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.