Shaky Ground

The year 1996 whirled Catholic Americans in a gathering storm. In early spring, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Nebraska issued a canonical warning of excommunication to guard his flock from “perilous” groups. May witnessed a rebuttal with We Are Church, a dissident Catholic petition drive denounced by Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of the NCCB as “divisive.”

June found the former archbishop of San Francisco, John Quinn, at Oxford proposing a new reduced role for the curia and a truncated papacy, supplanting both with a global synod of bishops granted sweeping powers. His dismantling plans were hailed in a professional media blitz by the usual list of “progressive” theologians. John Cardinal O’Connor of New York took Archbishop Quinn’s restructuring to task. In August, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, surveying the field of battle—Catholic America—announced a search for “Common Ground.”

“I have been troubled that an increasing polarization within the Church and, at times, a mean-spiritedness …” began the cardinal’s press conference. Bernadin identified his project as “an endeavor inspired by the Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril statement.” This document is the fruit of several years of informal dialogue between the National Pastoral Life Center under Msgr. Philip Murnion and Cardinal Bernadin. New members, as well as a few from the original discussion group, will form the Catholic Common Ground Project (CCGP), whose first conference is scheduled for March to address the Church and U.S. culture. Bernadin saw this project as just one response to the document.

The announcement elicited an immediate sharp response from three American cardinals. Careful to confirm their respect for their brother cardinal and his desire to heal the growing rift, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, James Cardinal Hickey, and Bernard Cardinal Law nonetheless criticized the document in unequivocal terms: “Unfortunately the statement … obscures the true ‘common ground’ for any effort to bring about unity … true common ground is found in Scripture and tradition,” responded Cardinal Law. “Indeed we are fortunate to have a reliable and complete expression of our ‘common ground’ in the Catechism of the Catholic Church … we cannot achieve Church unity by accommodating those who dissent from Church teaching, whether on the left or the right … to compromise the faith of the Church is to forfeit our ‘common ground’ and risk deeper polarization,” wrote Cardinal Hickey of Washington. Cardinal Law criticized the Called to Be Catholic document in the strongest terms: “It breathes ideological bias.”

Troubling Resemblances

Charity urges us to accept at face value the denial that Bernadin’s August announcement of The Catholic Common Ground Project (CCGP) was timed to bolster the Quinn proposals of late June. Yet there is a threatening familiarity of the topics outlined for discussion. These issues are familiar to orthodox defenders of Catholicism as the same list circulated by the We Are Church referendum and addressed at the Call To Action national conferences. Called to Be Catholic is to serve as the basis for dialogue among the twenty-five lay and clerical committee members during a series of conferences. The statement cites the pressure of changing social and cultural circumstances, giving rise to these urgent issues:

• the changing role of women in the Church

• the eucharistic liturgy as most Catholics experience it

• the declining ratio of priests and vowed religious to the people in the pews

• the meaning of human sexuality and the gap between Church teachings and the convictions of many faithful in this and several other areas of morality

• the succession of lay people to positions of leadership formerly held by priests

• the manner of decision making and consultation in Church governance

• the place of collegiality and subsidiarity in the relations between Rome and the American episcopate

Scrambling to recover territory they lost with the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (minus gender-tweaked language) and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (confirming a male-only priesthood), the liberal coalitions in the United States have promoted the same “concerns” outlined in Called to Be Catholic. A “respect” for human sexuality is a demand to accept homosexuality, divorce, contraception teachings they claim haven’t been “received by the faithful.” (Are Church teachings disrespectful of human sexuality?) Progressives, therefore, demand a democ¬ratic “reform” of the Church, where bishops will be elected, presumably in hopes that elected bishops, as well as what they teach, will be subject to the whims of the electorate.

Nominally proposed as a healing outreach to divided Catholics, CCGP may actually be at the service of a heterodox agenda—of the invited committee members, only two might safely be considered guardians of Church teaching. Examples from the remaining twenty-three members include Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.: “The figure of Jesus comes across as a cold fish [in the Catechism]…. This Christ is far above our human struggles, and so, rather useless for preaching and … catechesis”; Elizondo Virgilio, author of The Future is Mestizo, who also has written for the Journal of Hispanic and Latino Theology, which examines “European patriarchal Christianity and Roman Catholicism”; and labor leader John Sweeney, an outspoken proponent of abortion. Most of the bishops invited to participate are recognized for their sympathy to one or more dissident demands, preeminent among them Archbishop Rembert Weakland, a vociferous proponent of women’s ordination. Weakland also is the architect of the plan to restructure the USCC—outlining a greater independence from Vatican “domination” as a move toward an independent American Church.

