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Transcript: “Catholic Common Ground Initiative: Journey to Communion in Christ”

Friday, June 4, 2010
Catholic Theological Union
Chicago, IL


by Bishop Michael Warfel
as prepared

When Archbishop Pilarczyk invited me to give this presentation on the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, I began to think of the variety of issues facing the Catholic Church today. It’s really easy to surface quite a few of them! In an attempt to obtain fresh and independent information, I asked my cousin to call together a group of friends she convenes from time to time. They are all women from the Chicago area and the name of their group is “Non-crabby Women of Faith.” Some are women religious, some attorneys, a couple are writers, one is an MD, another is a CFO. They are mostly professional women. Some are mothers. Some view life more conservatively, others a bit more progressively. Their ages range from 27 to 67. All are actively involved in the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I thought they presented a good cross section of the Church. So she got them together on my behalf for a luncheon to talk about issues facing the Church. 

Meeting over an informal luncheon is obviously a non-scientific approach to surface critical issues facing the Church, but I thought it might be interesting to hear what they had to offer. One of their discussion questions was: “What are the biggest issues facing the Church as an Institution?” Their responses were recorded, collated and provided to me. 

The headings of their collated responses were:

  1. Concerns About Misinformation and Distortion of our Faith;
  2. Concerns About Our Relationship with God;
  3. Concerns About the Disconnects within the Church;
  4. Concerns About Attitude and Lack of Humility that Permeates the Layers of Leadership of the Church

 While it really would not be of interest for me to read through all their responses, there are some highlights I would like to share. 

With regards to the first concern about misinformation and distortion of our faith, they expressed a general sense of Catholics having lost a uniquely corporate identity. As one woman put it, “We don’t know who we are in Christ.” They affirmed the need to get the message out about who we are as Catholic. And they spoke about the need for Catholics to become better informed about their faith through parish structures and that parish structures needed to do better providing these opportunities. 

The second heading was about relationship with God. Their responses overwhelmingly demonstrated concern for youth and young adults and on what seemed to be an all too apparent apathy by youth and young adults for embracing the Catholic faith. This was related to the first concern and seemed to indicate that youth and young adults are not being adequately informed about the faith as well as formed in faith. They noted that the manner in which Catholic faith is lived by many Catholics today is superficial. 

The third heading was about the “disconnects” that occur within the Church. As described by one woman, there is a general disengagement between many priests and the members of the very communities they have been sent to serve. They also spoke of a disconnect for many Catholics between the faith we share and the daily activity of life. 

The fourth heading was about attitude and a perceived lack of humility in the leadership of the Church. As one women put it, there is a problem with “institutional arrogance.” There is too much “territorialism” at all levels in the Church. From their vantage point, this referred mostly to their experiences in their parishes. It is just as likely to be manifest on diocesan and universal levels of Church, however. As several women said, “We are tired of the ‘them vs. us’ mentality within the Church.”  

They seemed to be expressing a hope that people in the Church would generally do a better job at being humble. This was especially connected with a sense of sin. As one woman said, “People have lost their sense of sin. Everyone wants to do their own thing.” 

I found it interesting that no one mentioned the scandal of the sexual abuse of minors, the changes that will occur soon with the new translation of the Roman Missal, the role of women in the Church, human sexuality, especially with regard to same-sex unions and marriage, the declining ratio of priests to Catholic population or issues regarding respect for human life. But it was, after all, a discussion that lasted only for an hour during a luncheon.

What struck me most about this group is that they are women of faith who discuss diverse issues civilly and have a desire to grow in faith and share their faith. Though what was reported to me was not all that contentious, I know that they also address issues on which they disagree and can surface tensions. But they love the Church – are seemingly passionate about it – and, from what I’ve heard, are willing to talk about the critical issues facing it though they may view an issue quite differently. In many ways, they model what the Catholic Common Ground Initiative is all about. They demonstrate that it is quite possible – not to mention important – for faithful people and people of faith to come together to dialogue about important issues facing the Church. 

