters in Christ. This puts differences in perspective without eliminating them. The varied activities help to humanize ideological opponents. Who knew that a writer of scathing critiques sings beautifully at Mass, or is shy off podium or has a child with a serious illness? None of this affects the logic of a person’s argument, yet the experience can remove barriers. Small-group interaction and one-on-one meetings are powerful tools.

At the March conference on reaching across the intergenerational divide in the church, the youngest participants (millennials) were surprised to hear the stories of their elders. It became apparent that there are too few opportunities in parish life for the generations of Catholics to get to know each other. The weekend uncovered a hunger among the generations to meet and a raft of ideas to help parishes and dioceses foster those encounters.

5 years ago

Great, great, great piece! Thank you for writing it........very timely.

I suggest the two opposing sides learn to dance the tango: step step forward, step step backward and turn around, make a dip, and start again, around the dance floor. Notice, the dancers contribute to the flow of the dance! Each brings something beautiful to the activity! Give and take!

And in between we can have the participants sit down and listen to Alan Jacobs read his piece on Against Stupidity (re First Things, November 2011 issue), followed by Fr. Jim Martin and his Ode to Joy (found in many of his books!). Yes, an Anglican and a Jesuit Priest would really complete the program.

Cody Serra
5 years ago

Our parishes are becoming, for many, buildings to attend the liturgy, if they still do it. The membership has homogenized itself, (many of the “different” have left). This parishes are generally led by a Pastor (progressive or conservative, unsavory labels that shouldn’t exist) and sometimes a vicar or two, or deacon/s, and the different ideas of some are silenced if the remain, and even qualified as heresy if verbalized.

Or you have a few almost mega-churches, so mixed by race, national origins, ideological, theological, philosophical and religious education, that natural individualism or group clicks of the same characteristics results, most of them more socially than religiously connected. Links between these small groups are weak if existing at all. With a shortage of priests, and helped by deacons when available, what they can afford to do is only the clergy duties. Their staff –clergy and lay- is also mixed, not always well trained or qualified to carry on the enormous task of leading to God a multicultural and intergenerational type of congregation. The sense of community is weak, or if it exists, is in groups auto-segregated by their own characteristics, that cannot be equally reached by the parish leaders.

I see the type of Common Ground "evangelization" mentioned, and engaging in prayerful dialogue, as an attractive strategy to establish links between generations, cultures, and the different kinds of faithful so divided and antagonist to each other within the church, as well as in the society at large. Maybe it is one available strategy to try on a larger scale across the nation as a mean to achieve some unity in the divided church we have these days. But the Church leaders need to be opened and listen as we all enter togethet with humility and hope to accept our brothers and sisters in Christ.

John Campbell
5 years ago
Peter and Barnabas in Acts 7, but can we realistically expect Tomothy Dolan and Francis George to consider common ground in the sense that Bernardin meant? Was either one at the March conference?

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