Cardinal Bernadin, confronted with very public fraternal objections, again called a press conference seventeen days later in order to defend the document that had been characterized in the press as “flawed.” Surprised that responses “had been sharp indeed,” he asserted that “To some extent they confirm the need for this initiative.” To the charge that an invitation to dialogue was merely a cover legitimizing dissent, the prelate answered, “whether it [dissent] is ever justified is a complicated and theologically technical [matter], our statement did not pursue it.” The statement “also insists that dialogue must be accountable to Catholic tradition … a common ground centered on faith in Jesus.”

Sadly, even that sacred ground is not agreed upon by orthodox and progressive minds. “As to whether Yeshua was the messiah, it has to be said that he did not fulfill the job description.” Jesus as the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, was a “notion transformed into the anti-sexual rhetoric as Christ evolved in the Hellenistic world.” Further, the maleness of Christ is seen as an attempt “to justify rampant ecclesial and social misogyny.” Prominent feminist understanding of Jesus “radically questions … past asexual constructions of christological discourse” The homosexual intrusion into American liberal theology includes Robert Goss, S.J.’s book Jesus Acted Up: “Jesus broke many of the gender patterns and hierarchies of patriarchal power … the gay and lesbian community has raised the question of Jesus’ sexual intimacy, claiming Jesus as one of their own.”

These statements are found among “Catholic” theologians, professors, priests, and Call to Action members. Gravely alarmed, Catholics wonder what sort of fruit dialogue with these elements in the Church might bear.

Closed Shop

The glaring omission of issues orthodox Catholics list as contributing to the polarization of the Church in the US further underscores the justified distrust conservatives have of Common Ground. Squarely confronting that reservation is Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard and the Vatican delegate to the Beijing Conference. Glendon, a CCGP committee member, wrote to Cardinal Bernadin outlining changes she believed would allay these concerns and put the project on more solid ground: “The measured reactions of several of your fellow cardinals to the statement Called to Be Catholic suggest that this document … carries a significant risk of undercutting its own purpose to promote unity…. What is most urgent in my humble view is to clarify what is meant by dialogue and acknowledge that dialogue has conditions.”

Her letter also calls for the project to be placed “directly and explicitly within the program recommended by John Paul II in Tertio Millennio Adveniente.” Noting that genuine dialogue must be “informed dialogue,” Glendon identifies poor formation as a cause of disunity. Quoting St. Paul, she wrote,

“We have a wisdom to offer those who have reached maturity, not a philosophy of the age….” A prerequisite for any discussion … must be familiarity with … Scripture and the authoritative teachings of the Church. Alas, such familiarity cannot be presupposed. Thus it would be well if the group were to recognize the new Catechism as the most effective remedy we possess.”

The wisdom of convening a “dialogue” that receives wide media approval and appeals to the spirit of American democratic principles, but is devoid either of responsibility or authority, is a cause of fear for many orthodox pastors, theologians, and bishops. Loathe publicly to disagree with the dying cardinal, one Catholic professor explained the danger of recognizing the heterodox at a formal roundtable:

Dialogue based on opinions, or one’s personal experience, or “felt needs,” as if these were the equivalent of an authoritative text, is destructive. Authority witnesses to a higher truth. Such authority is grounded in that truth, and to the degree that that witness remains uncorrupted, the authority is respected. “Dialogue” as envisioned by the cardinal and Msgr. Murnion seeks personal affirmation and warm acceptance of any and all, permitting them to “clarify” their feelings or desires—no matter how wrongly conceived. The Catechism, however, is a definitive text. Opinions should be formed in the light of the saving truth of the Gospel. Salvation can be painful. Progress can be made when we are humble enough to study the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, and apply them to life.