In reality, I believe there are many examples of Catholics discussing critical issues facing the Church. We talk about issues during family dinners, at dinner parties with friends, among co-workers who happen to be Catholic (or not), in parish and diocesan offices, at social gatherings at the parish, during meetings of parish or diocesan councils, at meetings of Catholic organizations. These occasions may or may not be fruitful or helpful. When the conversation turns in the direction simply of demonizing those who do not share “our” point of view, the conversation is no longer beneficial and contrary to what is best about being Catholic. Not to exclude other Christians in the search for unity, striving for greater union with other Catholics is an essential element to being Catholic. And, no surprise to anyone here, it is not automatic! This is why the Catholic Common Ground Initiative surfaced. What the Initiative desires is to provide a vehicle for constructive dialogue. Its goal is communion in Christ. True, it is a lofty goal, but this is what we are suppose to be about as a Church centered in the Eucharist.

Dialogue is not really new in the Church though there have been eras during which it was not very evident. With Vatican Council II, it had a kind of revival. When Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter Ecclesiam Suam in 1964, he devoted a large section of the encyclical letter to dialogue. He used the word around 70 times in the encyclical. Rather than remaining separate from the secular world, he said that the Church “…must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives…” (ES #65) because it has something to offer to the world, i.e., the Good News of salvation in Christ. Pope Paul offered four characteristics that he described as being proper to dialogue (ES #81). Though his thoughts were about the world at large, I believe his description of the characteristics of dialogue are quite applicable to the dialogue envisioned by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.

A first characteristic is that “…dialogue demands that what is said be intelligible.”  Those who participate in a dialogue must be able to understand each other. It is important that people actually understand one another if they expect constructively to exchange views. While not “dumbing down” vocabulary, clearly articulating a thought in plain speech is more than helpful. 

Second, “…dialogue must be accompanied by that meekness which Christ bade us learn from Himself.” Any semblance of arrogance or offensive speech is simply out of place. It is understandable why a discussion might become heated (even expected), especially when addressing a neuralgic issue, but (emotions aside) charity has to remain at the heart of the conversation. I once heard a couple on a Marriage Encounter Weekend speak of the need to fight within a marriage. They explained that the point was not to fight against each other but to fight for their relationship in order to overcome barriers and thus grow closer. 

This is why the third characteristic, “confidence,” is important. We must have confidence in ourselves and what we believe.  We must have confidence in the process we call dialogue and in the partners involved in the dialogue. We must have confidence that the Holy Spirit is present and available to us in attempts to grow in communion. In dialogue we presume that the parties involved have good will. Like the couple seeking to strengthen their marriage relationship, dialogue in the Church has intimacy in Christ as its goal. 

The fourth characteristic noted by the Pope was the importance of knowing the sensitivities of the participants in the dialogue, even making allowances for these sensitivities. While labels are not always helpful, it is helpful to know the background from which people face an issue in the Church. For instance, an Iraqi Christian who fled violence in Iraq and was welcomed to the U.S. is likely to have a different perspective on immigration reform than someone whose ancestors came to this land on the Mayflower. Knowing someone’s background helps to understand them a bit more and why they may hold a certain perspective. 

The context and circumstances from which people come also makes a significant difference in what they believe. An individual immersed in a culture for a long time, is influenced by the values of that culture, for good and for bad, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unwittingly. For instance, it really should not be all that surprising that a significant percentage of young people in their 20’s and 30’s (including Catholics) accept abortion as a legitimate option to an unwanted pregnancy. 20 and 30 years olds have grown up in a land that, in their life experience, has always legally allowed abortion. They are likely to have friends who have had abortions. This obviously will color their conversation on the legality of abortion.

 Pope Paul concluded this brief section by stating in Ecclesiam Suam, “In a dialogue… truth is wedded to charity and understanding to love” (ES #82). 

I realize that many already know the history of the Initiative quite well (especially Sr. Catherine Patten). I would, nonetheless, like to provide a brief recap. In the Spring of 1992, Cardinal Bernadin and Msgr. Philip Murnion began a conversation about pastoral concerns and polarization in the Church.  This led to a series of conversations with a variety of individuals and ultimately the statement, Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril. Four years later, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative was launched by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin on August 12, 1996, just prior to his death, with the statement Called To Be Catholic. The statement (which is available on the web: www.catholiccommonground.org [1]) invited Catholics in the United States to constructive dialogue, emphasizing their common faith and baptism in Christ. It urged them to work toward the building up of the Church rather than allow “a dynamic of fear and polarization” to undermine its vitality. Cardinal Bernadin’s goal was to provide a means whereby Catholics in the United States could explore their differences and move toward a better understanding of the faith they share in Jesus Christ. He believed that constructive dialogue would do much to overcome division and polarization.  

