- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin

August 12, 1996

“Called to Be Catholic” was prepared by the National Pastoral Life Center in consultation with Catholic men and women serving the church and society in a variety of callings and sensitive to the diversity of Catholicism in the United States.
            This statement provides the basis for the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.  The initiative sponsors conferences and papers devoted to critical issues in the church and exemplifies and promotes the kind of dialogue called for in this statement.
            All organizations and groups in the church are invited to consider the “Called to Be Catholic” statement and its applications to their meetings, conferences, and deliberations.  Responses to the statement are welcome and may be sent to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, 5401 S. Cornell Ave., Chicago, IL  60615; 773.371.5430 (voice); 773.371.5566 (fax); catholiccommonground@ctu.edu [1].

This statement may be reproduced at will.

Will the Catholic Church in the United States enter the new millennium as a church of promise, augmented by the faith of rising generations and able to be a leavening force in our culture?  Or will it become a church on the defensive, torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures?  The outcome, we believe, depends on whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination and whether the church can reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership.  American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively–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.
            It is widely admitted that the Catholic Church in the United States has entered a time of peril.  Many of its leaders, both clerical and lay, feel under siege and increasingly polarized.  Many of its faithful, particularly its young people, feel disenfranchised, confused about their beliefs, and increasingly adrift.  Many of its institutions feel uncertain of their identity and increasingly fearful about their future.
            Those are hard words to pronounce to a church that, despite many obstacles, continues to grow in numbers, continues to welcome and assist the poor and the stranger, and continues to foster extraordinary examples of Christian faith and witness to the Gospel.  The landscape of American Catholicism is dotted with vital communities of worship and service, with new initiatives, and with older, deeply rooted endeavors that are kept alive by the hard labor and daily sacrifices of millions of Catholics.  In the face of powerful centrifugal forces, many Catholic leaders have worked to build consensus and cooperation.
            We hesitate to say anything that might discourage them or add to the fingerpointing and demoralization that, in too many cases, already burden these exemplary efforts.  But this discordant and disheartened atmosphere is itself one of the realities which cannot be ignored.  For three decades the church has been divided by different responses to the Second Vatican Council and to the tumultuous years that followed it.  By no means were these tensions always unfruitful; in many cases they were virtually unavoidable.
            But even as conditions have changed, party lines have hardened.  A mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the church’s life; at moments it even seems to have infiltrated the ranks of the bishops.  One consequence is that many of us are refusing to acknowledge disquieting realities, perhaps fearing that they may reflect poorly on our past efforts or arm our critics within the church.  Candid discussion is inhibited.  Across the whole spectrum of views within the church, proposals are subject to ideological litmus tests.  Ideas, journals, and leaders are pressed to align themselves with preexisting camps, and are viewed warily when they depart from those expectations.
            There is nothing wrong in itself with the prospect that different visions should contend within American Catholicism.  That has long been part of the church’s experience in this nation, and indeed differences of opinion are essential to the process of attaining the truth.  But the way that struggle is currently proceeding, the entire church may lose.  It is now three decades after Vatican II.  Social and cultural circumstances have changed.  The church possesses a wealth of post-conciliar experience to assess and translate into lessons for the future.  There is undiminished hunger for authentic faith, spiritual experience, and moral guidance, but many of the traditional supports for distinct religious identities–or for the institutions that convey them–have disappeared.
            Meanwhile, positions of leadership in the ministries of the church are passing to those with little exposure, for better or worse, to the sharply defined institutional Catholicism of earlier decades.  Still younger Catholics, many with absolutely no experience of that pre-conciliar Catholicism, come to the church with new questions and few of the old answers.
            The church’s capacity to respond to these changed conditions may be stymied if constructive debate is supplanted by bickering, disparagement, and stalemate.  Rather than forging a consensus that can harness and direct the church’s energies, contending viewpoints are in danger of canceling one another out.  Bishops risk being perceived as members of different camps rather than as pastors of the whole church.
            Unless we examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds and changed hearts, within a few decades a vital Catholic legacy may be squandered, to the loss of both the church and the nation. 


There are urgent questions that the church in the United States knows it must air openly and honestly but which it increasingly feels pressed to evade or, at best, address obliquely.  These issues include:

