The National Catholic Review
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I owe a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and to its late co-founder, Msgr. Philip J. Murnion. As a senior at Princeton University, I chose C.C.G.I. as the subject of my thesis, and Murnion graciously invited me to the initiative’s headquarters in lower Manhattan to discuss the project. Later, when I expressed an interest in Catholic journalism, Monsignor Murnion put me in touch with Peggy Steinfels at Commonweal, and from there my career took shape.

Looking back, I can see why I felt an affinity for C.C.G.I. The initiative was launched by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1996 to bring healing to a polarized church. As an undergraduate, I worshipped on a campus where Opus Dei and the Diocese of Trenton sponsored separate ministries. In our Catholic community there was a notable division between the “pro-life” and “social justice” camps. Perhaps I hoped that by studying C.C.G.I., I could in some way understand the rift that was developing in my own corner of the church.

The spirit of the initiative is also in keeping with my personality. I do not, as my friends will tell you, seek out conflict, and I prefer respectful conversation to heated debate. (Working at a journal of opinion, this has not always worked in my favor.) I may at times disagree strongly with my colleagues, but ultimately we find ways to work together.

Nearly 15 years have passed since I wrote my history of C.C.G.I. In that time both Cardinal Bernardin and Monsignor Murnion have died; the National Pastoral Life Center, the onetime home to C.C.G.I., has been disbanded; and the initiative is now based at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Yet through a variety of programs, it remains committed to fostering prayerful dialogue on critical issues facing the church.

C.C.G.I. has been dismissed in some quarters as a liberal maneuver to use dialogue to bring about changes in church teaching. This characterization is deeply unfair. Having attended a few of the initiative’s meetings, I can attest to the good faith of the individuals involved. The initiative is chaired by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, a highly respected member of the episcopate. Doris Gottemoeller, R.S.M., Lisa Sowle Cahill and Paul Griffiths are among the many respected scholars who have taken part in its work.

That work remains as important as ever. One of the key achievements of C.C.G.I. is a set of principles for talking about divisive subjects in a respectful manner. Who can disagree that we need such guidance now? The division that the initiative’s founders wrote about in “Called to Be Catholic“ (1996) has worsened—distorted and amplified by the rise of the Internet. A movement that takes as its founding principle “the call to be one in Christ” faces a Catholic blogosphere where innuendo and anonymous criticism tear at our common bonds.

I know of what I speak. One of my tasks at America is to moderate our blog In All Things, where we have attracted a passel of respondents who consider it their duty to defend the truth of the faith. This is a worthy goal, but too often their comments are uncharitable, even mean-spirited. I believe strongly in the initiative’s healing mission, but I am afraid that on our blog, at least, I have yet to cultivate a space that prizes Christian unity.

In 1996 C.C.G.I.’s founders worried that if the polarization they identified was not addressed, the church would be “torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures.” Though they did not foresee the role the Internet would play in that unraveling, their understanding of the troubles sown by division remains prophetic. Maybe now they will receive a fair hearing.

Maurice Timothy Reidy is online editor of America.

Comments

David Smith | 12/7/2010 - 4:40am
The intenet may contribute a high degree of trash and acrimony, but don't you think it's also likely to add substance to the conversation?  Without it, the conversation had many fewer voices.  One could suggest those fewer voices were the only ones worth listening to, but isn't that counterintuitive?  I suppose the question is whether or not looking for new substance can be worth the trouble and time it's likely to take.
Michael Barberi | 12/6/2010 - 2:39pm
James:

You are correct that many blogs in liberal magazines can be divisive and vitriolic. However, there is much truth to the intrasigence of the Vatican, especially when they close debate on sexual ethical issues that divide our Church. This has much to do with the moral philosophy of the Vatican, classicism, versus the moral philosophy of most theologians, historicism.

For classicists, the world is a finished product and truth has already been revealed, expressed, taught and known. The truth is universal and unchanging. Historicits believe that history has taught us that our understanding of truth is progressive in time and space. Many Doctrines of the Church that were once proclaimed by popes and taught by bishops for centuries as truth, were eventually reformed.

The Vatican will not go against past papal encyclicals no matter the reason, in the two previous and current papacy. Hence, the bitter exchange. It does not make bitter exchanges right, but neither is closing the debate.