The modernist claim of a “loyal dissent” that is humbly questioning the magisterial teachings is dispelled when one reads the dissenters’ publications. Undisguised scorn for both the office of the papacy and the person of John Paul II prevent such pretense. The authority of Peter is not to be borne in a country whose spirit of democratic consensus is seen as superior to divinely revealed truth. It is this spirit of democracy that demands an “openness”—meaning no authority exists until confirmed by the majority. Glendon’s assessment that the source of our peril is lack of formation finds its target: An ill-formed Catholic is a free-form Catholic, resistant to structure and authority. “This is disastrous for Americans who assume the democratic model is as good for heaven as it is for earth,” quipped Glendon.

The expectation in the Called to Be Catholic document is that unless a teaching is “received” by the faithful, it is not a completed teaching. The failure of that interpretation of the sensus fidelium is that these “faithful” are not. They do not know what the Church teaches. How is one to be faithful to what one does not know?

Easy Targets

Our sad legacy is a generation of poorly catechized Catholic Americans. One priest estimated that it will be two hundred or more years before the Church in America is able to recoup the losses inflicted by the failure of bishops to ensure proper catechetics and to discipline errant professors at Catholic universities.

That prognostication is an icy recollection of Cardinal Law’s reminder to Cardinal Bernadin: “Reception by the faithful cannot be measured by polls which are subject to all the pressures of contemporary culture … any more than the schism of all the bishops save one in Henry VIII’s England can be ascribed to collegiality.” The vision of an America paralleling the tragic loss of generations of Catholics in England ought to claim our prayers.

Cardinal Law’s reference to collegiality recalls the odd circumstances surrounding the release of the Common Ground announcement to the media. The unprecedented public disagreement from the majority of other American cardinals may have been due as much to their shock at not being consulted regarding a broad-based “dialogue” for Catholic Americans as to their disapproval of the foundational document for that dialogue. If collegiality is a priority for the “progressive” Catholics, violating this principle within the college of cardinals says more about the polarization of Catholic Americans than any document. Given the extent of that polarization, and the closing window of opportunity to promote his plan, Cardinal Bernadin, long the champion of American liberalism, gambled for high stakes when he chose to pre-empt collegiality.

“I assumed this initiative was from all the cardinals. I was surprised to learn some cardinals had not been informed,” said Michael Novak, a CCGP committee member. Novak, chosen by Msgr. Murnion of the National Pastoral Life Center as “a conservative amenable to dialogue,” emphasized that members were not asked to sign the document. Lamenting the degree of “pastoral dissonance” in the Americas, Novak had no explanation for the lack of collegiality in Bernadin’s initiative.

Perhaps an answer is suggested by the Called to Be Catholic document itself: “No group should judge itself alone to be possessed of enlightenment or spurn the mass of Catholics, their leaders, or their institutions as unfaithful.” Clearly that statement dismisses the Magisterium and two thousand years of teaching authority for the Church. Is the unilateral move by one U.S. cardinal to be understood, then, as a means of circumventing those whose faithfulness to the Magisterium is equated with “judge[ing] itself alone to be possessed of the truth” or as spurning “the mass of Catholics”? It is a great mystery to Bernadin observers who note that, heretofore, the cardinal’s name has been synonymous with collegiality.

Liberal Establishment

The CCGP was announced during the heady days of presidential campaigning. Shortly thereafter, candidate Clinton awarded Cardinal Bernadin the Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to civilians. Some understood the medal bestowal as the candidate’s savvy bid for Catholic votes. Others, less sanguine, wondered if there may be a deeper significance. The Catholic bishops have spoken out on many critical moral issues that demand the attention of politics as well as religion: nuclear arms, abortion, welfare, etc. A partnership between the liberal political platforms and the liberal demands of dissident Catholic Americans is an enticing symbiotic possibility.

It is not lost on many that at stake are hundreds of hospitals where abortion and euthanasia cannot be practiced, thousands of classrooms not teaching the government-approved sex-education materials, and millions of voters whose Church promotes social justice. Save the confrontation over life issues, much of Catholic America is attractive to the liberal politicians and bureaucrats. Conversely, the democratic ideal of shared control permeates the liberal Catholic demands for a restructuring of the Church. Dissident Catholics have cast a lustful eye on the secular culture where any “committed” relationship is sanctioned. Their demands for contraception, divorce without sacramental penalty, homosexuality, and noncelibate priesthood would be granted, they believe, under a Church structured on dialogue, consensus, and elected representatives.

Should a fissure split the poles now so evident in Catholic America, would there be an “American Catholic Church?” As the monarch heads the Church of England, would the American mirror image be an elected American prelate, free from the “shackles of Rome” and her magisterial teachings?

