National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

Initiative battles misperceptions as it strives for dialogue

San Antonio

'I have done a lot of things in my life. This is the hardest thing I've ever done.' -- Msgr. Philip Murnion

For Msgr. Philip Murnion, the cost of seeking common ground in the U.S. Catholic church has been high.

With Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Murnion co-sponsored the Catholic Common Ground initiative in 1996. Following Bernardin’s death from cancer in November of that year, Murnion has headed the initiative, which has sponsored an annual conference since spring 1997 in which Catholics meet to exchange ideas.

“Called to be Catholic,” a statement released by the National Pastoral Life Center about the initiative’s goals, said it aims at addressing differences among Catholics constructively in an attempt to reverse “polarization that inhibits discussion.” The document cited specific problems that might be addressed, such as ineffective religious education, the morale of priests, church governance and the roles women play in the church.

“I have done a lot of things in my life,” Murnion told NCR at the 2003 conference. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Among his accomplishments, he mentioned having started New York’s National Pastoral Life Center, which offers support for pastoral ministers, and he has served as consultant to the U.S. bishops’ conference.

When Bernardin announced the project in August 1996, it met with immediate opposition from two of the most influential cardinals in the U.S. church at that time, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Boston’s archbishop in December 2002 after facing intense pressure for mishandling sexually abusive priests, and Washington’s James Hickey, who retired in 2000 at age 80.

Law said in a statement following Bernardin’s announcement of the project, “The church already has ‘common ground.’ It is found in sacred scripture and tradition and it is mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the magisterium.”

Hickey claimed that conferences based on the goals outlined in “Called to be Catholic” would likely give “too much weight to the opinions of Catholics who do not really agree with the magisterium.”

Bernardin responded, saying, “The primacy of scripture and tradition is fully recognized in [‘Called to be Catholic’]. The statement also clearly calls for accountability to the Catholic tradition and rejects any approach that would ignore the living magisterium.”

Murnion said that he thinks the fear that the conference is stimulating dissent is now gone. But he said that the attacks by the two cardinals and others “politicized the National Pastoral Life Center more than anything we’ve ever done.”

“We were common ground,” he said. “We had Cardinal Law and [Seattle] Archbishop [Raymond] Hunthausen supporting us publicly in an annual endorsement from their dioceses.”

That perception changed in many people’s eyes after the initiative was launched. “Once we came under attack, it somehow questioned whether we were undermining the teaching authority of the church. Then the more right-wing press began to write of us and make us more political in that sense. Some of it was scurrilous; some of it I find totally irresponsible,” he said.

He said he has been falsely accused of “all sorts of things.” For instance, he was said to be “the founder of Call to Action.” Facts, he said, “don’t seem to enter into such reporting.”

“Once you’re slotted,” he said, “once people can put you in this niche, it’s hard to get out of it. People who know me find it extremely amusing that I would be considered a liberal. I am at the center.”

The attacks and misperceptions, he said, have been the cost of striving for “common ground and fostering independent dialogue.”

Murnion said that the group has had trouble bringing some traditional or conservative Catholic voices to the conferences. “When we’ve had some participation, they have seemed to warm up to the situation and have a growing appreciation of it,” he said. “But yes, it’s been a challenge. Conservatives, for their part, feel it’s more of a liberal enterprise.”

Another challenge has been attracting minority Catholics to the conferences. “We wanted more African-Americans here,” he said. “We reached out to them. It didn’t work out.” The only African-American to participate this year was Fr. Cyprian Davis, a Benedictine monk and professor of church history at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, and a member of the initiative’s committee.

Murnion noted that they did bring prominent Hispanic voices to the conference this year. “Part of the idea of having some of the lay people here from San Antonio was to have more Hispanic people present,” he said.

Asked whether he thinks the initiative has succeeded in its effort to find common ground among Catholic groups, he said, “I think very modestly. It’s developed some relationships among people with divergent viewpoints more than common ground.”

Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, who joined the initiative committee two years ago, told NCR, “I think you don’t always see the results of [the conferences] during the experience, but I think what happens later on is that people, either in their own reflection or even in their writing, identify things about which they can agree. And that’s what we need to find. With Christ as the center and the goal toward Christian life, what is it about these tangential issues, and I don’t mean unimportant, because they are very important, what is it about these issues that cause differences within the community?”

'Listening is one of the great gifts that a person can give ... because when you listen you expose yourself to the possibility of changing your point of view' -- Bishop Ricardo Ramírez

Bishop Ricardo Ramírez of Las Cruces, N.M. , a member of the Basilian Fathers who has been an initiative committee member since the project began, said they might have had more success if Bernardin hadn’t died soon after the project was founded. Ramírez praised Bernardin’s “style and innate wisdom,” and said that those involved with the initiative are dedicated to pursuing their goals.

“I think what is basic to all communication, basic to dialogue, basic to any kind of common ground within the church, the basic ingredient is listening,” he said. “That people really listen to one another. That is why one of the principles of common ground is that you don’t interrupt. You allow the person to have his or her say before you respond. And listening is probably one of the great gifts that a person can give to another person. I mean when you really listen, because when you listen you expose yourself to the possibility of changing your point of view.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

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