Msgr. Philip Murnion, who died in 2003, was a close collaborator with Cardinal Bernadin and did much to facilitate the vision of the Cardinal. He opened the doors of the National Pastoral Life Center to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and the Initiative became a central element of the Center’s efforts. Many of the activities of the Initiative were recorded on the pages of Church, the Center’s quarterly magazine. And, of course, it continued to be supported as an important function of the National Pastoral Life Center by later directors: Fr. Gene Lauer, Fr. John Hurley and Mr. Peter Denio who was instrumental in the move to the Bernadin Center and who has had the sad task of facilitating the closure of the National Pastoral Life Center. The current Coordinator of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, of course, is Ms. Sheila McLaughlin.

Sr. Catherine M. Patten, R.S.H.M. (present this evening to receive special recognition) served as the Coordinator of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative at the National Pastoral Life Center in New York. While she likely didn’t know where it was leading her at the time, her experience in teaching and administration, her leadership roles in religious community and gift for offering spiritual insights served the Initiative well and was integral to its accomplishments. 

And as to the present status of the Initiative? I believe it is alive and well, otherwise we wouldn’t be here tonight, but not without challenges ahead.! While the Initiative may have seemed to have been in a bit of a slumber, planning for its revitalization has been going on for over a year facilitated by the Reid Group. A Futuring Team, along with the Catholic Common Ground Initiative Committee members, developed a strategic plan last year that will revitalize the Initiative. Now, with the move from the National Pastoral Life Center to the Bernadin Center at Chicago Theological Union, I believe it is, as Cardinal George was quoted as saying, a “…coming home to Chicago.” What more fitting location could the Initiative have?! 

Why is the Initiative important? Because it is about unity in Christ. Unity in Christ, after all, is central to the faith we share. Strangely, finding unity in Christ usually seems to involve struggle, but it is a struggle we must continue to undertake. In his April 2010 Prayer Intention, Pope Benedict indicated the importance of constructive dialogue with a mind to unity in Christ. His intention was this: “That every tendency to fundamentalism and extremism may be countered by constant respect, by tolerance and by dialogue among all believers.” This intention is at the heart of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. 

But why dialogue? To foster understanding and ultimately, communion. In a relatively recent article in the London Tablet (April 17, 2010), Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, former Superior General of the Dominican Order offered this: “I am not a Catholic because our Church is the best, or even because I like Catholicsm. I do love much about my Church but there are aspects of it which I dislike. I am not a Catholic because of a consumer option… but because I believe that it embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.”

When I’m home in my Diocese in Eastern Montana, I frequently speak of the vision that God has for humankind, i.e., life in a great Communion of Saints gathered around the Lamb of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this as it asserts, “…this consummation [of the world at the end of time] will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation and of which the pilgrim Church has been ‘in the nature of sacrament.’ Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, ‘the holy city’ of God, ‘the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ She will not be wounded any longer by sin, stains, self-love, that destroy or wound the earthly community. The beatific vision, in which God opens himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect, will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion” (CCC #1045). What a vision! 

Such unity among members of the human race will not happen by accident or without our participation. As those here know well, grace builds upon nature. It demands our cooperation. Like any relationship, we usually have to extend much effort for unity to come about. There is, after all, much that makes us different and causes us to think differently about any of a variety of issues, so we need to work toward being more united in Christ. This is what the Catholic Common Ground Initiative is about. 

The mission statement of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which came out of last year’s strategic planning sessions is this: “The Catholic Common Ground Initiative, inspired by the call to be one in Christ, invites Catholics with differing views about critical issues in the Church to engage in prayerful dialogue for the sake of building up the communion of the Church.” Since 1996, the Initiative has served the purpose of bringing Catholics with diverse views together in order to engage in dialogue about critical issues. It has done this by sponsoring conferences and through reflection papers and publications, such as Church. Certainly, a revitalized Initiative at the Bernadine Center will continue to utilize these approaches but will likely offer other creative ways to foster dialogue. It is important to remember that, while those who gather to dialogue on critical issues facing the Church may have very different views on the issues, they do so because of their shared belief in the Paschal Mystery. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, sin and death have been overcome for all people, not just some people.