The liberal Catholic tacticians have keenly assessed the lay of the land. Cardinals O’Connor, Hickey, and Bevilacqua are reaching retirement. Bernadin’s death opens an archdiocese of 2.3 million. The US soon will have four new cardinals appointed to guide the Catholics of America into the third millennium. Should Pope John Paul’s health hold, Catholic watchers predict that our new cardinals will be appointed for youth as well as fidelity to the Magisterium. Progressives understand that the leadership for the coming thirty years will possibly be set in the next two or three years.

Good Timing

In November the New York Times ran an article by Peter Steinfels (whose wife, Margaret O’Brien, edits the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal and also was invited to participate in Cardinal Bernadin’s Common Ground project). “Catholics and non-Catholics alike have a stake in the change of the Church’s leadership,” Steinfels wrote, “in view of the size of the Catholic population (1 in 4 Americans) and the importance of the Church’s network of parishes, schools, social services, hospitals, colleges and universities … [T]hese days after a decade of new appointments by the Vatican the bishops’ conference has become more cautious. Former Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis said Bernadin’s death would be ‘very serious’ for the bishops’ conference … the Church’s leadership will become more conservative, but what will this mean in practice … will it halt or accelerate the growing tendency of many Catholics to ignore the Church’s teachings when making up their minds on sexual and moral issues?”

That query frames precisely the question of the carefully orchestrated timing of the massive push for dialogue, referendums, restructuring plans for the bishops’ conference, etc. The strategists for Call To Action, We Are Church, COR (Catholics Organized for Renewal), Women’s Ordination Conference, and all the other dissident organizations have a plan. While liberal to heterodox bishops in the US still have power, they will make as many changes as possible: the liturgy; translations of the sacramentary; the posture at Mass; curricula in seminaries and colleges; CCD and all catechetical programs; establishing “small faith communities” complete with self-styled liturgies. Most crucial of all, they will claim the “right” to dialogue, to dissent, and to disobey the clear teachings of Scripture and tradition.

A few days after the CCGP was announced, Mary Louise Hartman, president of Association of Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC—part of the referendum movement), issued a press release. “The Association … is still calling for a constitutional convention to help move Catholics into the 21st century. But today it hailed a call by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin to bring Catholics together” The Call To Action newsletter in September praised the project as well. In America, the Jesuit magazine, Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, claimed by Call To Action as one of its own, wrote a glowing defense of the project, attempting to lay aside the critiques of Cardinals Bevilacqua, Hickey, Law, and Maida.

There is, then, no consensus. Orthodox publications and journals joined the cardinals in finding grave issue with the very concept of permitting dialogue where the matters have been settled as definitive. It should be plainly stated that millions of lay faithful and thousands of priests see dialogue as the problem, not the solution. “No one has a ‘right’ to be Catholic. The Holy Spirit invites you to the fullness of revealed truth; if you chose, you give your assent. The ‘dialogue’ stops there, and obedience begins. Otherwise, you’re not Catholic, regardless of any public claim you make,” said one seminarian in Cardinal Maida’s archdiocese of Detroit. A comment from Cardinal Maida sums up the difficulty “Unity in the Catholic Church will not be brought about by some kind of human consensus.”

“You won’t be able to stop the dialogue,” exclaimed Msgr. Philip Murnion, the director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York. Decrying Mother Angelica’s claim that he was a founding member of Call To Action, Murnion was unwilling to lay that rumor to rest by specifically denying her charge: “That is not the point. The point is our ‘Common Ground’ model for dialogue is going to be adopted by parish councils, focus groups, all manner of Church life in this country.”

The message is clear: In the battle for America, the Vatican may have the generals in the years to come, but the heterodox are fighting for terrain from the grassroots.

A destructuring toward the “American” model church, a hybrid humanitarian foundation/corporation with share-holders and a CEO prelate, managed by consensus, desacralizes the Church, a divine institution. Some find in the Called to Be Catholic document a thinly veiled attempt to supplant the hierarchy with democracy: “It’s only a pastoral dialogue,” its supporters claim. But pastoral practice flows from doctrinal teaching. The gulf threatens to widen as each believer determines whether solid ground lies in being a Roman Catholic American, or an American Catholic.

  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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