Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Catholic Family Feud: Can We Find Common Ground? (Interview)

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Catholic Family Feud: Can We Find Common Ground? (Interview)

Article excerpt

Several months before his death in 1996, Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin announced the formation of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative to help bridge the deep divisions he saw in the Catholic Church in the U.S. Its objective, he said, was, "a common ground centered on faith in Jesus ... and ruled by a renewed sense of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation." Catholic historian R. Scott Appleby has been on the planning team for the Common Ground dialogues almost since the beginning. A professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, Appleby is a respected voice on Catholic issues. After six years of work with Common Ground, U.S. CATHOLIC asked him what lessons have been learned.

For five years now you have been part of a movement that invites Catholics who violently disagree with each other to sit down together and talk. What's it like? Any fistfights? Have you learned any lessons?

Two lessons. Number one: As the Common Ground Initiative brought together people from various points of the spectrum, we learned that when you get face-to-face with people--when you spend a weekend together and worship together, have meals together--that experience has a pacifying effect.

In that setting people are reminded that we share membership in the Body of Christ and that we care passionately about the same things. Even though the people around the tables may be from the left, right, or center, they are practicing Catholics who probably differ on only 5 percent of their worldview, not on everything. The very fact that they are actually willing to engage in dialogue says something about them. A civility emerges, followed by friendships. We planners would fret over what we could do to get some real controversy going. People were simply much too polite!

Any idea why?

Part of it was that the participants were away from their offices, journals, or college positions where they traditionally take potshots at one another.

In the end, though, I got the sense that people felt that some of the things we right about, and the intensity with which we right about them, are kind of silly. You come to realize that whether a certain liturgical style is preferable to another is perhaps less pressing than the fact that the whole culture is going to hell outside your window.

You begin to understand that the person who disagrees with you is not therefore a heretic or acting in bad faith. Although people may vehemently disagree with you and even think you are hurting the cause, they understand that you are sincere and care deeply about the faith.

So what's the second lesson?

We found that many issues that are very important to professional church folks--such as the exercise of authority in the church or liturgical rubrics, for example--are irrelevant to most of the Catholics in the country.

In our 2001 conference with younger Catholics, we found that, while they care about issues such as women's ordination or the authority of the pope or proper liturgy, they have deeper, more searching questions: Who am I? What is the relationship of my faith to my career, my family, my identity? Can my faith help me to integrate these many "selves"?

Those are their fundamental questions, and they were frustrated with the church for not always being available to help with those questions. In some ways they are on a different planet religiously from the previous generation.

I am 44, and I realized that I was definitely on the older side of that divide. The older group would say, "But don't you realize that these teachings and practices and worldviews that we want you to internalize--these are the answers to the questions you're asking?" The younger group was not fully receptive to that line of reasoning.


I sense a certain know-nothing-ism, a mistrust of knowledge. Younger people are accustomed to information and knowledge being manipulated and spun by the media and Madison Avenue. …

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