The spirit of dialogue envisioned by the Initiative expects good will on the part of each participant. It further envisions that all those in the dialogue have a desire to be faithful to the Church and are just as committed to the Catholic faith as any of the rest of us may be. In the Spring 2009 issue of Church, Sr. Sharon Euart put it this way. The Initiative creates “..the space that allows people to feel that when they express themselves, they are on solid ground; that they are not in jeopardy; and that their identity and integrity are not at stake if their views are challenged, their feelings exposed, and they find themselves at odds with others. For people need to feel they are respected, their good faith is presumed, and their desire to be faithful to the Lord is as great as our own.” 

As a Catholic and as a bishop, I strive to embody my convictions, to live them faithfully and think with the Church. A key reason why I strive to do so is because I believe that the teachings of the Church are quite reasonable. They make sense to me. Not too surprisingly, I generally land on the conservative side of most issues. Like Fr. Radcliff, however, there are some elements of Church teaching that I have struggled with in the past and there are elements I would prefer to be adjusted. But I adhere to what is and not what may be. At the same time, I think it is healthy to discuss issues, even though discussion on certain critical issues will almost always cause friction.  

I do believe that the context for constructive conversations as well as the locations at which they take place is important. Otherwise, concerns may be raised about fidelity to the Church, the result being confusion rather than understanding, new divisions replacing old ones. When the Initiative was launched, several notable figures criticized it. Statements in the press came forth like “Authoritative teachings of the church can not be dialogued away,” and “Truth and dissent from truth are not equal partners in ecclesial dialogue.” On the one side, I agree with these statements totally. I believe that objective truth and authoritative teaching handed down through time by the Church, especially when teachings are understood as irreformable and as settled doctrine, are not open to debate. But then, I do not believe that the Initiative is an instrument for debate on settled doctrine. It is an instrument for dialogue with the goal of, not only a better understanding of the critical issues at hand, but also a better understanding of the individuals who may hold different perspectives on critical issues. The Initiative is not about undermining the Church and its teachings but providing a vehicle where people with diverse perspectives, including some who may have disagreement with elements of Church teaching or discipline, can talk in a constructive way. But context and setting has to be right.

For example, there is a group in Billings, Montana named Always Our Children. They named their group after a 1997 statement of the same name that came out of the then Bishop’s Committee on Marriage and Family and later approved by the Administrative Committee of the NCCB. The group meets monthly in Billings at a large parish. It includes Catholics but is a non-parochial and inter-denominational group. On Holy Week of this year, I began to receive calls and e-mails from people expressing concern and confusion. One parishioner actually sent me a letter with a copy of an article from the Billings Gazette which I had not seen. It was advertising a talk by a man who was described as having moved to Billings with his partner, another man. The name of the talk was titled, “Can Gay be Good with God?” The tone and content of the newspaper article indicated that there was an underlying intention on the part of the speaker to promote an agenda contrary to Catholic teaching on homosexuality. I contacted the Sister who coordinated the group and asked that the meeting move to another location. (Of course, I received a number of cards and letters and a newspaper article as a result!) I have since met with the Sister who coordinates the group and I plan to meet with the membership of the group next Fall since they disband for the summer. I took the action I did because I judged that the context of the talk being given at a local parish called into question Catholic teaching on homosexuality. It was not because I think they shouldn’t meet to address what obviously is a difficult issue for many individuals and families. 

What we believe and why we believe what we believe, in addition to grace, has been influenced by thousands of factors, some of which we are quite likely to be unaware. There are multiple influences that color what we believe and why. Interacting with others through dialogue becomes very much like peeling off the thin skin of an onion layer by layer. Little by little, we get to the core.  

A dialogue is not the same as in a debate in which there is a winner and a loser. The objective of dialogue is win-win. To enter a dialogue with an intent to beat up an opponent with a “club of belief” is counter productive and contrary to the spirit of dialogue, even though what we believe may be true. I recently read an editorial comment by Sarah Rozman, editor of Lay Witness, the magazine published by Catholics United for the Faith. She said, “When we’re serious about defending faith, we have to ask questions and gain a real understanding of another’s perspective. We have to be open to hearing, and even being convinced by, the other person’s point. If I want to get a fair hearing, I’d better be ready to give one.”

