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Two groups of sign-carrying Roman Catholics - one of liberals, one conservatives - stood in the bright sunshine outside the fall meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Except for a muttered "join the Protestants" from a conservative to the liberals, they were silent.Perhaps no other scene from last week's conference better illustrates deep and seemingly unbridgeable divisions among some of the nation's 60 million Catholics.

The 50 or so liberals, from the We Are Church Coalition, based in Fairfax, Va., advocate ordination of women, optional celibacy for clergy and lay participation in the selection of pastors and bishops.

About 20 conservatives, from Mother's Watch, based in Montgomery Village, Md., want to ban sex education in Catholic schools.

The scene would have troubled Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who died of cancer Thursday - not the disagreement, so much as the lack of civil dialogue. He spent his long career as a mediator in the church on emotional issues ranging from nuclear war to AIDS education.

In his last few months, Bernardin labored to heal the rifts and get liberals and conservatives talking and, more importantly, listening to one another. He called the effort his Catholic Common Ground project.

The prelate Bernardin chose to assume the project's leadership, Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb, of Mobile, Ala., said the effort will not die with the Chicago cardinal.

"It's not an easy task . . . , but we are going to try to bring together the 90 percent that can be brought together," Lipscomb said in an interview. "There are probably 5 percent on either extreme that can't be brought together, but that's no reason why the other 90 percent can't find common ground."

Bernardin launched the project on Aug. 12 as an attempt to bring together Catholics of divergent perspectives and end infighting that he said threatens the church's mission. Topics for discussion include abortion, birth control, ordination of women and priestly celibacy.

The project met with opposition from at least three prominent conservative cardinals: Archbishops Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, James Hickey of Washington and Bernard Law of Boston. Law said the church already has common ground, "found in the sacred Scripture and tradition."

More liberal prelates noted strong interest generated in parishes around the country when Bernardin announced the project and said it would go forward, propelled in part by regard for Bernardin and in part by the power of the principle of reconciliation.

"The ideas behind it are ideas that . . . will never be lost," said Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee.

But conservatives, such as the Rev. Richard Neuhaus, of the Institute of Religion and Society in New York, believe the project's influence will fade.

"My hunch is that without the cardinal's central role this is likely to become a much more modest effort," he said. "If it continues, it will be a kind of floating seminar . . ., simply one among many similar discussions."

However, Lisa Sowle Cahill, a theology professor at Boston College, said the choice of Lipscomb to succeed Bernardin may help the project weather criticism.

"I perceive him as a moderate conservative, as opposed to a moderate liberal, as some perceived Bernardin," she said. "He will give credibility to the project which has come under attack from some who say it is too ready to compromise."

Any results will emerge at the end of a long process.

Lipscomb said the committee overseeing the project tentatively plans to conduct the first dialogue on contemporary American culture in March in a place to be determined.

"There will not be any startling results," he said. "Charity and civility seldom bring startling results. But they are the glue around which society coalesces."