JAMES SULLIVAN | 12/6/2010 - 9:33am
I took an interest in your article and disagree only with your last paragraph. Maurice, it seems as though you singled out "those respondents who consider it their duty to defend the truth of the faith" as speaking uncharitably and not seeking genuine unity. A glance at some of the very liberal Commonweal blogs never gives anyone who thinks differently from the "regular group" any respect for their position and, to say the least, is terribly uncharitable as they push  their philosophy of liberation theology. All the Catholic blogs are political and defend almost every liberal cause. One is vehemently criticized for opposing the Health Care bill that one may see as placing our country in tremendous debt and knowing that our government  is incompetent to run anything as it cannot even handle the simple task of placing the bodies of our wonderful soldiers in a proper grave in Arlington.  So please do not identify vitriol with just those who defend the faith uncharitably.  I have seen the "other side" with the same anger and making the same uncharitable comments.
DON DOMINIC | 12/1/2010 - 5:05pm
In the article it was stated The initiative is chaired by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, a highly respected member of the episcopate.
What is the criteria for "highly respected" It also implies that some are "lowly respected" Can you identify them?
David Smith | 12/1/2010 - 12:41am
How can you come to a common ground if you don't know where the rest of the people are coming from?  Of course, it's good if they can tell you diplomatically, leaving out all the negative emotions they've accumulated over time, because of slights and other offences, imagined or real - probably both - but even if they don't manage to tell you how they think and feel in perfectly even, respectful language, it's an important part of your duties as a conciliator to accept their input, learn from it, and build on it.  Diplomats need not to be easily or permanently offended.
PAUL DION | 11/30/2010 - 12:00pm
I get the impression that we are confusing "common ground" with Unity.  They are different and should not be confused.  I think that discussion is good for us.  I do think that the discussion should be about the things that matter, and not about the "politics and simple visuals" that we encounter every day.  I do agree with the moderator that there is a lot of vitriol in our speech.  Maybe it is because most of the heat is caused not by the fire of enlightenement from the Spirit but by self seeking continued comfort rasther than seeking spiritual truth.
Jeanne Doyle | 11/30/2010 - 11:18am
Thank you, Mr. Reidy, for your thoughtful article and insight on the polarity that exiasts in our church.  It mirrors the political polarity in our country, I think.  The angry and mean discourse that occurs between conservative and liberal elected officials spills over into the citizenry and then into our schools and among children, even.  I teach emotion management to elementary school children as a counselor at a Catholic school.  But when I had a conversation with my colleagues at the faculty lunch table about our bishop sending a dvd out about the church's teaching on homosexuality, I could feel the heat rising in my face and my throat tightening and my voice changing!  However, you will be glad to hear that my colleagues were patient with me and remained calm in our disagreement.  I had to leave and have a good cry, but in the end it was a wonderful conversation and I learned from it.  I may still disagree and have yet to watch the dvd.  but, I haven't sent it away or thrown it out, either.   
Susan Francesconi | 11/29/2010 - 9:38pm
I attended the most recent Catholic common ground event sponsored by DePaul and CTU (Catholic Theological Union) where I am a student. The two day conference was called "U.S. Catholic Church: The Challenge of Communion". I found it to be edifying for it's approach to issues of Catholic identity, racial bridging, young adult conversations,  and changes to the liturgy. It could not have occured at a better time for me, an ecumenically grounded employee of the Church who still holds out hope.
Mike Evans | 11/29/2010 - 3:59pm
Unfortunately, when a bishop or cardinal speaks out against injustice, hate, and divisiveness, he is left most often to twist in the wind, alone and unsupported by his fellow bishops. Few bishops have stepped forward to support Cardinal Mahony's efforts on behalf of immigrants, and Cardinal Bernadin was simply politely ignored and even actively opposed by his fellow hierarchical leaders. Now Cardinal George has even castigated the nuns for speaking out on health care needs. Unless civil and respecful discussion is allowed to continue, especially in the pages of respected Catholic media, nothing will approach the dream of solidarity promised through Common Ground.
SMAB | 11/29/2010 - 3:07pm
How well Mr. Reidy speaks for civilized conversation within the Catholic community.  It is one thing to be maligned from those outside our church but another matter entirely to be maligned from those who share our faith.  It seems we are engaged in a "tug of war" where little attention is paid to the sincerity of those who may see things differently.   Several months ago a Catholic layman sent me an e-mail that really hurt.  I fear the tendency of those who wound with their words.  Until we can address the concerns of all Catholics as the Catholic Common Ground Initiative proposed we shall be a splintered body.  Leaders like Cardinal Bernadin are very much needed in our church today!
Michael Barberi | 11/29/2010 - 1:22pm
Thank you Maurice for the excellent reminder of the great Cardinal Bernardin's C.C.G.I. and his efforts to soliditfy the Catholic Church. Despite all the good work, the USCCB has not endorsed this inititative in any meaningful way. You are correct in stating tha many of our Church leaders were skeptical that the C.C.G.I was an attempt to use dialodge to bring about reform which they do not want.

We need a renewal of Cardinal Bernardin's vision. However, without the power to move the conversation forward our Church will continue to unravel. Nevertheless, we must perservere in our efforts to help the Church to seek the truth, eliminate divisive disagreement and act with courage to solidity the Body of Christ.
BERNARD TRACEY | 11/29/2010 - 1:19pm

Thank you for your update on the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.  A number of years ago at Saint John's University, I heard a wonderful presentation on CCGI by Bishop Ed O'Donnell.  Ever since, one of my daily prayer intentions has been that, within in the Church, the spirit of CCGI be kept alive and nurtured.  I pray that the goals of Cardinal Bernadine and Monsignor Murnion for CCGI be achieved. 

The Catholic Church has been truly blessed in having been served by dedicated men like Cardinal Bernadine, Bishop O'Donnell, and Monsignor Murnion. 

I would like to read more about the ongoing efforts of the CCGI in the pages of America magazine.

MARY ZIEGLER | 11/29/2010 - 11:48am
Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful words, Maurice.  The Catholic Common Ground Initiative, along with the Seamless Garment approach to thinking about Catholic social justice issues, were Caradinal Bernadin's two greatest gifts to U.S. Catholics.  I hope that the U.S. bishops, together with engaged priests and laity, will once again embrace the CCGI so that we may engage in respectful conversation and be one in Christ.  There is so much of Christ's light to bring into the world and so much of Christ's work to do.  If Catholics spend their time and energy attacking each other, we fail to answer Christ's call and fail to give hope to a divided world.

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