In his first encyclical letter, Ad Petri Cathedram, Blessed Pope John XXIII noted: “The Catholic Church leaves many questions open to discussion of theologians. She does this to the extent that matters are not absolutely certain. Far from jeopardizing the Church’s unity, controversies…can actually pave the way for its attainment. For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark. But the common saying…must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity, in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity” (APC, #71-72). Unfortunately, what all too often happens is the opposite. In essentials there often is disunity, in doubtful matters, there frequently is license and only in a few things is there charity. 

In constructive dialogue, with all our convictions intact, we often are forced to rethink “this” or “that” position, or at least the reasons behind why we hold “this” or “that” position. We may have to modify the reasons why we hold a position. And, in constructive dialogue, we may discover that we are really not all that far apart from another person’s perspective on an issue or that the person we thought to be a demon is really not all that much a demon after all. It is important to remember that the purpose of the Initiative is to work toward communion in Christ, a vision set forth before us by God. 

So, how does the Catholic Common Ground envision dialogue? The Called to Be Catholic statement provides the structure. First, in dialogue we recognize that as we look for truth, “solutions to the church’s problems will almost inevitably emerge from a variety of sources.” Obviously, authoritative teaching has a central claim on our allegiance. It has been my experience, however, that as I have sought insight from a variety of faith-filled sources in how to apply Church teaching in a complex reality, I have made better decisions and come to richer insights.  

Secondly, spiritual arrogance simply is out of place. It is not uncommon for individuals or groups of individuals to present themselves as “knowing it all” about the faith and describe how a “truly” faith-filled person would live in today’s world. In fact, there actually may be people who know the teaching of the Church better than others and know how to implement it in today’s world better than anyone else. Presenting themselves as having superior enlightenment, however, does little to bring about communion. Dialogue never uses belief as a bludgeon which usually only hurts and rarely heals.

Thirdly, all proposals are looked at and tested for their pastoral impact and effectiveness as well as whether or not a particular approach is faithful to theological truth or, as I would say it, to Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. While a teaching on an aspect of the faith may be quite clear, it is not always easy for people to embrace it in the often complex circumstances of day to day living. 

Fourthly, in dialogue, there is a presumption that all participants are acting in good faith. Automatically labeling a participant as “conservative” or “liberal” or “heretic” is unfair. It sets up a “them vs. us” dynamic which undermines the possibility of gaining new insights to theological truth.  It may be difficult not to harbor judgments about a particular person’s convictions and character, especially if we are aware of their history, but both parties must set judgments aside if dialogue is to be fruitful. 

Fifthly, participants, while not ignoring or dismissing points of disagreement, look for the positive and strongest elements in another’s perspective. Immediately to look for the negative or more vulnerable elements of a participant’s perspective betrays a desire to win the debate rather than seek understanding. Now, I believe there is a definite place for debate and winning people over, but the objective of dialogue is not to win a competition, but to work toward communion. And, in many ways, dialogue can bring disparate partners much farther along than can a debate in which someone needs to lose. 

 Sixthly, the presumption is that a participant enters the conversation in good faith. Without good faith, dialogue can not happen. There may be a disagreement among participants during the conversation as well as difficulties in acknowledging another’s perspective, but it does not mean that an individual is unfaithful to the Church or lacking in fidelity. No one really has a monopoly on truth. 

Finally, a dialogue about critical issues facing the Church automatically acknowledges that we do not live in a vacuum nor in the past. The context of the conversation in which we face critical issues occurs within our contemporary culture. Gaudium et Spes speaks of “a new age in human history” and that “the culture of today possesses particular characteristics.” This may have been written 40+ years ago but it is as true now as it was then. Awareness of the many influences that affect our Church today is vital. Some of these influences are helpful; others are harmful. 

I believe that the future for the Initiative is bright because Catholics care about their Church. They may be disgruntled and angry at times but they love their Church. The Initiative provides a way for people of faith and good will to gather for candid and honest dialogue on difficult issues facing God’s people in the Catholic Church. And there are many! The Church will be served well by the dialogue, certainly better than resentment.

Entering a dialogue is rarely easy and often frustrating but needed. Sometimes it feels like trudging through a field of mud. It may be difficult to move and seem like the mud will suck off your boots, but eventually you make progress and get to the other side of the field. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative serves as a model for the Catholic Church throughout the United States. If the vision that God has for humanity ultimately is the Communion of Saints, it is important to continue working for that communion to begin happening right now.