            As long as such topics remain inadequately addressed, the near future of American Catholic life is at risk.  Yet in almost every case, the necessary conversation runs up against polarized positions that have so magnified fears and so strained sensitivities that even the simplest lines of inquiry are often fiercely resisted.  Consider, for example, just two of these topics.
            On every side, there are reports that many Catholics are reaching adulthood with barely a rudimentary knowledge of their faith, with an attenuated sense of sacrament, and with a highly individualistic view of the church.  Some of us are tempted to minimize the seriousness of this situation out of an attachment to young people and an appreciation of their generosity–or out of loyalty to those who work, often with insufficient resources and scant rewards, to provide religious education.  Others among us rush to reduce complex questions of pedagogy, theology, limited time, turnover in teachers, and the pressures of an aggressive and pervasive youth culture to some single factor–and some simple solution.
            The practical realities of our young people’s needs are quickly lost amid accusations of infidelity to church teachings, reflexive defenses against criticism, or promotion of pet educational approaches.  It is an atmosphere unlikely to generate the massive and creative effort required to meet today’s crisis of religious illiteracy or link it with young people’s search for a sense of participation and belonging.
            Or consider the church’s public prayer.  The faith thrives where the Eucharist is celebrated worthily, drawing the Christian community into its mystery and power.  Yet in many parishes Mass attendance has plummeted; congregational participation is indifferent; and liturgies are marred by lack of preparation, casual or rushed gestures, unsuitable music, and banal sentiments in hymns and, above all, in homilies.  There is widespread awareness that, thirty years after the Council, the goals of liturgical renewal have been met more in letter than in spirit.
            But again polarization blocks a candid and constructive response to the situation.  An informal or “horizontal” liturgy, demystified and stressing the participation of the congregation, is pitted against a solemn or “vertical” liturgy, unchangeable and focused on the sacerdotal action of the priest.  The former is rightly feared as unable to carry the weight of the transcendent, and as opening the liturgy to the trivializing currents of the culture.  The latter is rightly feared as becoming a concert, a show, or a spiritless exercise in rubrics, closed to the particular needs and gifts of the community.  No effort to assess the state of worship or develop new translations or refresh liturgical skills escapes suspicion of moving to one extreme or the other–or pressure to move in the opposite direction as a safeguard.
            The same dynamic of fear and polarization afflicts the church’s discussions of other topics, from efforts to accommodate language or practice to the changing consciousness of women to efforts to define theology’s relationship to the hierarchy.  Unnuanced positions are espoused without encountering moderating criticism from sympathizers.  Then these positions loom even more powerfully as fears in the minds of opponents, generating or justifying their own unnuanced positions.  The end results are distrust, acrimony, and deadlock.


What will it take for the Catholic Church in the United States to escape from this partisanship and the paralysis it threatens to engender?
            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.
            Around this central conviction, the church’s leadership, both clerical and lay, must reaffirm and promote the full range and demands of authentic unity, acceptable diversity, and respectful dialogue, not just as a way to dampen conflict but as a way to make our conflicts constructive, and ultimately as a way to understand for ourselves and articulate for our world the meaning of discipleship of Jesus Christ.
            This invitation to a revitalized Catholic common ground should not be limited to those who agree in every respect on an orientation for the church, but encompass all–whether centrists, moderates, liberals, radicals, conservatives, or neoconservatives–who are willing to reaffirm basic truths and to pursue their disagreements in a renewed spirit of dialogue.
            Chief among those truths is that our discussion must be accountable to the Catholic tradition and to the Spirit-filled, living church that brings to us the revelation of God in Jesus.  To say this does not resolve a host of familiar questions about the way that the church has preserved, interpreted, and communicated that revelation.  Accountability to the Catholic tradition does not mean reversion to a chain‑of‑command, highly institutional understanding of the church, a model resembling a modern corporation, with headquarters and branch offices, rather than Vatican II’s vision of a communion and a people.
            Nor does accountability mean conceiving of faith as an ideology, an all‑encompassing doctrinal system that produces ready explanations and practical prescriptions for every human question.  Now, as historically, there has always been wide room for legitimate debate, discussion, and diversity.  But accountability does demand serious engagement with the tradition and its authoritative representatives.  It rules out the pop scholarship, sound‑bite theology, unhistorical assertions, and flippant dismissals that have become all too common on both the right and the left of the church.  Authentic accountability rules out a fundamentalism that narrows the richness of the tradition to a text or a decree, and it rules out a narrow appeal to individual or contemporary experience that ignores the cloud of witnesses over the centuries or the living magisterium of the church exercised by the bishops and the Chair of Peter.
            Authentic accountability embraces the demands that the Gospel poses for our public life and social structures as well as for our private lives and personal relations.  This accountability implies that the church, for all its humanness, cannot be treated as merely a human organization.  The church is a chosen people, a mysterious communion, a foreshadowing of the Kingdom, a spiritual family.  One implication of this is that the hermeneutic of suspicion must be balanced with a hermeneutic of love and retrieval.   Another is that an essential element of Catholic leadership must be wide and serious consultation, especially of those most affected by church policies under examination.  The church’s ancient concept of reception reminds us that all the faithful are called to a role in grasping a truth or incorporating a decision or practice into the church’s life.
            Finally this accountability recognizes that our discussions about the Catholic Church take place within boundaries.  Exactly how the boundaries of Catholic Christianity should be formulated will inevitably be open at times to reexamination and debate.  So too will our attitudes toward whatever falls outside those boundaries.  But the very idea of boundaries is a necessary premise, without which no identity can exist.  Inclusivity, a concept that can operate at many levels, becomes a catchword and even a self-contradiction when it impugns any efforts to make distinctions or set defining limits.


The revitalized Catholic common ground, we suggested, will be marked by a willingness to approach the church’s current situation with fresh eyes, open minds, and changed hearts.  It will mean pursuing disagreements in a renewed spirit of dialogue.  Specifically, we urge that Catholics be guided by working principles like these:

            Ultimately, the fresh eyes and changed hearts we need cannot be distilled from guidelines.  They emerge in the space created by praise and worship.  The revitalized Catholic common ground will be marked by a determined pastoral effort to keep the liturgy, above all, from becoming a battleground for confrontation and polarization, and to treasure it as the common worship of God through Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

It is impertive that the Catholic Church in the United States confront the issues and forces that are shaping the future.  For this, we must draw on all the gifts of wisdom and understanding in the church, all the charisms of leadership and communion.  Each of us will be tested by encounters with cultures and viewpoints not our own; all of us will be refined in the fires of genuine engagement; and the whole church will be strengthened for its mission in the new millennium.

[This statement was prepared by the National Pastoral Life Center, Rev. Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, Director, in consultation with Catholic men and women serving the church and society in a variety of callings and sensitive to the diversity of Catholicism in the United States.  It was edited by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative Staff on September 8, 2017.]