Bernardin’s Last Request

Many people have asked me why I joined my name to Cardinal Bernardin’s “Common Ground Initiative,” when they saw many problems in it. I, too, saw several difficulties, but three considerations compelled me: first, unity in the Church is a preeminent good, an imperative from Jesus himself; second, Cardinal Bernardin had been a friend for 33 years and offered assurances; and finally, I thought (wrongly, it turned out) all the bishops were behind the project.

On the evening of October 24, Cardinal Bernardin gave what some feared might be his last public presentation, an address concerning the Initiative, and I was asked to be one of three comentators. Given the circumstances, I wanted it to be a tribute to the cardinal in his presence, a public thank you. I commit it to print now, shortly after his death, as an inadequate memorial to a great bishop, who was known as “the reconciler,” but over many years did not retreat from controversy. May he rest in the Lord!

Thanks be to God for Cardinal Bernardin!

Allow me also to voice my own thanks to Cardinal Bernardin—for this initiative, for the witness of his life, and for a friendship that goes back now thirty-three years.

A personal word: My wife Karen and I, newly married, went to the Vatican Council in 1963 to spend our honeymoon in Rome and to report on the council. There we first met (then) Monsignor Bernardin, who must have been one of the youngest monsignori in the Church, aide to Bishop Hallinan of Charleston but soon to be Archbishop of Atlanta. I believe we had dinner both in 1963 and in 1964. My wife and I thought better of Monsignor Bernardin because he was with the archbishop, and of the archbishop for choosing Monsignor Bernardin. The cardinal has been a candid friend, honest and true, and, as I learned during the long debate on the nuclear pastoral, unusually responsive to criticism and suggestions. He is open, and you can rely on his word.

The unity of the Church is a treasure of great price. Communion, it is often called—many sharing in one bread. “Many grains, one bread.”

So also in our understanding. We seek the common good with all our predecessors in the faith. “Tradition,” G. K. Chesterton said, is “the democracy of the dead.” We dare not break faith with them. It cost them much to deliver the faith to us as we have it.

Our communion is somewhat different from that of other Christians; it is a communion with all the bishops of the world and with the Bishop of Rome—a communion in space as well as time. Other Christians may consult only their own conscience; we have a different—and more difficult—check and balance: to be part of a communion far larger than ourselves.

Our Common Ground Initiative, then, undertakes no easy task. The Catholic faith presents us with hard truths to try to understand, hard things to do. The Catholic people are not a rubber stamp. Jesus described himself as “a sign of contradiction,” and more than once, in different ways, he asked his apostles, “Will you also go away?” He did not offer easy truths.

Our faith is further demanding, in that it does not ask that we merely accept the words of faith, or agree with them notionally “in principle.” It asks us for what Cardinal Newman called “real assent”—one has to learn how to go below the words, to understand them, and to enflesh them both in one’s way of thinking and in one’s life—to make them “real.” To learn to dissent is far easier than to learn to give assent in this way, to learn again the grammar of assent.

One thing I learned today, in the efforts of our Advisory Committee to understand this “thing” that Cardinal Bernardin has thrust upon us, of which all of us have only a partial understanding now: There are two things that the Common Ground Initiative is not.

We are not a theological discussion group, academic or authoritative, trying to make theological concepts more precise; and

We are not a reform movement, trying to reform, say, religious education, or to reform Catholic doctrine, or anything else (except perhaps ourselves, in our understanding of the faith).

But we do have an assignment that is unique in three ways: To reflect with civility and charity (how often you have heard those two words tonight) on the received faith in two distinctive ways:

(1) while voicing our difficulties in understanding and practicing the faith, and in trying to reach that deeper understanding that comes from wrestling with the faith; and

(2) while undergoing this struggle with those who disagree with us in matters of faith, learning common ground that does not yet exist as real assent. This is hard. People say that “family” is a place of harmony, but not in the real families that I know. Family may be the last place where real pluralism still exists in America, where at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with the whole extended family we sit down with some whose political views we can scarcely abide, whose views on gender and sex strike our ears like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard, and whose views on religion are hard to tolerate. In no discussions is it harder to be civil than in those in one’s own family. People who love each other wound each other most.

And the final distinctive feature in our work is that we are

(3) reflecting on the false readings given our compass by the magnetism of American culture. In every culture, in all times, such a magnetism adds new impetus to the faith, and also pulls the faith off line. All cultures partly advance, partly corrupt, the faith. In our culture, we have much to appreciate and to be wary of.

We are also fortunate to have at this moment a man serving as pope who is one of the greatest in the history of the Church. Mikhail Gorbachev recently wrote that the great events in Europe in 1989 and 1991 could not have happened without him. The world is very different today from the way Wojtyla found it when he became pope in 1978. He set out almost immediately to change it, in ways no other could possibly have done.

But this pope is also an unusually probing and challenging intellectual pope. Just in the last five years he has published five encyclicals—classics all, that will take a generation or two to digest. As Cardinal Mahony said earlier today, you no sooner plan to have a diocesan study day on one of them than a new one is out and everyone wants to talk about it. These are difficult, stretching, demanding encyclicals, more original in their philosophy than we are used to, and more deeply grounded in an almost mystical sense of Christ than we are accustomed to. Deep stuff, good stuff, arresting, toughminded, straight.

And then, besides, this pope has also just published two great bestsellers—bestsellers in more than a dozen languages: the Catechism, a beautifully written statement of our faith; and a book of his own personal reflections (the first time a pope has ever published something like that, with almost two million copies sold in the United States alone). Not all the theologians in the world put together, perhaps, have sold as many books as John Paul II.

This pope himself has called for initiatives to prepare for the coming of the third millennium. He offers a framework for such initiatives—indeed, a three-year program: to reflect together (all around the world) on what our faith demands of us in changes in ideas and life, in various parts of our lives.

With all my colleagues, I thank Cardinal Bernardin for expending the vision and the energy to call forth this Common Ground Initiative, as we prepare for the third millennium. It is a sign of great imagination and generosity of spirit.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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